This is the script of this morning’s Pause for Thought on BBC Radio 2 with Zoe Ball.

In the last week I had one big miss and one big hit.

Jools Holland was in Leeds and I couldn’t go because we were hosting a Christmas party. That was the miss. The hit was attending the absolutely brilliant Huddersfield Choral Society’s performance of Handel’s ‘Messiah’. They have done this every year without fail since 1864. That’s a lot of singing.

What the hit and the miss have in common is that they involve people bringing their talents together to make wonderful music that moves the heart as well as shakes the feet. I want to dance to boogie woogie, but I want to weep at the beauty of Handel’s oratorio. In both cases the audience is an essential part of the event – not just listening or being entertained, but responding in body, mind and spirit to what is being performed.

This might sound odd, but I think every person in the country should experience Handel’s ‘Messiah’ at least once in their life. It’s really hard to explain, but the intricacy of the orchestra and voices combining creates a sound that is greater than the bits that make it up. And key to this is that playing in a band or an orchestra, and singing in a choir, offers a unique experience of listening to others around you, moderating your own voice or instrument in order to fit in to the whole, creating together something that transcends any individual contribution.

I take two things from this. First, that every child should have an opportunity to sing or play in a band or choir. Nothing compares to it. But, secondly, the content of what is sung or played matters.

There’s a lot of darkness and understandable anxiety around at the moment: strikes, energy and food costs, inflation, war in Europe, and so on. Handel looks the darkness in the eye and, quoting the prophets of 3000 years ago, boldly affirms: “The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light…”

Christmas calls us to come together, to face the challenges, but to light a defiant candle as we hear: “the light has come, and the darkness cannot overcome it.” 

This is the script of this morning’s Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

I was struck in the last few days by the coincidence of two events. First, the remarkable news from Germany about the rumbling of a far right plot to oust the German government and return to a pre-war state. The second was hearing that the last of the Dambusters has died and listening to his firsthand account of the bombing raid in May 1943.

Both of these reports provoke a challenging question: how does our telling of history shape our perceptions about who we are?

In one sense, it is surprising that we are surprised by the organised plot in Germany involving the Reichsbürger movement. The far right have not exactly been asleep, and political movements building on conspiracy theories are not a phenomenon confined to only one country. But, when choosing which ‘state’ in their romantic history to go back to, how and why did they choose the Reich? I guess the answer lurks somewhere in the mists of trying to recreate a lost world which they think justifies their values and grievances about today’s world.

Reporting on the Dambusters raid rightly praised the courage and ingenuity of the bombers, but made little mention of the human consequences. It is hard to look through the eyes of those on the receiving end and listen to the story that they might tell of the same event.

We all do this to some extent or other. As a Christian I read scriptures that tell a particular story from particular perspectives and I have to do the hard work – easily avoided – of wrestling with how to handle it as “the Word of the Lord”. This, of course, involves struggling with it – not just forcing it through the prism of my prejudices today in order to make me feel justified or godly or even right.

For example, I see myself reflected in the story of the exodus where a people, liberated from four hundred years of captivity and slavery in a strange land, start complaining – within weeks – about the menu and mutter that maybe Egypt wasn’t so bad after all. Anyway, fantasies of an idealised golden future, fossilised in a past myth, always hit against reality. Later readers are also invited to wrestle with how this story was experienced by those who were on the receiving end of the new world.

In other words, both individuals and communities – entire countries and continents – look for the narrative that makes sense of now, or, at least, of what they would prefer ‘now’ to be. 

The stories we choose to tell about ourselves must be open to scrutiny and challenge. Partial truths have consequences and damage everyone.

This is the script of this morning’s Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

Recently my daughter gave birth eleven weeks prematurely. Both mum and baby are doing well. Then, last Sunday afternoon my mother died at 90, with all five of her children around the bed in the home she had lived in since getting married in 1955.

I had just returned from meetings in Estonia, where locals spoke about the threat from Russia and their perceptions of the invasion of Ukraine. For me, there was the whole of life, contracted to a birth, a death, and everything uncertain in between.

