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Sermon to celebrate the 70th Anniversary of the Accession of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

Sermon to celebrate the 70th Anniversary of the Accession of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

The Most Revd John McDowell, Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland, preached the following sermon to celebrate the 70th Anniversary of the Accession of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth at a Civic Service held in First Larne Presbyterian Church on Accession Day (6th February 2022):

Readings: 1 Kings 1:37–40. 1 Timothy 2: 1–4. St Mark 10:35–45.

May all the words that I say to you be in the name of the King immortal, invisible, the only wise God to whom we ascribe all might, majesty, dominion and power, as is most justly due. Amen.

First, If I could thank you for your very kind invitation to preach at this important and heart warming occasion.

There will be all sorts of events and services to mark the official celebration of the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee (don’t you find platinum a very unchivalrous sounding metal) around the beginning of June – so you have been very inventive in being ahead of the posse in choosing the anniversary of the actual accession to begin your celebrations.

And of course we gather here as Christian people to give thanks to God for a Christian monarch who no–one can doubt has rendered unto God the things that are God’s – that is the giving of her whole personality – surrendered in countless acts of duty, responsibility and love.

But let’s go back to the beginning, because the beginning is important.

Early in 1926 the Queen’s mother, then Duchess of York began to make arrangements in earnest for the birth of her first child.  She made sure that the maternity nurse who had cared for her own sisters when they were expecting babies would come to help her at the beginning of April.  She was a woman called Anne Beevers, “tall and dark and very Yorkshire” as she later recalled.  In the letter she wrote asking Mrs Beevers to come in April, she also asked her to recommend a tonic “as I get rather tired (and irritable I fear).” 

She and her husband had hoped to rent a house in Grosvenor Square where the baby would be born and could spend the summer but the plan fell through in March, so the Duke and Duchess went instead to the Duchess’s parents house, 17 Bruton Street, off Piccadilly.

By the middle of March the Duchess’s medical advisor Sir Bertrand Dawson had decided that the baby should be induced and after discussing it with the Duke and Duchess he also motored up to Windsor to tell King George and Queen Mary. Contrary to the picture which can so easily be given of rather remote and emotionally buttoned–up parents, they wrote immediately to the Duke and Duchess. 

Queen Mary desperately wanted to be with her daughter–in–law but knew that if she went, the Press would think that something was wrong and that the exaggerated reports would add unneeded stress to an already stressful situation.  Unfortunately the Duchess’s own mother, Lady Strathmore, had a very high temperature and was confined at home in Scotland, so instead some friends were asked to come at the time of the delivery.  As Queen Mary wrote, “Someone who has had a baby and knows is such a comfort to one at such moments”.  No husbands hanging around delivery rooms in those days.

As though that wasn’t bad enough the Duke of York (who had become very anxious as first–time fathers often are) had also to look after a member of the Cabinet, William Joynson– Hicks. He had been summoned in accordance with the convention that the Home Secretary should be present at the birth of a child in the direct royal succession to ensure that no substitution was made.  It can’t have been much fun for the Queen’s father,  as Joynson–Hicks was a rather pompous authoritarian figure, known in the country as ‘Jix’ and in the Conservative Party as ‘Mussolini Minor’.

Shortly after her birth an official announcement was made that: “The Duchess of York has had some rest after arrival of her daughter.  Her Royal Highness and the infant Princess are making very satisfactory progress.”  The announcement went on to say that “… previous to the Confinement a consultation took place at which [it was decided] that a certain line of treatment should be adopted”.  A euphemism for a Caesarian section.  The new arrival was the King’s first granddaughter and third in line to the throne after the Prince of Wales and the Duke of York.

That King and Queen were woken up at 4.00am to be told the news to their very great relief and drove down from Windsor to Bruton Street in the afternoon.  Queen Mary recorded in her diary: “Saw the baby who is a little darling with a lovely complexion and pretty fair hair”. A day or two later she wrote to her son, “ I am thankful that all is going well with our darling Elizabeth and that adorable little daughter of yours (as yet they hadn’t decided on a name), she is so sweet and pretty and I feel very proud of my first granddaughter.”

