Sermon given at Evensong on the 67th Anniversary of the
Accession of HM Queen Elizabeth II
(6 February 2019)
In the Chapel of the Resurrection, Pusey House, Oxford
Readings: Proverbs 8.1-17; Romans 13.1-11
Father: all those words and thoughts which come from thee – whilst thou bless them and make them fruitful. And all those words and thoughts that come not from thee but from our own vanity – wilt thou forgive. Amen
It is something reassuringly Anglican and English to have a separate service in the prayer book for the Accession of the reigning Sovereign. Today, as we have done in the Church of England for over 60 years, we pray for Elizabeth Alexandra Mary Windsor, Queen of the United Kingdom and the other Commonwealth Realms.
During her 67 year reign she has seen 12 prime ministers, 7 Archbishops of Canterbury and 7 popes and she has had 237 streets named after her. There are people receiving old-age pension in England today who have never lived to see another queen, and she is probably also the reigning monarch in the world who is married to the worst driver….
However, despite all these interesting factual nuggets, what I was planning to focus on tonight was another of her titles (and no, it’s neither her Maori title of The White Heron, nor her freemanship of the town of Long Beach, California…): Defender of the Faith and Supreme Governor of the Church of England.
When we listen to today’s reading from St Paul’s letter to the Romans, it is perhaps not surprising that the Coronation Rite contains a fair few elements of the Ordination Rite: the hymn Veni Creator Spiritus (or, in English – Come Holy Ghost Our Souls Inspire), the Archiepiscopal laying-on of hands and the anointing with Holy Oil, and part of the Coronation Robes include a stole (worn in the fashion of a Bishop) and a cope.
While this very reading can be read in a very problematic fashion – something I believe Fr Mark dealt with in his sermon last Sunday – what I want to focus on is one single sentence – “for they are God’s ministers, attending continually upon this very thing”. I want to say that that is exactly what Her Majesty have done, throughout her 67 years as our Queen and Supreme Governor of the Church of England.
Not only is she explicitly called to do so in the coronation rite – when she’s given the sword by the Archbishop, she’s told:
With this sword do justice,
stop the growth of iniquity,
protect the holy Church of God,
help and defend widows and orphans,
restore the things that are gone to decay,
maintain the things that are restored,
punish and reform what is amiss,
and confirm what is in good order.
As recently as in her 2018 Christmas Day televised speech, she gave examples of her reliance on her personal faith to sustain her in her work, and it is there that I think that we as Christians, and perhaps especially as Christians in a setting where we consider our vocation, be that lay or ordained.
In Her Majesty we see someone who has gone through her fair share of hardships, and has drawn her strength to cope with these struggles from her relationship with God. This is not to say that God is a marketable cosmetic – a foundation maker by Royal Appointment, although I suspect she does apply it, or rather immerse herself in it every day. It is, extraordinarily, not expensive to buy – although it demands our whole life to enjoy it to the full. And it is far from a Royal Exclusive – it is, of course, available to everyone.
We find these themes, as you would expect, written deeply into the coronation service itself, but also revisited week by week – even day by day – in churches throughout the land. It’s worth looking up the coronation service that I’ve already quoted from. You will find in there the conviction that as Head of State, the Queen is also – as we have already heard – the defender of the faith – she is responsible at the same time for her people’s material and spiritual wellbeing.: country and faith belong together in the history of this land of ours.
At her coronation, the Queen made these oaths: to govern; to uphold justice and mercy; to maintain the ‘Laws of God and true profession of the Gospel’ and the life of the Church of England. … Then, she was presented with a Bible, described in the service as “the most valuable thing that this world affords … Here is Wisdom; This is the Royal Law; These are the lively Oracles of God.” So, what is this wisdom which I have claimed is the Queen’s secret of success, which we might choose to follow?
She knew at her coronation that God had appointed her to the task, and others had confirmed this – it was neither self‐serving, not a random notion that had come unbidden into her head. Her strength has come from a conviction that God was responsible for putting her in this position – so it was now upon God that she could rely to find the strength, the wisdom, and the perspective to fulfill her duties.
The second reading, of course, underlined this sense of calling – of God’s ordering, if you like, of society. “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except from God.” Now this can be used to justify all sorts of abuse, and has been over the centuries – but only by those who strip the second half of the verse from its context.
Even the King, or the Queen, serves God. Every Friday, in our Book of Common Prayer communion service the priest prays that God would: “so rule the heart of thy chosen servant ELIZABETH, our Queen and Governor, that she (knowing whose minister she is) may above all things seek thy honour and glory” The Queen does not actually serve us, nor does she serve the nation – she serves God, and He holds our best interests, our material and spiritual wellbeing, in his heart.
It is this above all else, I believe, that has given her strength, and the ability, almost without fail, to hold an even keel, a steady passage, throughout her ministry as Queen, as her eyes have been upon Him. For it is, truly, a ministry – an act undertaken for the sake of God. Those who hold public office, and are called to public service, who do so in order to serve the state, or the community, or, heaven help us, themselves or their party, give their lives to serve something which is less than perfect ‐ and thereby run the greater risk of abusing others. Something which it might be wise to keep in mind these days more than ever…
There is no cause other than God who is truly to be trusted with our human destiny. Our Queen has demonstrated that to be so, and demonstrated, I believe, the sustainability, and generosity of spirit that flourishes when it is rooted in the grace and love of God. And so her cue is taken from obedience to God’s command, and the concluding words of our second lesson: Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. We are a nation who are loved by our Queen, as she offers her life in obedience to her calling from God. May we be inspired to do the same.
And so, therefore, let us pray, using slightly revised words of the penultimate verse of the version of the National Anthem found in the Stuckey Coles Club hymnal:
From every latent foe
From the assassins’ blow
God save The Queen
O’er her Thine arm extend
For Britain’s sake defend
Our mother, queen and friend
God save The Queen!