The evening of my mum’s death I was surprised to recall a Bill Viola video installation at Tate Modern when I was living in London. Created in 1992, it was called Nantes Triptych. The screen on the left recorded the last thirty minutes of a woman in labour. The screen on the right displayed the last thirty minutes of his mother’s life; the screen in the middle showed a humanoid form swimming through the mysterious course of life, accompanied by sounds of the two women labouring towards a beginning and an ending.

The installation was intended to be lived with for thirty minutes. While I was in there I was the only person who stood from beginning to end as people walked in and out. I have often wondered what that was about. Was it, for example, that we are bad at contemplating the pains of birth and death? Or that the life in-between is complicated enough without having to think about it’s meaning? Or something else?

I was once asked, in the wake of some violent global tragedy, what happens when we die. I helpfully said, “I don’t care.” She responded: “Given your job, (I was Bishop of Croydon at the time) don’t you think you should?” Well, I think now as I did then that we need to keep it simple. So, I said that Christian hope is rooted in the person of the God who raised Christ from the dead – not in some formula for working out what happens next. But, death – not a vague ‘passing’ – is not to be avoided as if it marks the end of everything. The first truth of human existence, made in the image of God, is that we shall die. How we get there matters.

My mother did not rage against the dying of the light, but, rather, saw it as a welcome next step on the journey. She went gently into that good night and confidently.

This is the text of a speech I delivered in the House of Lords today in a debate “to take note of the future of public service broadcasting in the year of the BBC’s centenary”.

My Lords, I am grateful to Lord Foster for securing this important debate. Before saying anything further on the theme, I want to express thanks and admiration to those who prepared the Library Briefing. I have been knocking around these issues for a couple of decades, but this briefing is a model of narrative accuracy and concision.

Public Service Broadcasting in the UK is unique on the planet and one area in which this country is genuinely a world leader. Which is why it is so important that, in the centenary year of the BBC and the day after the fortieth birthday of Channel 4, we assess the value of what we have and steel ourselves against the ideologically driven impulse to diminish it. Yesterday I asked a friend who works in PSB what she would focus on in a debate such as this and her response was immediate: imagine a world without it. That is, imagine a world in which broadcasting serves only narrow cultural or political interests and is subject purely to commercial or transactional persuasion.

Or, I might put it, look at broadcasting in the United States.

Price is not the same as value.

The broadcasting landscape has changed and is changing by the day. Technology drives both the pace and nature of such change. But, there remain principles which, if neglected or sold down the river to the highest bidder, will sell our culture short. And not just that of the UK, but also the global audience that relies on the BBC for accuracy and integrity. Does it get it wrong sometimes? Yes, obviously. But, it is also open to scrutiny, challenge and critique. If you want to understand the global importance of the BBC – and what the loss of soft power might look like -, just ask Arabic speakers what they think of the recent decision to close our Arabic service at a time when it is most needed.

The main point about PSB is surely that, as the report by the House of Commons DCMS committee makes clear, it is characterised by universality of access, accuracy and impartiality, and independence. It is surely not coincidental that we read on the walls of New Broadcasting House the words of George Orwell: “If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.” For this freedom to be guaranteed, there needs to be a well-resourced facility for universality of access, accuracy and impartiality (which is not the same as neutrality), and independence.

Yes, technology has changed everything, and it is timely that there should be some serious scrutiny of legislation for a rapidly moving digital and legal world. But, as I wrote in a newspaper article some years ago: “If the BBC needs to hear what it doesn’t want to hear, then the politicians who want to reform PSB cannot exempt themselves from scrutiny of their motive. Diminishing those who challenge the integrity or motivation of governments or their policies is what happens in countries that are not admired for their democratic credentials.”

My Lords, PSB is not the sole preserve of the BBC. The PSB landscape has changed: different media with differing offerings and funded by different models. This provides a balance that is precarious and must be respected. Please can the Minister update us on the future of the Media Bill and, particularly, the threat to privatise Channel 4 – a clear success story of the last forty years and for which there is no popular mandate to privatise? Following the appointment of the new Prime Minister, the government said that the Secretary of State was “carefully considering the business case for a sale of Channel 4”. Might I suggest that ‘business’ isn’t the only case to be considered here?

