The Monday before last, I attended a dinner at the Army and Navy Club in Pall Mall, where the speaker was the journalist, author, and film-maker, Robert Hardman. He was discussing his new book, just published, which is described as ‘The definitive new biography of Her Majesty the Queen by one of Britain’s leading royal authorities.’
You might well ask what possible scope there is for a new biography of a woman whose life has probably been more photographed, filmed, written about, reflected upon, and minutely examined, than any other human being on the planet throughout the past century. But Hardman was granted new and exclusive access to the Royal Archives, as well as undertaking a range of unprecedented interviews – so the end result is in fact very well worth a read.
And one of the aspects of the story and the reign of Elizabeth II that was highlighted by Hardman in his talk, which also features in his book, is the significance of her Christian faith to every aspect of her life. Not only is she a devout member of the Church of England, as is well known, but he describes her as one of its most conscientious Supreme Governors since Tudor times. This has manifested itself in various ways, some more obvious than others. For example, she revitalised the 800 year old ceremony of the Royal Maundy, which she has turned into a national event through which people with a history of service to church and community are honoured. More strikingly still, he notes that over the years her faith has increasingly featured in her annual Christmas broadcasts to the nations. In the 1960s and ‘70s these broadcasts contained virtually no religious content at all; but over the past two decades she has, in his words, become ‘ever more vocal about God.’ At Christmas 2014, the Queen described Christ, the Prince of Peace as (and I quote) ‘an inspiration and an anchor’ in her life.
And the same message came across loud and clear in the BBC documentary programme that I know several of you have been watching, Elizabeth, the Unseen Queen, which also features film footage and photographs that have never been aired before. In it the Queen states that the three things that have made all else possible for her have been, ‘Faith, family and friendship,’ going on to say that, ‘I rely on my own faith to guide me through the good times and the bad.’ And that the only way she could live her life was by putting her trust in God. She added: ‘Whether we believe in God or not most of us have a sense of the spiritual – that recognition of a deeper meaning and purpose in our lives.’
And I suspect that there can be few people, whether Christian or atheist, staunch royalist or committed republican, for whom it is not abundantly apparent that she has strived to live out that faith throughout her reign. She (or her advisers) may not always have got it ‘right’; perhaps there are things that, with hindsight, she might have handled differently. But we can be in absolutely no doubt that everything she has done in her public office has been driven by her sense of duty and commitment in the service of the people of this country, and rooted in her religious faith. I cannot think of a single incident during the 70 years of her reign where there has been even a hint of a suggestion that she acted out of self-interest. Not one.
One quality that I sometimes glimpse in the lives of those who truly have strived to live out their faith over a lifetime, is that there is an authenticity; a coherence; and an integrity about them that at times is almost tangible. And in her case it is there in abundance.
Jesus famously said, ‘By their fruits you shall know them.’ It is what people do, not what they say, that is truly revealing of who and what they really are. And there can be few more telling images than that of the Queen, sitting alone and in mourning at the funeral of her beloved husband of 73 years, dutifully abiding by the same Covid restrictions that had been imposed upon the rest of us, and neither seeking nor expecting any special treatment whatsoever. Compare and contrast that with the actions of our most senior parliamentarian, whose actions consistently demonstrate that he is a man who will say absolutely anything, and that his words mean absolutely nothing.
Today is the Feast of Pentecost – one of the most significant events in the Christian calendar, when we celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit upon the first disciples, empowering them, both as individuals and as a group, to embrace a completely new future in a completely new kind of way, as they embarked upon a life dedicated to the service of the crucified and risen Lord; a life dedicated to sharing the power of his love to all who were in need of healing and hope. That is why Pentecost is sometimes described as the Birthday of the Church – it is the point at which our life as a community of faith begins.
And the power of the Holy Spirit can be experienced in many different ways and take many different forms: it can be dramatic and awesome, overturning our lives, shattering our illusions, and disturbing our complacency. Or it can be the still small voice that speaks to the very heart of our fears, and our inadequacies, and brings us comfort and consolation. It is the same Spirit who inspires courage in the faint-hearted, and gives confidence and hope to those who are in despair. And, as a very wise Methodist minister once said to me – a man who himself embodied that same authenticity and integrity that accompanies a life dedicated to the service of God – ‘I am firmly convinced that Common Sense is also a gift of the Holy Spirit.’ I am absolutely sure he is right. So often the voice we most need to hear amidst the chaos of our complicated lives is the voice of calmness and sanity and – yes – common sense.
People sometimes forget that the whole idea of Jubilee is a Biblical concept. In Leviticus Chapter 25, the Israelites are told that they should keep a Sabbath year every seven years, and that after every seventh Sabbath year (that is, every 50 years) the whole nation should undergo a complete economic, environmental, cultural and communal ‘reset’, where the people and land would be permitted to rest, slaves would be set free, and the Israelites’ relationships with the land, with each other, and with God would be completely restored and renewed – a whole new start. I can’t help thinking that we could probably do with one of those once more.
Nevertheless, today we do have many reasons to rejoice. We rejoice with Her Majesty the Queen as she celebrates her Platinum Jubilee. We rejoice with thanksgiving for God’s gift of the Holy Spirit – the Spirit that brings life into our worship, inspires us on our journeys of faith, and blesses and guides us in our life as a community of faith.
And we give thanks for the gift of one another. For, as the Queen herself has exemplified throughout her reign, unprecedented in its length: our faith is nothing without service; our service means little without faith; and the love that lies at the heart of the Gospel that we preach can only exist in relationship: our relationship with God, and the relationships we share with each other – whatever challenges, struggles or disagreements we may face in the process. Because in God’s love, communicated through his Holy Spirit, all things are possible. Through that love we can grow into that authenticity of life that unites our actions and our words into a seamless whole. And in that love we are indeed richly, richly blessed.