This is the basic text of a sermon at Ripon Cathedral on the eve of the Queen’s funeral.

The Death of Queen Elizabeth II

Ripon Cathedral

Sunday 18 September 2022

While emptying my office in Bradford before moving to Leeds in 2014 I found two brown file boxes marked simply ‘1936’. So, while my colleagues carried on shifting boxes and furniture, I opened the boxes and found in one the speeches of the then Bishop of Bradford, Dr Alfred Blunt, and in the other the correspondence that followed one such speech.

On 1 December 1936 at (what we would now call a Diocesan Synod) the Bishop of Bradford reflected on the nature of King Edward VIII’s imminent coronation and the nature of what this would mean for the new king. Expressing some concern about the King’s Christian commitment (as expressed in his attendance at worship), he famously said this:

“The benefit of the King’s coronation depends upon… the faith, prayer and self-dedication of the King himself; and on that it would be improper of me to say anything except to commend him to God’s grace, which he will so abundantly need, as we all need it – for the King is a man like ourselves – if he is to do his duty faithfully. We hope that he is aware of his need. Some of us wish that he gave more positive signs of such awareness.”

That observation ignited the abdication crisis and provoked the green-ink correspondence that then came the bishop’s way. (Plus ça change!)

But, the subsequent decision by Edward to abdicate the throne set in course the events that led eventually to Queen Elizabeth II ascending the throne in 1952 following the death of her father, King George VI.

Now, this might seem an odd way to begin a sermon on the eve of our late Queen’s funeral. But, it sets in context what I think is key to understanding her understanding of her role and responsibilities, her example and her commitment. In a world in which the autonomous self is king, the late Queen was a counter-cultural icon of different virtues.

It is against this backdrop that we hear the broadcast she made on her twenty first birthday in 1947 when she said this: “I declare before you all that my whole life, whether it be long or short, shall be devoted to your service and the service of our great imperial family to which we all belong.”

The world has changed beyond recognition since then and, among other things, there is no longer an ‘imperial’ anything (let alone ‘family’). But, her commitment wasn’t to being ‘relevant’ to whatever cultures would emerge in the aftermath of the Second World War, the nuclear age, the bipolar global hegemony, and so on. No, rather she was held firmly to a set of virtues and commitments that rooted her securely while everything else moved around her – in the wider world as well as in her personal and family ambit. Only so could the then young Princess Elizabeth’s commitment be made in ignorance of what might lie ahead.

At the heart of her commitment was, I believe, one word: grace. Before flying to Kazakhstan last Monday (I got back yesterday afternoon), I attended the House of Lords for the second day of parliamentary tributes (and to swear allegiance to the new King). Many speeches were long and anecdotal; mine was very short and about Her late Majesty, not me. I simply observed what I want to repeat here today: she could reign with grace because she first knew her need of grace. She did not need to be persuaded of the need for confession in Anglican liturgy; she didn’t need to be argued into some sort of religious role-playing; she didn’t need to be preached into submission to a religious demand. At the root of her convictions and conduct lay a fundamental awareness of her need of God’s grace.

Now, as I observed in the Lords, this is what enabled her to fulfil her obligations as a constitutional monarch with such grace and wisdom: being unashamed of one’s own need of grace opens the door to an unashamed inhabiting of accountability.

When the monarch sits on the throne in the House of Lords to deliver the ‘Speech’ at the commencement of a new session of Parliament, she (and now he) looks out at the assembled three legs of a parliamentary democracy: the executive (behind the bar), the legislature and the judiciary. All their work is done in the name of ‘Her Majesty’ – Her Majesty’s Government, Her Majesty’s Courts, and so on. But, she read the Speech (which sets out the government’s proposed legislative programme) in the name of God. And, as she did so, she would look up she sees the statues of the barons of Magna Carta between the windows around the chamber.

When in the chamber I always feel I am physically inhabiting the British Constitution. And you get the point: the monarch saw herself as not the ultimate authority. Accountability beyond oneself or one’s powerbrokers, beyond the immediate fashions of political or social shaping, beyond the satisfying of political egos or passions: it is this accountability that keeps a monarch honest and rooted in more than expediency or self-fulfilment.

