MY SON’s first day at school will for ever be engraved on my mind — but not solely for the reasons that you might expect. The morning drop-off had included holding back the tears and trying to suppress the lump that I could feel rising in my throat as he toddled off to his classroom with 29 other tiny folk, dressed in his adorable school uniform.
By the afternoon pick-up that day, however, there was only one topic on the lips of the parents gathered at the gates: the death of Queen Elizabeth II. The end of an era had arrived unexpectedly, nestled in between drop-off and collection on our children’s first day at school.
IN THE days and weeks after the Queen’s death, we heard many people relate their memories of meeting Her Majesty. For me, it was my parents’ encounters with her which I will tell my grandchildren about. Both my father and my mother met the Queen on separate occasions, years apart: my dad, when she opened a new wing of the hospital where he was working as a surgeon; my mum, when she was appointed CBE in the New Year Honours, 2008.
That was one of the proudest days ever for our family. Outside the gates of Buckingham Palace, some of our relatives from Nigeria and all over the world had arrived, especially to celebrate with us. Inside, my immediate family got to witness the investiture ceremony. I will never forget my mum standing in front of the Queen in a beautiful, lilac-coloured Nigerian outfit, complete with a golden headpiece — an African crown. We experienced, that day, a mere glimpse of what it might one day be like to be welcomed in to the courts of God, the King.
THIS year’s Greenbelt was glorious. For many of us (me included, although I need to provide a disclaimer: I am the festival’s vice-chair), Greenbelt feels like home. Two years away from it, during one of the most discombobulating times in world history, led many of us to run through the Greenbelt gates, briefly flashing our festival wristbands, before exhaling literally, metaphorically, and spiritually.
This year’s theme, “Wake Up”, felt particularly apt for me and my family as we struggled to sleep, despite the luxury of glamping. It turns out that sleeping in a bell tent with a four-month-old and a four-year-old is not as idyllic as I had imagined. There were frequent wake-ups throughout the night.
Nevertheless, the days were full of the usual thought-provoking and faith-shaping programming. I managed to attend a handful of sessions in between nappy changes, providing toddler snacks, and chairing a few panels myself, including a riveting conversation about the future of democracy with the Rt Revd Lord Williams, Caroline Lucas MP, and Paul Mason.
One of the things that I love most about Greenbelt is its commitment to welcoming all — including those on the fringes of, or completely outside, the Church. Less than 24 hours after first arriving on site, the American singer-songwriter Jeffrey Martin remarked on how he could feel there was “something different about this place”, and said he would be making it an annual pilgrimage: “If you’ll have me . . . I’ll do anything. . . I’ll clean the toilets.”
LESS than two weeks after I had joined the nation in watching a Service of Prayer and Reflection for the Queen from St Paul’s Cathedral, I was inside that iconic building for the installation of the new Dean, the Very Revd Andrew Tremlett.
I have been in the cathedral so many times, and even sung from the stage a cappella a few years ago, during a panel I took part in, on racism and the Church, to launch Ben Lindsay’s book We Need to Talk about Race.
I never fail to be awestruck by its vastness as I stare up into the dome and marvel at human artistry and creativity, as well as the blood, sweat, and toil that went into building it. The new Dean gave an impressive sermon on the call for Christian leaders to be bold in addressing the issues of faith and public life of their day, which gave me much food for thought as I prepare to head back from maternity leave to my position as director of Theos.
The installation was filled with much of the pomp and ceremony that billions of us had watched in the rituals and events surrounding the Queen’s death. I watched tourists who had found themselves at this special evensong at St Paul’s bemused at the peculiarities of the service. I felt part of the in-club through having at least a vague idea about what was going on.
But, as I looked around, I realised that there were not many people who looked like me. Most were white people of a certain age — looking very much as if they were part of the Establishment. In contrast, I had watched from my living-room the amazing diversity — of age, of gender, of race — of those gathered for the service of reflection in the same cathedral.
Perhaps a lesson for us to recognise that there is still a longing for many who might reject “Church” itself to be drawn in from the fringes, if we listen to the questions that society is asking, and open our doors and invite them in.
Chine McDonald is a writer, broadcaster, and Director of Theos.