Monarch, Majesty, and Memory

“God save our gracious King!
Long live our noble King!
God save the King!”

New words? Old words! Words sung after the death of Queen Victoria in 1901 until the accession to the throne of the late Queen, Elizabeth II in 1952. Seventy years later(!) we now revert to the male language of the familiar anthem as Charles III moves through the early days of his long-anticipated reign. Seventy years, Elizabeth reigned over us – in our temporally impatient age — such a long period of service seems unbelievable, no less unachievable. She stuck to her word however – whether her life be long or short — and it was long — believing that monarchy was a life of service, combined with duty, faith, and family — for a lifetime.

Questions of the sustainability of the institution of the Monarch have swirled around for decades. Many slave-holder nations in the Caribbean will likely move quickly to abandon the monarchy as has Barbados. Conversations continue to rage in Australia. Speculation is less intense here in Canada; opinions however can be sharply divided. Recalling his visits with the late Queen, Victoria monarchist Bruce Hallsor said Thursday:

I was impressed, as people most universally were, with Her Majesty, how well she performed her function, the dedication she showed, the unrelenting life of service and the example she set for all of us . . . it would have been hard for us to undergo so many of the changes we’ve undergone (through the past seventy years) without the reassurance of that presence that has always been there and has been there for the lives of most of us.

A very different (negative) view of the influence of monarchy was posted by author and teacher Heather Jessop who wrote recently on Facebook:

Okay, so we have a “holiday”  on Monday. And while I am generally quite happy to have a holiday, I am angered and hurt by this for numerous reasons . . . TEACHERS EVERYWHERE have to rearrange their class schedules, assignments, meetings with students, TA schedules, etc. etc. etc. Then, I find the outdated idea that we should all sit down in front of our televisions (who even has a television?) and watch Queen Elizabeth’s funeral when I can’t even make loved-ones’ funerals due to overwork and the expense of so many things right now is absurd . . .  Millions of brilliant people who have contributed to society in meaningful, small, and consistent ways are never recognized for their service and care of the planet and its creatures and people. And this, the most entirely horrible irony of all – that our teaching on de-colonialism and the history of harm that the British empire has done to cultures and peoples all across the world.

The issues arising from history, experience and the different understandings of the effect of Monarchs on both nations and peoples continue to intrigue me as I watched many of the memorial services, the lying-in state, the keeping of vigil, and the lengthening queues of visitors — a spectacle of respect and gratitude which gathered energy and emotion day after day. The public grieving process was to my eye majestic. Everything about the period of mourning was large in size, deeply emotional, and as befits a monarch, very public. I think Charles III has had an excellent first few days on the job, if not yet formally on the throne. I cannot imagine the tension between public duty, and the intimate aching of heart, as the long-expected, yet still shocking death finally came, and so quickly.

Majesty – “impressive beauty, scale, or stateliness” – was on full display in the public rites of the Church, the military ceremony of the nation and the international reach of the commonwealth. With a background in Church Music myself, having visited Westminster Abbey many times, I was in Belfast Cathedral days before the northern Ireland memorial service –if you watch anything watch the sermon by the Archbishop of Armagh.

I found the Church of Scotland (Presbyterian) service refreshing and to the point — didn’t First Minister Nicola Sturgeon (37:07) proclaim the text from Ecclesiastes with style, timing and eloquence. Finally, the Abbey service demonstrated how the English can do liturgy, logistics, military honour and music so very, very well. From the Croft setting of the opening sentences, through the Dean’s opening bidding, all was in good (and perfect) order:

In grief and also in profound thanksgiving we come to this House of God, to a place of prayer, to a church where remembrance and hope are sacred duties. Here, where Queen Elizabeth was married and crowned, we gather from across the nation, from the Commonwealth, and from the nations of the world, to mourn our loss, to remember her long life of selfless service, and in sure confidence to commit her to the mercy of God our maker and redeemer.

To the around seven hundred Kings and Queens, Prime Ministers and Presidents attending, the Archbishop of Canterbury minced no words. The late Queen’s leadership standards and performance will most likely grant her favour and good reputation in posterity. Take note, King Charles III, and others. If legacy is important to you, do as the late Queen did.