The Duke of York wrote in reply, “You don’t know what a  tremendous joy it is to Elizabeth and me to have our little girl…now that we have our daughter it seems so wonderful and strange…I know Elizabeth wanted a daughter.  May I say I hope you don’t spoil her when she gets a bit older.”  They decided to name the little girl Elizabeth Alexandra Mary after her mother, great grandmother and grand mother.

So there you have, in more or less the words of her own family, the story of the birth of a little girl, no doubt into a life of some privilege, but with absolutely no premonition that it would also be a life of relentless duty as Queen.   And perhaps in that way Providence provided wisely, because what emerges from that record is the picture of a close, loving family, taking care to express their love in little acts of thoughtfulness and affection.  It also meant that the future Queen’s character could be formed during her childhood, when the wax was still soft, within a fairly ordinary family setting by an optimistic, charming, life enhancing mother and by a shy, shrewd, devoted and courageous father.  All of which qualities combined in her own unique personality and have given such depth and texture to the Queen’s life of duty and affection ever since.

But if I could return to what I said at the beginning of this sermon; that her life of duty to the State, and love and affection for the country have been possible only because they have been worked out as part of the Queen’s discipleship of Jesus Christ.   

Because that discipleship was formed and has been lived in a very particular religious environment it is characterised by a certain reserve and desire for toleration and inclusiveness.  It is not a very showy expression of faith, but it obviously runs very deep, and it is no less an authentic form of discipleship than those which are more ardently expressed or because it allows for the occasional Gin and Dubonnet, and a broad smile when one of her horses wins at Ascot.

It seems to me at any rate, that Her Majesty the Queen has understood what many people (including many religious people) have failed to grasp; that all life is God’s, and that it is the manner in which we do the ordinary things of life which is a true discipleship.  It is not everything that has to be said about the Christian Faith, and it presupposes a trust in Him, but it is a great deal.

It is probably difficult for people living outside the Commonwealth to understand fully the affection – the genuine affection – which is felt for Queen Elizabeth by many millions of people around the world. It may even be difficult for young people today within the United Kingdom to quite realise the depth of that affection. That is partly because the depth of that affection is in some sense related to the sheer length of the Queen’s reign.

Anyone under the age of about seventy–five simply cannot remember any other head of state in the the UK, and those who have watched the relentless and cheerful years of service have only had their admiration deepened.

Perhaps those who have the deepest and most heartfelt affection for the Queen are those who lived through the war against Fascism, when a Royal family, a suffering King and Queen and a very young heir apparent stood – not for some complicated ideology – but for ordinary decency and the values which the Christian West had developed and nurtured over centuries. Over the many years of her reign it has become crystal clear that the Queen does not do as the Gentile Kings did – she does not lord it over her people and only pretend to be their benefactor. She loves and respects them.

Certainly the Queen’s life is very different from the life that most of us lead. She lives in magnificent palaces, and has great wealth and privilege. And yet, somehow, by some strange alchemy, those privileges do not separate her from us; they are not a barrier between the Queen and her people. And they are not a barrier because, over the long years since her accession, she has exercised the privilege in the form of service. And perhaps of equal importance is that her wealth and privilege have not insulated her from the tragedies which all flesh is heir to, and she has not pretended that they have.

It is particularly important that the Queen’s accession is celebrated here tonight in a religious service.  Not just because the Queen herself has never made any secret of the depth of his Christian belief (just as she has never made a show of it) – but because, in terms of the British Constitution – the monarchy is first and foremost a religious office.

I’m afraid this is the medieval historian coming out in me, but until the tenth century the King at the coronation ceremony had a warrior’s helmet placed on his head and not a crown. But from around the time of Edward the Confessor, religious symbolism began to displace the military emphasis.

There was much debate in the newspapers and among the clergy in 1952/3 as to whether or not the Coronation service should be televised at all. Many people thought not – that it was simply too sacred and too solemn an occasion to be exposed to the vulgar gaze of the public in that way. However the young queen felt otherwise and gave her consent to the ceremony being televised.