Further questions the Minister might like to help us with might be:

  • How will the current drastic squeeze on BBC local broadcasting impact on local democracy, community cohesion and accuracy of reporting?
  • How will the drastic squeeze on the BBC World Service and its consequent reduction in service impact on UK soft power in parts of the world where our reputation as a leading democratic and free nation is fragile and matters?
  • Young people are accessing the BBC less than ever. But, does this emphasise the need to reach them with PSB more effectively, rather than simply diminishing its resourcing according to some ‘numbers’ equation that takes little account of power that cannot be cashed out in a profit/loss spreadsheet?
  • If PSB is reduced as a source of public funding (and my assumption here is not incidental), what does this say about the encouragement and nurture of a new and younger generation of journalists and programme makers who need to embody cultural values, not just technical skills?
  • Does the government value the fact-checking credibility of the BBC in a world being flooded with disinformation, with a serious impact on truth, democracy and culture?

My Lords, a reform of legislation might be needed in the wake of radical technological change ( to say nothing of the Wild West of digital, streaming and social media), but please will HMG commit to assuring the cultural and democratic future of PSB in the UK in order that we don’t lose what has taken a century to build, but could be lost in weeks?

On 28 October 2022 the German President, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, delivered a speech that is a model of maturity, honesty and humility whilst offering a clear vision for the future.

I read it and wondered where the same mature honesty might be found in an ideologically divided UK where none of our leaders has (so far, at least) managed to articulate such a clear diagnosis of (a) how the world has changed since the invasion of Ukraine, (b) what will need to change in a large nation’s present, (c) what a realistic vision for the future of Europe might look like, and (d) what the costs might be at every level of society. But, rather than lay all the responsibility on the shoulders of politicians or big business, it includes an appeal to individual commitment to the common good.

Is it too much to ask that a unifying equivalent might be forthcoming from our leaders in the UK?

The German original can be read here and the English translation here.

This is the text of my presidential address to the Leeds Diocesan Synod on Zoom this morning.

The collect for today reads as follows:

“Almighty God, you have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless till they find their rest in you: pour your love into our hearts and draw us to yourself, and so bring us at the last to your heavenly city where we shall see you face to face; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.”

In the title of a book by the American Old Testament theologian Walter Brueggemann, these are ‘words that linger, texts that explode’. An explosion of theology at the start of our Synod today is no bad thing. This prayer constructs a lens through which we might see the business before us, establishing a perspective that puts in context (relativises, perhaps) the particularities of our discussions. Our big vision will shape how we pay attention to the details and pragmatics of our business.

For we are about the business of Almighty God, creator, sustainer and redeemer of the cosmos. A biblical vision of God is bigger and broader than our narrow perceptions, our limited priorities and passionate commitments. It is God’s kingdom we serve, and that kingdom is shaped by God’s character which is rooted in love, mercy and justice.

Yet, in the context of the entirety of the known and unknown universes, somehow we matter. And when we sound the depths of human meaning and significance – of value and dignity – we find ourselves coming back to God. In other words, it’s all about God; it’s not all about me. Human experience is always restless – as Augustine observed from trying it all out – until it comes home in humility and relief to God who is the beginning and end of it all. Which is why I keep arguing that we can relax: after all, when we think we have found God, we discover that it was God who had already found us.

So, it is God who draws us to himself, not the other way around. And isn’t that liberating? For this God is not just here to satisfy our needs in the present; he is the God who brings all things together in the eschaton. As the Book of Revelation is all about: when things get rough here and now, see your life and current experience in the context of eternity; so, stand firm, there is more to life and God than ‘this’. Remember, the ‘heavenly city’ doesn’t wait for us to get all our ethics or hermeneutics right; according to the whole biblical narrative summed up in Revelation 21-22, it is the heavenly city (where God is present and his character rules) that comes down to earth, to us. In Genesis 3 it is God who comes searching for Adam and Eve in the garden in the cool of the day, asking: “Where are you?” It is God who liberates his people in the Exodus; it is God who comes to his dodgy people in the prophets; it is God who comes among us – uninvited – in Jesus; it is God who stays with us by his Holy Spirit, come what may.