A musical highlight for me was the stunning anthem by Sir James MacMillan, a setting of familiar sentences to those of us who have conducted funerals in less grandiose places, all capped off by the profound two minutes of silence (the BBC cut away to other places in the commonwealth as nations stood in appreciative stillness).

Outside the Abbey, the assembled military guards, bandsmen and other processional functionaries were brilliantly arrayed in vivid colours (including RCMP Red Serge), all contrasted with the sombre dress of the assembled mourners. Amidst it all, the bright red and yellow Royal Standard draped the casket with Crown, Sceptre and Orb attached. (Apparently at one point a spider joined the procession – report unconfirmed.) I must also mention those eight men who conveyed the 700-pound lead-lined casket by their shoulders, through the nave and up and down many steps; a hugely impressive and athletic feat (sic); they have apparently been practising for two years or more. From Westminster Hall to Windsor Castle it was a spectacular and fitting tribute to God, and to the late Queen herself, who did what she said she would do – and she did it well.

Remembering is essential as we all move through the rites of passage of our lives, always together even when we are physically alone. With the late Queen’s remains now safely deposited in the vaults of St. George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle, the Second Elizabethan Era comes full close. A profound moment was when the symbols of the monarch were returned from atop the casket to the altar at St. George’s Chapel. Now in death she returns to a normal though eternal life. Orb, Sceptre and Crown now await conveyance to the new King when the time comes. Elizabeth’s own coronation was delayed many months given the depressed economic state of the UK at the time. One does wonder how long the nation will need to recover from what is touted as the most watched public event in history, and likely the most expensive, at a time when inflation rages and the politics of the UK and elsewhere in Europe are anything but settled.

What a story! What discipline; what faithfulness! What ceremony, what beauty, what tradition. As the piper played “Sleep dearie sleep” so Elizabeth II now does. We for our part amble on, inspired and hopefully, hopeful. The world has changed much since 1952. And so have we. May the healing and reconciling journey continue, as we come to terms with colonialism at its best, likewise  mindful of its worst effects. The new King has his work cut out for him. God save the King.

COP 22, Glasgow, Scotland, 2021

One thought on “Monarch, Majesty, and Memory

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  1. “. . . Millions of brilliant people who have contributed to society in meaningful, small, and consistent ways are never recognized for their service and care of the planet and its creatures and people. And this, the most entirely horrible irony of all – that our teaching on de-colonialism and the history of harm that the British empire has done to cultures and peoples all across the world. . . . ”
    Significant numbers of brilliant people were and are regularly recognized for their service and care of the planet throughout Britain and The Commonwealth precisely because there is a Monarchy which pins awards and confers recognition and worthy contributors, including some here in Kamloops, like Tricia Sellmer, who won a Civic Volunteer Platinum Jubilee Certificate and pin honouring her contributions to our city and region. King Charles was a very early proponent of global ecology disaster prevention and organic farming.
    If one correctly raises the harm done in the name of British Empire, then one must also raise the harm done by alternative systems and governments across the globe like the one due South of us, whose inability to retract slavery as quickly and effectively as Britain (and its colonies, like Canada) in 1834, directly resulted in the deaths of 600,000.
    Not a monarchy, the USA completely took over The Philippines during the Spanish American War just as it was winning its Independence, and didn’t relinquish control until well into the 20th Century.
    One thing is quite certain–that Canada, were it not for its loyalty to The Crown, would have been violently, or otherwise, swallowed up by the land-acquisitive republic to the South long, long ago, and remaining loyal allowed us to slowly and maturely develop a Constitution and independence, including a Charter of Rights and Freedoms which greatly improves on the US Bill of Rights, and doesn’t include a single word on the so-called rights to bear arms.
    The truth is, there is no system of government or structural hierarchy which takes our sinful nature as humans and transformes it by virtue of some sort of redemptive magic.
    Our late Queen was a remarkable human being whose devotion to us was obviously recognized and rewarded these passing days by so many whose own lives were touched by her example and dedication to service.


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