That is the whole ceremony except for one element of it, which she insisted was to be carried out, out of view under the canopy of state. And that element was the anointing with chrism oil by the Archbishop of Canterbury. As you know the English word “Christ” comes from a Greek word which means “the anointed one” – the one chosen by God to carry out his will.

Just as Zadok the Priest and  Nathan the Prophet anointed Solomon, in the hope that he would be  a shepherd king, as ruler over Israel, in the name of God – so Geoffrey Fisher, Archbishop of Canterbury, did the same–he anointed Elizabeth as a shepherd queen to care for her people and to pray for them.

At the coronation the Queen was also vested in a garment called a dalmatic, which is to this day is worn by a deacon at the Eucharist – and deacons are specifically those who serve.

The monarchy flourishes because it is obvious to everyone that with the Queen, public duty comes before personal choice and even before personal expression. We are obsessed today with the celebrity; with people who are famous for being famous. The Queen is not a celebrity figure who follow fashion and courts attention. She is our most senior public person with a definite classic style of her own, which is itself reassuring because it is not subject to passing fads.

She speaks in her own way and in her always carefully chosen words, mostly to pay attention to other people. Our bank notes and coins reproduce the Queen’s image over and over again; the human face at the heart of the nations of the UK; a family not a Politburo as a symbol of out identity.

In the past seventy years the rhythm of public life has seen sixteen prime ministers come and go, their responsibilities laid down; but the Queen continues to shoulder hers without respite. She continues to meet not only heads of state but also those who value her encouragement at their everyday attempts to do good – inviting people into her back garden, and be there to acknowledge in person those who deserve a national award.

For all Christian believers the monarchy provides a storehouse of rituals and symbols to feed the national imagination and to help us to remember that there is something beyond what we can touch and see. Christian constitutional monarchy makes clear and visible God’s rule and claim upon us, even in a modern democratic state.

At her coronation the Queen was presented with the orb of state with the words:

“Receive this orb, set under the Cross, and remember that the whole world is subject to the power and empire of Christ the Redeemer”.

One day all institutions – monarchy, Parliament, the Church – will be no more for the kingdoms of this world will become the kingdom of God and of his Christ; and he shall reign for ever and ever. But at its best the monarchy can be a symbol that points beyond itself to the city whose builder and maker is God.

But it is also worth saying that for a Christian monarch, like Queen Elizabeth, to serve the whole community involves serving people of different faiths and none. This is because a profound relationship with God can only be developed by those who have freely chosen to respond to his call and never by pressure or coercion.

It is Christian to be tolerant not because we believe so little about God, but because we believe so strongly  in the importance of that free response to God’s call – a response given with absolute conviction by the Queen at her coronation service. Firmly rooted in her Christian faith and therefore firm in her belief that it is no part of a Christian’s vocation to belittle another person’s faith or lack of it–it has been possible for the Queen to reach out to other great world religions.

Over the seventy years since her accession it has become fairly obvious that the Queen’s broadcasts have become more overtly religious in tone and in content, and perhaps also a little more personal. Quite recently she said in a Christmas broadcast:

“Although we are capable of great acts of kindness, history teaches us that we sometimes need saving from ourselves–from our recklessness and greed. Gos sent into the world a unique person–neither a philosopher or a General, important though they are; but a Saviour with the power to forgive.  Forgiveness lies at the heart of the Christian Faith. It can heal broken families, it can restore friendships and it can reconcile divided communities. It is in forgiveness that we feel the power of God’s love”

May we pay close attention to those wise words, and may that which has sustained her through these seventy years – the Holy Spirit through the Scriptures, Eucharist, worship and prayer – be the foundation on which we build our lives and build up our common life.

In finishing if I may use those quaint old words from The Litany of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer; today we give thanks to God that it has pleased Him to guard and bless His servant Elizabeth our most gracious Queen and Governor for these 70 years of her reign, and to have ruled her heart in His faith, fear and love; and we pray that she may evermore have affiance in Him, and ever seek His honour and glory as long as she shall live. 

God save the Queen.

+John Armagh

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