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13 December 2013


Keeping it secret

I AM still terribly excited - I met the Queen! Well, almost.

The cream envelope embossed with the Lord Lieutenant's coat of arms, and bearing the words "Strictly Confidential", dropped on to the mat a few months ago, announcing that the Queen was going to open "the Keep", and asking if I would like to go.

The Keep is the new records office for East Sussex and Sussex University, and is on the extreme north edge of my parish, on a soggy patch of ground called Woollard's Field. As chaplain to the Mayor, I had been in on the digging of the first sod, and, as a local community leader, had been on the roof for the topping out.

I had been round a couple of times in between, and had instigated an orchard of heritage apple trees at the bottom of its garden, and so, with a certain proprietorial excitement, I sent back a "Yes, please" by return of post.

A certain cachet

A FEW weeks before the event, a similar envelope plopped through the door, with timings for the day, and protocol instructions on how to bow and address HM (you know, the "Ma'am" to rhyme with "jam" thing), which left me agog. Then I got an email. Would any of my congregation like to be outside, to greet the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh as they arrived?

I forwarded it to people for whom I had email addresses, and phoned those I have on my mobile phone. Then the penny dropped. Having asked some, all the others would be hugely offended if I had not asked them, and pastoral mayhem would ensue. So I wearily sat down with the phone and worked my way through the electoral roll.

It took about three hours, and I went through some 50 or so conversations along the lines of:

"Hello, [electoral-roll name], it's Fr John."
Pleased, bemused, or wary voice: "Oh, hello, Fr John."
"Do you know about the Keep?"
"The what?"
"The Keep: it's the new records office for East Sussex and Sussex University - you know: it's that great big new concrete thing on Woollard's Field."
Bored, uninterested, dear-God-what-is-he-on-about? voice: "No."
"Well, the Queen's opening it. Would you and anybody else like to be outside on the day to welcome her?"
Excited, goodness-me-let-us-go-for-it voice: "Yes, please, and so would . . ."

The colour purple

THE day dawned, and, outside the Keep, a good half of the 200-or-so people gathered there were from our congregations. Our Boys' Brigade and Girls' Association were there, enormously chuffed that they were the only uniformed organisation; one of our old soldiers, Ernie, who had served in Normandy, was there, complete with medals and folding chairs; and individuals and families with posies waited expectantly, Union flags at the ready.

I went inside, and waited among my allotted clump of guests, disconcertingly close to a four-foot-square photo of me, looking knowing, and with splendid double chins - part of a collage of local people dubbed "Faces of the Keep".

We knew that the Queen had arrived by the roar of the welcoming crowd, and she came in, looking suitably regal in purple, to be met by the Chief Archivist of East Sussex, Elizabeth Hughes, in purple; our own Bishop of Chichester, Dr Martin Warner, in cassock of episcopal purple; and the redoubtable Sara Stonor, Vice Lord Lieutenant of East Sussex (and lay Canon of Chichester Cathedral), in purple, too.

I spoke to her later: she told me that, on leaving a royal engagement earlier in the day at Newhaven, the crowds, seeing the purple, mistook her for the Queen, and began applauding. She had to calm them down, confessing that she was a sort of royal body-double - which, I suppose, in a way, is exactly what a Lord Lieutenant is.

In his defence, the Bishop later pointed out that he was the only one there who had to be in purple. Luckily, by some royal alchemy, they did not all clash.

Mysteriously real

THE nearest I got to HM was about six feet away, as she moved towards the displays and record stacks. She chatted to various people, unveiled the plaque, and left, leaving behind her a sense that something significant and satisfactory had occurred.

As she passed, I thought: "This is the woman whose head is on our coins, on our stamps; in whose name our taxes are exacted, and our Laws exercised; this is the "Britannic Majesty" whose Secretary of State requests and requires things in the front of our passports. She's also the Supreme Governor of my Church, to whom I have sworn canonical allegiance." It all suddenly became very real, in an oddly surreal way.

When I got outside to see my group, there was breathless excitement; those with posies had been taken to a crash barrier on one side, and had met her, given their flowers, and exchanged a few words. "She touched me," Meghan, one of our young Boys' Brigade leaders, said, with a sense of awe mixed with disbelief.

Chatting earlier, a very pleasant Deputy Lieutenant, who, when I looked at his card, turned out to be a Major-General in disguise, said the same thing: "People feel they have been touched". And, indeed, that's how it was. We had all been touched by something valuable, timeless, and yet immediate and relevant.

She is a tough little white-haired old lady in her eighties. I have some wonderful examples in my own congregation, but this one really is something else.

The Revd John Wall is Team Rector in the Moulsecoomb Team Ministry in Brighton.

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