Sermon over; but, you get the point. This world faces some enormous challenges right now (although when hasn’t it?) … which makes it all the more essential that we hone our theological vision and allow the lens behind our eyes (by which we ‘see’ reality) to be re-ground – re-shaped – as we go. (The biblical word is ‘repentance’ …)

Today we meet amid political turmoil at home, a cost of living crisis already hitting more than the poorest in our society, power-plays over energy supplies around the globe, a brutal war on European soil again, corruption in high places, and Liverpool tenth in the Premier League. Precarious times and lots of fear and uncertainty around. And a time for Christians to find out what we truly believe about God, the world and us. But, as I wrote a number of times to clergy during the pandemic, you can’t argue with reality. Every generation faces its crises and challenges; we are called to be faithful in this generation – courageous, obedient, reflective and confident in God and one another.

It is appropriate at this point to mark the death of Her Late Majesty Queen Elizabeth II and the accession of King Charles III. The Queen lived through times of immense change and challenge, and, knowing her own need of God’s grace, was able to help the people of the United Kingdom and Commonwealth to do the same. Her example and impact live on. The King is now the head of state of a country in turmoil in a world that appears more fragile than could have been imagined only ten years ago. However he shapes his role, he needs our prayers. Demonstrating confidence at a time of uncertainty is a vital gift for a national leader whose power is soft rather than hard.

Speaking of confidence, I am pleased to welcome Bishop Arun to the Synod as he embarks on his ministry among us as Bishop of Kirkstall. The process for identifying a new Bishop of Huddersfield is underway and I expect a nomination in December followed by an announcement (probably) in late January or early February, followed by a consecration in early May. Change is always an opportunity.

But, we have LLF ahead of us and the General Synod in February and July next year. Battle lines are already being formed – which says something about who we think we are and how we think our attitudes and behaviour reflect the character of God as seen in Jesus Christ. We cannot escape the fact that it is Jesus who does the calling and we don’t get a veto over who else gets called.

The church needs to be confident in what discipleship entails. Robust argument and debate are healthy as we shape our common life together in order to be agents of transformation in society. I do hope, therefore, that members of Synod will use the opportunities given on the agenda each time to pose questions and bring motions.

Today we also have the joy of a DBF company members’ meeting. The detail of what we do and how we shape our life – legally as well as organisationally – really matters. So, we gladly take responsibility for doing the detail – and we thank God for those who drive these elements of our diocesan life, especially our administrative staff under the leadership of our Diocesan Secretary Jonathan (who I’ve discovered is not a bad pool player). We will discuss and decide on Deanery representation for cathedrals, a detail brought on as integral to and a consequence of the new Cathedrals Measure currently being implemented.

We will take finance seriously as we look at the budget, parish share and where our priorities lie. If the money doesn’t come in, it can’t go out. Our current deficit is unsustainable, so decisions will be forced upon us  if we don’t have the vision and practical strategic courage to set out our store in good order and in good time. Hence what we are calling the Barnabas scheme whereby we want, as a diocese, to encourage, challenge, accompany and resource all our parishes as we face the very real challenges before us. We all need to be transparent about reality and visionary in our choices.

This coming winter will be hard for many people in our parishes and institutions. The Warm Spaces initiative, building on other community-facing work, turns our focus outwards. The national church is providing funding for churches and individuals to help with rising energy costs in the shorter-term. The diocese is providing hardship grants to those in need. And these are on top of other government-led provisions (which have yet to run their course).

Today we also consider a question of how Holy Communion is administered. I will listen carefully to the debate and will cheerfully represent views expressed within the House of Bishops. But, I have to be clear from the outset: a motion on matters of liturgy or doctrine cannot change the fact that the bishops have thus far declined to allow administration of wine in individual cups. I don’t know if that will change in the future, I hope we can keep even this in perspective as we locate the question in the broader context of a fragile world. Wine can be received from the common cup (breathing in a church is more ‘dangerous’ than sipping alcoholic wine in a chalice) or by the administrator intincting the bread or wafer. So, no one is compelled … and this will not be policed.

Today, with this agenda, we will do the stuff of the kingdom of God. For God’s kingdom, rooted in Christ’s call to discipleship (which is about restoring our full humanity), is not about the flourishing of the church … other than in order to enable the church to serve and transform the world bit by bit. We remember in this diocese that confident Christians grow churches which exist for the transformation of our communities. In that spirit, with that dynamic, and in the light of God’s eternal love and grace, we turn to our agenda with hope, faith and commitment.

