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Opinion: Brightness of the late Queen still glows

08 September 2023

A year after the monarch’s death, Richard Harries reflects on her legacy of duty and service, rooted in Christian faith

WHEN Queen Elizabeth II died, a year ago today, the extent and depth of the national grief was quite extraordinary (News, Obituary, 16 September 2022). So many people clearly felt a connection with her and experienced a sense of personal loss. Even staunch republicans recognised and praised her outstanding personal qualities.

When the Queen came to the throne in 1952, it was expected that she would do her duty. Duty is not a word that we hear often these days, but it was one that characterised the best of her generation. It was a moral ideal inherited from her father, who did not want to be King, but who, through the dark days of the war and beyond, faithfully played his part. This is what the late Queen did to the best of her ability, for more than 70 years.

To do one’s duty is to accept the responsibilities of the part that one plays — as a parent to a child, as a citizen to the country, as an employer to employees, and vice versa, and as a Christian to the Church to which we belong.

To accept the responsibilities of a position is to put aside one’s personal feelings, one’s likes and dislikes, to do what is required. It involves daily sacrifice. We saw this pre-eminently in our much loved late Queen. She did not ask to be monarch, certainly not at that young age. But, from the first, she recognised that it was a responsibility that she had to accept, and, from the first, she pledged herself to fulfil its duties, which she did faithfully to the end. Her life was one given over to service.

 

THAT steadfast faithfulness was rooted in her Christian faith, as was made increasingly clear in the royal broadcasts of recent years. It was not pushed in your face, it did not make those without faith feel uncomfortable, but it was clearly real, and at the heart of her life of service to the country.

In 2000, she said: “For me, the teachings of Christ and my own personal accountability before God provide the framework in which I try to lead my life.” In 2002, she put it this way: “I know how much I rely on my faith to guide me through the good times and the bad. I draw strength from the message of hope in the Christian gospel.” In an earlier year, she had said: “The teachings of Christ have served as my inner light, as has the sense of purpose we can find in coming together in worship.”

There were huge changes during the Queen’s reign, and she changed some of what she did so as to be more in touch; but there was one area in which people did not seem to want the monarch to be like them. As the Rt Revd Graham James, a former Bishop of Norwich, has put it: “When I observed the huge crowds at Sandringham watching the Queen go to church, it was clear that they did not expect that she might have a lie-in that Sunday. The Queen seemed to do a lot of vicarious churchgoing for the nation” (Gazette, 16 September 2022).

 

THE word “duty” seems too stern for our tastes today; but, in the late Queen, it went with a great sense of humour and fun.

I love the story from a time at Balmoral — a place that could be informal — when she popped into the local shop. A lady came in, looked at her, and said, “You look very like the Queen.” “How very reassuring,” the Queen replied. It was a humour that revealed her underlying humility.

At a meeting of the Privy Council, someone’s mobile phone rang. As they fumbled to turn it off, the Queen looked at them and said “Hadn’t you better answer it? It might be someone important.”

She was always alert to what was going on. At the Sandringham weekend, the visiting bishop preaches at the parish church on the Sunday morning. When I did it, the lesson was read rather well by a member of the congregation, and, after the service, a group, including the Queen and me, gathered round her to congratulate her. Looking at me, the Queen suddenly said: “You weren’t listening, Bishop.” Like many a nervous preacher, I had taken the opportunity to take a surreptitious look at my notes during the lesson. “I was doing both, Ma’am,” I replied. She missed nothing.

The Poet Laureate, Simon Armitage, has written a lovely poem comparing the Queen to a lily, which ends with the words:


Whose brightness
Holds and glows beyond the life and border of its bloom.


For Christians, and for many others, that brightness still holds and glows.

 

The Rt Revd Lord Harries of Pentregarth is a former Bishop of Oxford. His new book Majesty: Reflections on the life of Christ with Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II is published by SPCK today (8 September), and is reviewed here

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