Vivat Elizabeth

The Queen IS the nation. She must live forever

Melanie Phillips 6 hr ago
Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

My Moral Maze colleague, the Anglican priest Giles Fraser,  has written on Unherd a wonderfully moving and insightful piece about the Queen.

To widespread unease, if not outright concern, the Queen has been missing some public engagements recently due to unspecified health issues. On her doctors’ advice, she will not be attending the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow on Monday; she has been replacing public engagements where possible by Zoom encounters; and she has apparently been speaking to the prime minister by telephone instead of in their usual face-to-face weekly meetings.

She has also been advised to stop riding. The Queen no longer riding! The world is indeed wobbling on its axis.

Maybe these are relatively minor ailments. Maybe — since she was seen recently with a stick — they relate to nothing worse than the mechanical malfunctions attendant upon old age. 

Even so, these restrictions on the Queen’s activities have induced a sense of dread. At age 95, it is on everyone’s mind that she cannot go on for ever. 

Yet the Queen is an irreplaceable constant in the life of the British nation. Her public appearances aren’t just the exercise of her role as the symbol of the nation. As so many feel so viscerally, she is the nation. 

People feel better just for seeing her out and about with her trademark smile, a few gracious words — and trailing a cloud of insoluble mystery. With her unrivalled sense of duty, her stoicism and her emotional restraint, many see in the Queen the embodiment of a Britain whose cultural identity is inexorably fraying. Many feel in their bones that when the Queen eventually passes, Britain will just not be the same. Despite the fact that the monarchy will continue, something of infinite value will have been lost.

Now Giles has framed all this in spiritual terms. He sees in the Queen’s very frailty something especially precious. He acknowledges something that few realise and that is never, ever talked about in post-Christian Britain— that the British monarchy is a sacrament and that the Queen is consecrated to God. Honing in on the most important part of the coronation — and this was one of the few things that the TV series The Crown got absolutely right —Giles writes

She was just 25, little more than a girl, when she acceded to the throne, and 27 when the Archbishop of Canterbury placed the responsibility of the crown upon her head. 277 million people worldwide were gathered round their small black and white television sets.

What they didn’t see was the central moment of the whole ceremony. Then the Queen was disrobed of her crimson cloak and her jewellery removed. Here she sat in a simple white dress on a wooden throne to be anointed by the Archbishop of Canterbury with holy oil, a mixture of ambergris, civet, orange flowers, roses, jasmine, cinnamon, musk and benzoin, ladled from a 12th century spoon. 

This is when the choir sings “Zadok the Priest”, its words extracted from the first Book of Kings, sung at every English coronation since 973 AD. These echoes of the Hebrew Bible are deliberate. She, like Solomon, was dedicated to God. Kings and Queens are supposed to be servants too. In Christian terms, like the servant king who emptied himself of power in order to achieve His most important work.

And this is where Giles — with his distinctive (and to me, unsettling) Christian perspective of suffering as somehow ennobling — glimpses in the Queen’s very frailty the purest form of that supreme service she has provided to her nation. He writes:  

And the essence of this religious business, the unseen holiness as it were, is a kind of vulnerability that places one’s life in the service of other people and of God. This is why all these headlines we now see about the Queen being “tired” and “exhausted” reflect something of the heart of her ministry — for that is what her role remains.

…In theological terms, the crucial word is kenosis, which means self-emptying. Christ “emptied himself, taking the form of a servant” is how Paul’s letter to the people of Philippi puts it. What is being described here is a process by which the ego is set aside for the fullness of God’s love to enter into a human life. The less of me, the more of You. In this way vulnerability is regarded as the defining feature of precisely the sort of holiness that was there in that moment of the Queen’s anointing…In other words, a “tired” Queen is the perfect sacrificial embodiment of what a monarch should be. 

But to put this in more secular terms, vulnerability is the means of connection between people. Our vulnerability is how we are open to the other and the other is open to us. Which is why — and I don’t think I am just imagining this — the present vulnerability of the Queen is establishing a renewed kind of intimacy between the Queen and her subjects. 

Given the formality within which she is encased, it is entirely inappropriate to say this — but I want to give her a hug. We don’t need the handshakes or the curious peering into a familiar woman’s face to try and work out what is going on behind all that well-rehearsed small talk. The more vulnerable she becomes, the more human, and so also the more fully a Queen in the theological sense. Indeed, the version of the Queen that we are now seeing is the greatest of her roles as our monarch. It is not important if she misses COP26 or other political talking shops. She is doing something much more important now.

She is showing us what human life is all about when we loosen our grip on power and status and function. Her last act may well be her finest.

How touchingly put. But let’s hope this is not her last act. Her mother, after all, lived to 101. As I have said before, the Queen must live forever.


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