Rt Revd Nicholas Baines

Bishop of Leeds

This is the basic text of a speech in Grand Committee (in the Moses Room) of the House of Lords this afternoon. I was the fourth speaker and there was a seven-minute speech limit.

My Lords, I am grateful to Baroness Jones of Moulscoomb for securing this debate, urgent as it is, and – unnervingly but possibly appropriately – overseen by Moses himself.

I was pleased to see that both the UK Anti-Corruption Strategy 2017-2022 and the Library note for this debate begin with definitions or corruption. Broadly speaking, they define corruption in terms of the abuse of office or illicit procurement of personal gain – the misuse of entrusted power, as Lord Evans put it. That is reasonable enough; but, I want to offer another definition: Corruption happens when integrity is reduced to expediency and principle to mere pragmatism.

Of the many possible examples we could draw to mind, we might just fix on the years of complacent steering of Russian money through the sewers of London. Despite many warnings about both the nature and impact of this, it was financially convenient and politically cost-free. Then, once Vladimir Putin went off-piste in Ukraine, suddenly the language changed to that of moral outrage. Same money, same people, same oligarchs, same ‘brutal dictator’, same banks. The only thing that had changed was temperature and political expediency. Principles of integrity, transparency – the virtues extolled by Nolan – were frequently mentioned and comprehensively ignored when convenient money was involved.

In the wake of the Brexit referendum in 2016 and the tortuous years of subsequent legislation the House heard many challenges to the abuse of language, the ‘normalisation of lying’, the ‘corruption of the public discourse’. Virtue received a nod while those in the highest power in our land sought to ignore both the claims and consequences of corruption. Because corruption is not primarily about systems; rather, it is about character. Individual and corporate. And what do we see in today’s papers? Reports in the Times of a letter from the chair of the House of Lords Appointments Commission to the Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition asking them to avoid promoting candidates who are “unsuitable”. I don’t need to name examples who, by virtue of their nomination, bring our polity into disrepute.

Money. Power. Influence.

Now, I am not naive and I don’t speak from some pedestal. Lord Acton’s famous dictum – that “power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely” – was, after all, addressed to an Anglican bishop (Creighton) and related to the writing of history about the Inquisition. In fact, his point was pertinent to this debate today – he wrote: “I cannot accept your canon that we are to judge Pope and King unlike other men, with a favourable presumption that they did no wrong.” Which is why it matters when those with power throw integrity and virtue to the winds while enriching or protecting themselves. This is utterly corrosive of public ethics and the common good.

Earlier I referred to what I call the corruption of the public discourse. Corruption begins with language. The German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk writes that the nature of our public discourse matters because “moral and political aberrations almost always start with linguistic neglect.” Edmund Burke understood the powerful influence of abstract terms such as ‘liberty’ or ‘equality’ which have the power to move people without enlightening them. Yet, politicians who revere Burke also seem to see fit to defend draft parliamentary legislation that proposes to breach international agreements (and, therefore, the rule of law), give unlimited power to ministers to fill in the detail of skeleton bills, see accountability as a nuisance, and ignore conventions such as correcting on the record things that have – to put it generously – been misspoken in our parliamentary houses.

These things matter. Behaviour and language are not neutral. Never. And the insidious truth is that corruption ignored, downplayed or spun opens the door to corruption elsewhere in both individual and corporate life. So, why no ministerial ethics adviser? Why no anti-corruption tsar? Why still no real pinning down at a systemic level of cronyism, dodgy lobbying, unaccountable political donations that lead to personal reward? Why a laughing dismissal of hedge fund professionals who game a mini-budget and make millions out of the economic and social misery caused to the rest of the population? (No champagne parties for the losers.) Why do we tolerate a legal system that is being run down – as if justice does not require adequate funding and resourcing? Why a Ministerial Code that reduced moral accountability on the part of ministers? What just recompense for the public whose money was used to pay billions in contracts to government cronies during the covid pandemic? I won’t mention the honours system.