And it is this accountability, rooted in and born out of a conviction of need – of grace – that enables us to understand why the seventy-year reign of Queen Elizabeth matters so much. Whether we were conscious of it or not, her commitment to this humility of understanding and praxis has shaped and coloured our culture, our language and the assumptions underlying our gratitude for an honourable and peaceful polity.

Politicians might be driven by different factors and even Prime Ministers might be able to get away with poor behaviour, but our late Queen quietly and confidently held herself – and, therefore, the country – to a different standard of accountability. We all benefitted from this, whether we recognised it or not – whether we acknowledge the Christian roots of it or not.

The Apostle Paul, in our reading from Romans 14, puts it like this: “We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. If we live, we live to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. … For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God.”

This sense of grace and accountability – which I think goes to the heart of who the late Queen was and permeates the stories that have been replayed on loop since her death – must, as part of her legacy, speak to us in our own lives as we navigate ever-changing circumstances and pressures. Through the Covid pandemic we have learned – rather rudely in some cases – that we are not in control of everything; that life can change in an instant; that “anything can happen”; that we need to sort out what holds, roots and steers us through whatever the particular circumstances of our world and our lives.

The Queen was explicit about what this meant for her. This is what she said in a broadcast following her coronation on 2 June 1953:

“When I spoke to you last, at Christmas, I asked you all, whatever your religion, to pray for me on the day of my Coronation – to pray that God would give me wisdom and strength to carry out the promises that I should then be making. Throughout this memorable day I have been uplifted and sustained by the knowledge that your thoughts and prayers were with me. I have been aware all the time that my peoples, spread far and wide throughout every continent and ocean in the world, were united to support me in the task to which I have now been dedicated with such solemnity.”

Humility is strength.

And it is this faith that sustained her during the seven decades that she reigned in the United Kingdom and Commonwealth.

Again, in 1992 in the wake of her children’s marital breakdowns and various scandals, she spoke openly of her ‘Annus Horribilis’, commenting that it was “not a year on which I shall look back with undiluted pleasure.” But, she thanked those who had prayed for her and her family, referring to those “whose prayers – fervent, I hope, but not too frequent – have sustained me through all these years.”

At Christmas 2014 she boldly stated that “For me, the life of Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace, whose birth we celebrate today, is an inspiration and an anchor in my life. A role model of reconciliation and forgiveness, he stretched out his hands in love, acceptance and healing. Christ’s example has taught me to seek to respect and value all people of whatever faith or none.”

In her Christmas address of 2016 she was even more explicit about her personal faith: “Billions of people now follow Christ’s teaching and find in him the guiding light for their lives. I am one of them because Christ’s example helps me to see the value of doing small things with great love, whoever does them and whatever they themselves believe.”

At the last covid-restricted inauguration of the General Synod for the next five years, the Queen was represented by Prince Edward who read her address. Commenting on the more than fifty years since she and her husband had attended the very first General Synod, she said this: “None of us can slow the passage of time; and while we often focus on all that has changed in the intervening years, much remains unchanged, including the Gospel of Christ and his teachings. The list of tasks facing that first General Synod may sound familiar to many of you — Christian education, Christian unity, the better distribution of the ordained ministry. … But one stands out supreme: ‘To bring the people of this country to the knowledge and the love of God.’“

Which brings us back to the point. Today, before her funeral tomorrow, we rightly give thanks for her faith and witness, for her commitment to democracy and the rule of law, for her discipline and selfless service, for her resilience and humour, for her love of God and his world.

As we watch events unfolding on the TV loop – even in Kazakhstan this week – we see played out the truth of Shakespeare’s observation in Henry V: “Let us our lives, our souls, Our debts, our careful wives, Our children, and our sins, lay on the King.” Millions of people might project their hopes and fears, their fantasies and failures, their griefs and joys onto a monarch; but, we then need to go through these experiences to examine who we are and what fires our own commitments. That is a legacy worth honouring.

May our late Queen rest in peace and rise in glory.

God bless and save the King.