FOR all its many faults, the National Anthem seems to have worked. God has saved our gracious Queen; our noble Queen is long-lived. The service in St Paul’s Cathedral today, a prelude to the Queen’s official birthday, celebrates her 90th birthday, and is an opportunity for the country to thank God for her long reign.
God’s gifts of salvation, grace, and nobility are, of course, the important factors of the Queen’s reign, and lie behind her present popularity. Without them, longevity would be merely the sign of good genes and the lucky avoidance of accident and disease. The nation’s mood would not be so celebratory if, for example, it were governed by the one head of state who has outlived the Queen, Robert Mugabe. It is the Queen’s graciousness, above all else, that has enabled her, as a constitutional monarch, to influence the nation’s discourse without the power or the desire to impose her will upon it.
Today’s service will be notable for the involvement of other nonagenarians, among them Sir David Attenborough and Michael Bond, the creator of one of the few characters who, like the Queen, enjoys two birthdays, Paddington Bear. It is a reminder that usefulness is not entirely connected with youth, and that older people can contribute much. (This newspaper benefits from the enduring skills of older contributors, among them Dr Ronald Blythe, who has two years on the Queen.)
It could be argued that the acknowledged virtues of ageing — greater wisdom, experience, and a right perspective — often develop as part of the same process that sees physical powers diminish. Again, this is not a given: foolish or unkind people do not automatically improve with age. But as individuals lose the ability to effect change through physical ability, financial clout, personal charisma, or some form of political or other power, so they tend to view their place on earth differently: as subject to outside forces, not as rulers of their own destiny. Assuming that they have the time and encouragement to reflect on these things (once again, by no means a given), people in old age often display a humility and a respect for others that their former selves may have lacked. And then there is the looking forward to death. Part of the perspective gained in old age comes from the realisation that the end really is nigh, and that the preoccupations of the world, namely acquisition, reputation, and consumption, are pretty meaningless in the face of death.
Through all this, faith acts as a balm and an inspiration, providing ever fresh insights into the purposes of God. The Queen’s faith, now more often expressed than formerly, is a key part of her make-up and her message. Meta-narratives are now out of fashion, but looking back over one’s life, seeing how one was guided, tested, rescued, and sustained by God is a valuable exercise. Histories of her reign are already being written, but they will be lacking if they omit to show how God saved the Queen.