All this is in plain sight. If we choose to ignore what is evident, we incur ethical judgment on our neglect. This is not incidental. If democracy and the rule of law are to mean anything, if integrity in public life is something to be honoured and not mocked, if public virtue is not to be shrunk into political or economic pragmatism or expediency, then this parliament must clean up its own act, pay attention to its use of language, show an example of transparent accountability in its vital work, and demonstrate the power of humility in setting a public culture.

Positive proposals for the minister? Set up an Anti-Corruption Board with teeth and independence. Appoint an Ethics Committee in Downing Street or the Cabinet Office with the power to hold the powerful to account.

This is the script of this morning’s Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

Some years ago on a visit to the United States, I drove from the Gulf Coast down through Florida. A massively destructive hurricane had powered its way through this part of the state only a few months before and we drove for fifty miles through utter devastation. For miles on end every tree had been snapped like a pencil, leaving the tops pointing into the earth and creating triangles of dense wood. Towns and settlements stood abandoned, leaving shattered wooden houses derelict against the now quiet sky.

Hearing of Hurricane Ian has brought it all back to mind. Solid looking buildings in permanently inhabited communities get boarded up in an attempt to withstand the torment. But, ultimately, weather will not and cannot be tamed. In the end, we are at the mercy of the elements.

The problem is that, unlike most people who live in vulnerable parts of the globe, some of us have got used to thinking we can control the world and our life. Dangers simply have to be managed in order to maintain what we dare to call ‘normality’.

But, if we learn one lesson from the Covid pandemic and the obvious effects of climate change, it surely must be that (a) human beings need to learn a bit of humility about their fragility, and (b) respect for the creation might just relativise our collective hubris. I guess humility emerges from realism and a proper acknowledgement of our human contingency.

This goes to the heart of one reason I am a Christian. Acceptance of my and our collective need of grace and one another means that arrogance and pride can be put to one side. My personal self-fulfilment might not be the ultimate goal in life, after all. Facing mortality compels me to face this fragility – not with misery, but rather with liberation. Equally so when we face the current threats caused by energy, money and violent conflict.

Fatalistic escapism? I don’t think so. Knowing our need and accepting the fragility of the world can in fact drive us to what I would call incarnational commitment. That is, a commitment to get stuck into living in the world as it is, loving our neighbour as ourselves, shaping a better and more just common future, but without any sense of entitlement to security.

How we respond to the challenges of the coming months and years – which most of us can’t control – will tell us what we really believe and whom we truly love. For Jesus, loving one’s neighbour was not a suggestion – it was a command.

This is the script of this morning’s Pause for Thought with Zoe Ball on BBC Radio 2 (live from Leeds).

Well, this has been a weird couple of days. Yesterday I was at a house in Leeds that has been there for over 500 years – Temple Newsam where we should have been ‘live’ with Radio 2 a couple of weeks ago – and today in Seacroft at a building that is brand new. Two stories in one city.

It’s astonishing what Nick and his team of experts and volunteers have done here. Building a place from scratch for The Getaway Girls is significant for many reasons. The need is urgent – and we can’t take 500 years to develop the idea. The new space will provide refuge, encouragement, education, entertainment and much more for girls in Leeds and beyond who need to know that they matter, that their lives are as important as anyone else’s, that their vulnerability is noticed and attended to.

The trouble with buildings, though, is that of themselves they achieve nothing. Shelter from the elements might be useful sometimes, but it is the people who use the space who fill it with life. As Luther Vandross famously sang, A House is not a Home; only people can turn bricks and mortar and plaster and wood into somewhere people can belong.

That’s why this matters. Every person – every girl – is unique. As a Christian, I start from the premise that every person is made in the image of God and is, therefore, infinitely valuable. Even when things go wrong. Even when people are abused or taken for granted or exploited or told they are useless. Even when they make bad decisions or dangerous choices.

We live in the real world where things are messy, people are messy, and the rest of us get invited to care for and support those who get stuck.

I’ve got to get away to London this morning, and there’s a cab waiting to get me to the station. But, now there is a new place here in Leeds where girls can getaway and find security, support – even love. Because, at the end of the day, it’s love we all need – a home, not just a house.

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.