UNDER the dome of a 340-year-old cathedral, surrounded by costumes, clerical, military, and diplomatic, that were designed centuries ago, listening to music as old as the cathedral and participating in liturgy considerably older — 90 did not seem that old.
Besides which, the Queen was sitting next to her husband, 95 that very day. To her right, she could see Sir David Attenborough (90), who was sitting near to Michael Bond (90), creator of Paddington Bear. Four places along was Hilda Price, a vicar’s widow from Cardiff, who was born on the same day as the Queen: 21 April 1926.
Mrs Price had been asked to read two of the prayers, and said before the service that, despite her age, she had not grown out of nervousness. She was worried whether her voice would hold out. When she had been approached to take part in the service a few weeks ago, it had been the shock of her life, she said.
Taken altogether, the service was marked by affection and cheerfulness. Certain elements, looked at in advance, looked inconsequential: Michael Bond’s reflections on growing up with an accident-prone father and eccentric aunts; or the Burlesque by Sir Arnold Bax, played by Martin James Bartlett, the 2014 BBC Young Musician of the Year. In the event, their selection ensured that a service that might easily have been earnest was festive — celebrating not the Queen’s life, particularly, but the 90 years of the nation’s life which she has shared.
And more than shared. In his bidding prayer, the Dean, the Very Revd David Ison, thanked God for the Queen’s “faithful devotion, dutiful commitment, loving leadership, gentle constancy, royal dignity, and kindly humanity”. The same phrases were used in later prayers of thanksgiving, spoken by the Bishop of London, the Rt Revd Richard Chartres, and a semi-circle of other religious leaders.
The Archbishop of Canterbury, in his sermon, expressed “deep wonder and profound gratitude”: “We rejoice, Your Majesty, for the way in which the life God has given you, in turn, you have given wonderfully in service to this nation.”
The service began 12 minutes late after the Queen’s car was held up in traffic. The more elderly members of the congregation, some of whom had been seated for nearly two hours, had begun to wonder about their bladders. Thereafter, however, the service proceeded briskly.
St Paul’s was full, and the 2000-strong congregation included more than 50 members of the royal family, members of the royal household, Cabinet members, past and present Prime Ministers, the Leader of the Opposition, senior civil servants, members of the London diplomatic corps, faith leaders — and hundreds of people, medics, teachers, and the like, who had been nominated by different government departments for their service to the country.
One of the disadvantages of being the Queen is that, even had she been on time, she would not have heard the music before the service produced by the Royal Air Force Regiment and the organ, played by the cathedral’s sub-organist, Peter Holder. Edward Elgar, Ralph Vaughan Williams, and Percy Grainger all were featured.
There was plenty of music still to come, however. As the Queen walked up the length of the nave, side-by-side with the Duke of Edinburgh, the congregation sang “O worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness! . . . Fear not to enter his courts in the slenderness Of the poor wealth thou wouldst reckon as thine.”
There were three anthems: a Jubilate by William Walton; “O clap your hands all ye people” by Ralph Vaughan Williams (they didn’t by the way, at least not in the cathedral); and a newly commissioned work by Judith Weir, Master of the Queen’s Music, a tuneful setting of Robert Bridges’s poem “I love all beauteous things”.
The collect, read by the Succentor, the Revd Rosemary Morton, gave thanks to God “that you have granted length of years to our Sovereign Lady Queen Elizabeth and have given her gifts of faith in your promises, hope for the future, and love of her people”.
The Prime Minister read the New Testament reading: Luke 12.27-31 — “Consider the lilies how they grow: they toil not, they spin not; and yet I say unto you, that Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. . . But rather seek ye the kingdom of God.”
But the Archbishop of Canterbury took the Old Testament reading, Psalm 139, as the text for his sermon. He took the Queen a little further back than her 90 years, to the time when she was “knit together in her mother’s womb. . . She, like every human being, is fearfully and wonderfully made.”
Archbishop Welby focused first on the fear: “In this life there is much to fear. . . Fear makes us want to flee — from God, from one another, often even from ourselves.”
He directed this towards the Queen. “Over the 63 years [of her reign] and the 90 years, there has been much to fear: at times of personal challenge or national crisis . . . through war and hardship, through turmoil and change.”
But, he went on, Jesus turned fear into wonder. “The story of Jesus shows us that God enters into the most fearful places imaginable in our lives — of sin, betrayal, violence, rejection, even death — and turns each one of them from horror into glory.”
The prayers were shared between Mrs Price, who asked God to “enliven the Church . . . that it might be united in his love”, and six other readers: the St Paul’s Sacrist, Canon James Milne, Clare Balding (“representing the sport of Horse Racing”); Oscar Matthews, a senior footman in the royal household; Fitzrene Headley, a young barrister at QEB, Queen Elizabeth Building; Tamara Cakmak, a cadet at the City of London Academy in Islington; and the Commonwealth Secretary General, Baroness Scotland.
After the prayers came Michael Bond’s “reflections on the passing of the years”, a memory of his early life, which was read by Sir David Attenborough: “I was born on 13 January 1926. My mother took one look at the scales and decided to call it a day. I weighed over 11 lbs, so I was destined to be an only child from the outset.”
There followed descriptions of his father, who always wore a hat “even when paddling in the sea”, and of staying with his aunts Annie and Gee. The latter was stone deaf; so when she went to the cinema and could not lip-read from the screen, “Auntie Annie took a torch and shone the light on her own lips instead as she said the words out loud.”
He ended with an allusion to the poem by Louise Haskins, quoted in the King’s Christmas Broadcast of 1939: “Truly, if you put your hand into the Hand of God. That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way.”
After the interfaith prayers of thanksgiving and the final hymn, “Lord for the years” by the Rt Revd Timothy Dudley-Smith (who will be 90 on Boxing Day), the service ended with the singing of the National Anthem. As various press people remarked, even Jeremy Corbyn sang the words “Long to reign over us, God save the Queen!”