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The Lectio Letter - Issue #53 - On the Death of Queen Elizabeth II
O God, give the king your justice
and the king’s son your righteousness
so that he may judge your people with righteousness
and your oppressed people with justice.
– Psalm 72
Yesterday’s Lectio on forgiveness was scheduled to go out before the news of Queen Elizabeth II’s passing. While I am usually allergic to “hot takes” on current issues, the significance of this moment seemed worthy of some reflection.
While I am not an ardent nationalist and my allegiance is chiefly in the King of Kings, Jesus Christ, our national identities do not get erased in this time before the end of time.
Global History and the Bible itself show us that there are good and bad rulers and it is important to hold grief and gratitude for the reality that we have lived under the rule of a good monarch.
We have all been crowned...
“One has missed the whole point unless one feels that we have all been crowned and that coronation is somehow, if splendid, a tragic splendour” - CS Lewis
This is truly a time when the phrase “End of an era” is appropriate.
The second Elizabethan era has come to end.
The loss of a monarch made wise and humble through extraordinary transitions and a life of selfless service.
Her death marks the end of the life of one of the most public and faithful Christian leaders. Her life was marked by qualities in notably short supply amongst leaders in this period of history. She was Steadfast, resolute, compassionate, dutiful, and faithful. She weathered family scandal, war, economic crisis and the transition of geo-political realities that would have been hard to imagine at the beginning of her reign. She did so with a sense of vulnerability and authenticity that allowed her to connect with so many. But she also led with poise and resolve.
She wielded the power given to her at such a young age to transition historically oppressive colonial relationships into a collaborative relationally bound commonwealth. She embodied the restraint of the modern impulse for progressive change for its own sake, and reminded us that tradition can be grounding, reassuring and visionary.
She arguably adapted a traditional role that upholds the stability of a constitutional monarchy but was still attentive to the people of her nation, and the changes they experienced over her 70 year reign.
Waking up the day after the Queen of Great Britain passed away, I’m fascinated by the phenomena of public grief and gratitude which marks her passing.
While a therapy-bound perspective will argue that the mingled and confused griefs of the last years collect together at this moment allowing for the otherwise famously British suppressed expression, I believe there is something deeper at work.
What is on the surface, a voyeuristic fascination with the Queen and the Royal Family more broadly is actually an outflow of a deep ache in society to discover again what it means to be human.
We all sense our lack, we are aware of our limitations and yet in our hearts there is a desire to be significant. We have a longing in ways that express the profound value of human life and yet so often we simply get caught up in the trivialities and trials of life.
As the Genesis story, and the words of liturgy that will be spoken at the Queen’s funeral remind us;
“Dust we are, and to dust we shall return.”
We are dust, we are broken fallible and limited and yet we sense a there is a deep significance that is embedded in the gift of being alive.
We are aware that at some level, these dust-bound bodies are also filled with lives that meant to be lived with deep purpose.
C.S. Lewis wrote an extraordinary account in a letter describing Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation, at the age of 26 which captures the universal nature of human dignity, frailty and responsibility that capture us as we are transfixed by the seeming pomp of Royalty;
“You know, over here people did not get that fairy-tale feeling about the coronation. What impressed most who saw it was the fact that the Queen herself appeared to be quite overwhelmed by the sacramental side of it. Hence, in the spectators, a feeling of (one hardly knows how to describe it) — awe — pity — pathos — mystery. The pressing of that huge, heavy crown on that small, young head becomes a sort of symbol of the situation of humanity itself: humanity called by God to be his vice-regent and high priest on earth, yet feeling so inadequate. As if he said, “In my inexorable love I shall lay upon the dust that you are glories and dangers and responsibilities beyond your understanding. One has missed the whole point unless one feels that we have all been crowned and that coronation is somehow, if splendid, a tragic splendour.’”
(Letters, 3:343): 1953
While many of us live with a sense of being overwhelmed, there is a deeper sense that we have also been given a “huge, heavy crown”. As humans, we receive a high and glorious calling and yet our inadequacy haunts us. The “tragic splendour” of human glory is, as Paul says in 2 Corinthians 4 that we “..have this treasure in jars of clay”.
In an increasingly secular age, Queen Elizabeth II continued her affirmation that the weight of glory carried in her task as Queen was only held through the deep faith she had found in the life of Jesus.
2 Corinthians 4 continues “we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us”. The Queen received the calling not only to bear a heavy crown but to receive power from the One who gives crowns to all.
One of the conundrums of our modern age is the challenge of our relationship to power. Anti-royalists have already begun their assault on the “archaic, outdated and colonial relic” of the monarchy, but while our world has come to critique power for its inherent temptations to ugliness, Queen Elizabeth has become a rare exemplar of restrained and redemptive use of power and privilege.
In a time where it is certainly easier to abdicate and deny the power available to us in order to sidestep accusations, the harder task is to faithfully wield power in redemptive ways. Given her lack of choice in her decision to be Queen passed through her family line, Elizabeth II reigned over a contested and difficult legacy of British colonial rule and yet rather than cut ties and deny the past, the achievement of her reign globally was to cultivate a commonwealth of nations. In an age of pessimism around multi-national visions of flourishing, she transformed previously oppressive political relationships into ones of mutuality, honour, and collaboration. While no practical political project can be pure and untainted, the commonwealth relationships she treasured and cultivated is surely a sign of the possibility of redemption in an age that increasingly has no vision for it.
Despite being an increasingly individualistic culture in our heads, there remains a communal sense of identity that we carry in our gut. These are the moments when a sense of collective identity comes to the fore. Indeed, we have received numerous messages from our friends across sub-Saharan Africa expressing their condolences to us as Brits abroad. Our African brothers and sisters intuitively know the significance of the figurehead and the powerful sense of collective identity they embody in a way lost through a western pessimism towards power.
We live vicariously through the life of figureheads because in someways they mirror back to us on a smaller scale our own desire and calling to live in ways that recognise the deep dignity of what it is to be human and to wield whatever power we have in ways that are just, faithful and responsible.
While her death has become an inevitable expectation of the last years, the mourning is made all the more poignant due to the realisation that we have been in an age where so few have the character and faith to sustain faithful lives of loving, compassionate dutiful service in humility that carry a deep desire to benefit others. May her example not only inspire other public servants but also those of us who live in more ordinary contexts and have a measure of power to make the world a better place for those whose lives we touch.
Finally, a short prayer from Prayer 24-7’s Pete Greig seems a fitting end;
King of Kings, we give You thanks today for the life and faith of your servant, our sister Elizabeth. As countless people remember her life and legacy, may we be inspired anew to live for you in the service of others for as long as we may live, Amen.
May she rest in peace and rise in Glory,