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Diary: Graham James

27 May 2022

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I BELONG to the minority of people, living in the UK, who were born before the accession of Queen Elizabeth II — not that I recall anything of the final year of the reign of King George VI; for I was only just over 12 months old when he died. Some of my earliest recollections, however, come from just after the Coronation.

I remember my parents telling me to look after my diecast model Coronation coach, because “it will be worth something one day.” They were correct: a search on eBay suggests that I may get £10 if I’m lucky, though considerably more if I’d kept the box. It never occurred to anyone in 1953 that cardboard would prove so valuable.

I’m told that, as a two-and-a-half-year-old, I went to a Coronation tea at our chapel (I was an infant Congregationalist), at which a retired Nonconformist minister — who was a great campaigner for the temperance movement — declared a trifle to be the best he’d ever tasted. It was, of course, heavily laced with sherry, and deliberately so.

The Coronation mug that I received on that occasion is still in my possession. Despite my preserving it unmarked for nearly 70 years, recent research suggests that it may bring in a fiver. Perhaps the fact that such memorabilia are so commonplace (and mostly in good condition) says something in itself about the widespread love and respect in which the Queen has been held for seven decades. Nothing else from my early childhood survives so completely intact.

 

Seeing is believing

MY FIRST glimpse of the Queen occurred soon after we moved from Cornwall to Northampton, when I was 11. We stood for a long time to see Her Majesty and the Duke of Edinburgh drive past in a Rolls-Royce equipped with a high roofline for maximum visibility. I saw the Queen for what seemed like a millisecond. But, having seen her, I was content.

“I need to be seen to be believed,” the Queen said not long ago, when referring to her later habit of wearing bright colours. It is astonishing to think that one third of the British population claims to have seen the Queen in person, or to have spoken with her. She knows her people, and has allowed herself to be known by them, to borrow the direction to bishops in the Ordinal.

 

Sleep-in Sunday

ONE of the regular occasions at which the Queen has been seen, at least until her mobility problems developed, was when she went to church. A nation that no longer goes to church seems still to expect the monarch to do so. During my time as Bishop of Norwich, I’d observe thousands of people standing outside Sandringham Parish Church, watching the Queen and the rest of the royal family attend worship.

I think the Queen has done a lot of vicarious churchgoing on behalf of the nation. It never seemed to occur to any of the crowd that she might turn over in bed and have a lie-in, like the rest of the country. There wasn’t a chance of it, of course; but what a headline it would have made.

 

One’s enough

THE Duke of Edinburgh was a keen and searching critic of episcopal sermons. The Queen frequently expressed gratitude for the addresses that she heard, but shared her husband’s devotion to brevity. After one episcopal visit to Sandringham (a series of bishops stay and preach each January), I enquired how things had gone. The Queen indicated how much she liked the bishop concerned. “A lovely man. . . He preached a very good sermon.” She paused very briefly, and said: “Then he preached another one.”

I’ve heard quite a few sermons like that, and preached too many myself, I fear. It was probably the subtlest of hints.

 

Sign of the times

HAVING an hour to spare on a recent visit to Oxfordshire, we went to Bicester Village and its host of designer shops. We were clearly older and not quite as well off as the target clientele. But it was fascinating, in this temple of fashion and consumerism, to see that there were quotations from the Queen’s speeches and Christmas messages on signs dotted around the village.

Some explicitly invoked service of God and neighbour, as one might expect. I assume that the Platinum Jubilee had prompted the display. It felt as if the Queen had been permitted a prophetic and dissenting voice in this shrine to high-end retail, although I doubt the organisers had seen it like that.

And, to be fair, this village of designer outlets does possess a “contemplation room”. I paid a visit, and found myself alone in a bare room with drapes, and plenty of prayer mats available. There was a small shelf of the scriptures of various world religions, the Holy Bible included (New International Version). It was a room entirely devoid of religious imagery or artefacts, although one item was prominently displayed, as if it for veneration. This was a large dispenser of hand cleanser.

If something dramatic happened to Bicester Village and, centuries from now, and archaeologists were to dig up what was left of the contemplation room, I wonder what they would make of our worship of hand sanitiser? Such dispensers now seem to be permanent features in almost every church that I visit, although decreasingly used. Will anyone ever have the courage to take them away?

I’m told that they continue to be found plentifully in mosques and synagogues, too — and, as in churches, less and less used as time goes on. Perhaps that hand-gel dispenser in the contemplation room at Bicester was a telling symbol of contemporary interfaith unity after all.

 

The Rt Revd Graham James is a former Bishop of Norwich, and now an honorary assistant bishop in the diocese of Truro.

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Sun 03 Jul @ 21:48
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