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Peculiar honours to our Queen

29 May 2012

Ian Bradley reads the Jubilee book by the Dean of Westminster

Solemn service: the Queen leads the procession through the nave of Westminster Abbey after the coronation on 2 June 1953, flanked by the then Bishops of Durham, Michael Ramsey (left), and Bath & Wells, Harold Bradfield PA

Solemn service: the Queen leads the procession through the nave of Westminster Abbey after the coronation on 2 June 1953, flanked by the then Bishops ...

Queen Elizabeth II and her Church: Royal service at Westminster Abbey
John Hall

Bloomsbury £12.99
Church Times Bookshop £11.70

CLEARLY designed to cash in on the Diamond Jubilee market (and why not?), the title of this book, embossed in gold on a front cover made up of a montage of recent photographs of the Queen, is somewhat misleading. There is very little in it about the monarch, her faith, or her relationship with the Church. Readers expecting discussion of the part that she plays as Supreme Governor of the Church of England and Defender of the Faith, or current debates about the Protestant succession and the shape of the next coronation, will be disappointed.

Instead, after a promising and well-informed opening chapter on the 1953 coronation, emphasising the mutual exchange of gifts between the Sovereign and God, and the theme of servant leadership, the book becomes a slightly incongruous mixture of history, description, and anecdotes about recent services in Westminster Abbey, and moral homily and exhortation.

Gossip and devotion sit uneasily together. One moment we are being told that President Obama had to ask the author how to spell “commemorate”, and got the year wrong when visiting the grave of the unknown warrior, and the next we are given a mini-sermon or a lengthy prayer. But perhaps that takes us to the heart of what ministry in such a place is all about.

The most interesting revelation, for me at least, is that there was a plan in the 1900s for a giant national mausoleum attached to the south-east corner of Westminster Abbey and stretching along Millbank, which would sweep up all the monuments in the Abbey and contain many more besides.

Less riveting, at least for this Presbyterian reviewer, is the Dean of Westminster’s fascination with ecclesiastical haberdashery, and determination to tell us what vestments he and his fellow clergy wore on every occasion. Is it really a matter of significance that in the 2010 Commonwealth Day service, for example, “in a change from previous years, the clergy wore blue copes”? Perhaps it is, and I am being too carping: there is much to enjoy and to ponder in this insider’s view of some of the great state and royal services that have taken place in the Abbey over recent years, and there are pertinent observations on the business of crafting suitable liturgies for complex and difficult occasions.

Overall, the Dean’s book breathes a rather old-fashioned atmosphere of establishment-minded and preachy Anglicanism — and maybe it is none the worse for that.

Dr Bradley is Reader in Church History at the University of St Andrews. His 1999 book God Save the Queen: The spiritual heart of the monarchy has been revised and expanded for a Diamond Jubilee edition (Continuum, £12.99 (£11.70); 978-1-4411-9367-4).

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