A Sermon Preached by Canon Simon Butler on a Sunday of national mourning following the death of Queen Elizabeth II
2 Corinthians 4:16-5:14
A Sermon Preached by Canon Simon Butler
Sunday 11th September 2022 (during a period of national mourning)
2 Corinthians 4:6-5:4
What are kings when regiment is gone, but perfect shadows in a sunshine day?
Christopher Marlowe, Edward II, Act V, Sc. 1
These words of Christopher Marlowe from his play Edward II catch movingly the humanity of sovereigns. When all is said and done, whether by usurpation or by death, thy mystery and magnificence of monarchy evaporates. Her Late Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, by the Grace of God, of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and of Her other Realms and Territories Queen, Head of the Commonwealth, Defender of the Faith is now, before the God she worshipped and the Jesus Christ she followed, Elizabeth Alexandra Mary Windsor, baptised child of God, adopted by grace through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The Reformed Catholic Faith that the Church of England confidently proclaims that it is by the grace of God that we are saved, through faith, and not through any work of our own. However great our works, however good our lives, whatever mark we made on the pages of history, you, I, and our Late Sovereign “of blessed and glorious memory” are all sinners redeemed by Jesus Christ crucified and risen alone. This is the Faith the late Queen defended so nobly.
“We brought nothing into this world and we take nothing out,” I say at funerals. All the pomp and ceremony of the forthcoming State Funeral, so far removed from the quiet cremation of someone’s dearly loved grannie, is reduced to this unalterable reality. We are all, in the eyes of God, equally beloved and valued. And we are all, in the end, perfect shadows in a sunshine day.
Marlowe’s beautiful and poignant image has always stayed with me since I first encountered the play. Edward II is a weak king, easily swayed by his favourite Gaveston; his shadow has, outside of literature, gone. But I have a sense that Queen Elizabeth II’s shadow will have a perfection far more clear and memorable. At the most basic level, she is the first monarch of the age of technology, so powerfully announced just before the beginning of her reign in the Festival of Britain, the remnants of which can be seen it Battersea Park. Her record is documented for posterity much more dispassionately and critically than the loyal chroniclers of earlier ages. In part this has contributed to the demystifying of monarchy. We are left with a rich, complex and rewarding record of her reign. The age of deference has faded, and so what earlier ages would have regarded as a semi-sacred, or even a divine right to reign, has disappeared to the margins. Her decisions and judgements have, and will continue to be analysed, and her family life has been dissected with endless and sometime prurient fascination. Whatever the Constitutional position might be, her people see themselves as fellow-citizens, with the monarch as the chief Citizen, a population with rights rather than Her subjects with duties.
The result of all of this, and so much more, is that we have become more familiar with the qualities and the character of the Monarch than we have ever been. It is the personal qualities of the Sovereign that count more than the mystique of majesty. So it is with enormous admiration that we have seen in the Late Queen Elizabeth II such rich and generous qualities. Imagine having been served and governed by a King like Edward II or Richard III in our time? Now I don’t doubt that part of this has been necessitated by our settlement as a constitutional monarchy, with the rights and responsibilities of the Sovereign constrained by convention and law. But this is the key element of the Late Queen’s success and wisdom as a monarch, that she sensed that it is the quality of her living that mattered. We have been so blessed as a nation to have someone such as Queen Elizabeth II, whose kindness, compassion, sense of duty and service, and tireless commitment to her role and her people puts most of us to shame, and leaves us with a sense of national bereavement and an overwhelming feeling of gratitude.
Could it be that such a sense of general admiration for her Late Majesty’s character has, as its source and origin, her love and service of her God? In the text of yesterday’s Proclamation of our new King, the new Sovereign and the Privy Council were reminded that there is a higher authority than the King. It said, “beseeching God by whom Kings and Queens do reign, to bless His Majesty with long and happy years to reign.” And in the Prayer Book, the Prayer for the King’s Majesty says this, “so rule the heart of thy chosen servant Charles, our King and Governor, that he (knowing whose minister he is) may above all things seek thy honour and glory.” Her Majesty the Queen spoke frequently in later years about her reliance on the guidance and love of God in Jesus Christ. She said, in 2000, “For me, the teachings of Christ and my own personal accountability before God provide a framework in which I try to lead my life. I, like so many of you, have drawn great comfort in difficult times from Christ’s words and example.” She most frequently talked of the parable of the Good Samaritan, and the servanthood of Jesus. Perhaps we can imagine that these were key biblical passages and models for her in a faith that was totally sincere, but never exclusive or domineering. She knew that she herself had a King and that his coronation was his crucifixion.
The Scripture readings today have been selected for this period of national mourning and they include a wonderful passage from 2 Corinthians 4 and 5 about the way in which death, life, suffering and victory all come together in Christ. The image used in the passage is that of an earthly tent or house which is compared to what the apostle calls a ‘house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens’. It’s an interesting passage to reflect on in the context of our awareness of house meaning a dynasty (as in the House of Windsor) as well as a physical structure. Nothing in this world is permanent. “Some trust in chariots, and some in horses, but will trust in the name of the Lord our God,” writes the psalmist.
But rather than get too worried about identifying the nature of what the ‘tents’ and ‘houses’ are in this passage, look at the bigger picture Paul is offering, which is of the glory and majesty of the age to come. In a not dissimilar passage in Philippians, Paul talks about our citizenship, our commonwealth if you like, being in heaven. For the Christian disciple, whether monarch or man or woman in the street, this is the shared goal, the vision to sustain us through life. Whatever Heaven might be, and Scripture is pretty opaque apart from telling us that it to be with Jesus, Heaven is where we most truly belong.
Never mind heaven for a minute, though. This life can be difficult, as most of us know. “For while we are still in this tent, we groan under our burden…” says Paul. We know, as the Late Queen knew, that life could not be easy. Alongside groaning under the burden of the responsibilities of State, Queen Elizabeth II ‘groaned’ under the sort of burdens we all can experience – the relationships difficulties of children, the aging of parents, the brutal murder of a close family member, the loss of a life companion – and yet she kept faith with her duty and held to her faith in Jesus Christ. “I, like so many of you, have drawn great comfort in difficult times from Christ’s words and example.”
And so, shifting his metaphor from buildings to clothing, the Apostle writes “For while we are still in this tent, we groan under our burden because we wish not to be unclothed but to be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life.” I like to imagine the late Queen being divested in death of all those extraordinary and heavy garments of state, together with the orb, sceptre and crown, and receiving instead, ‘the crown of life’ and a plain ‘white robe’. We may be familiar with a passage in Revelation that talks of the reward of faithfulness, as the ranks of the saints, clothed in white, stand before God.
“These in white robes,” the elder asked, “who are they, and where have they come from?”
“Sir,” I answered, “you know.”
So he replied, “These are the ones who have come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. For this reason,
they are before the throne of God
and serve Him day and night in His temple;
and the One seated on the throne
will spread His tabernacle over them.
‘Never again will they hunger,
and never will they thirst;
nor will the sun beat down upon them,
nor any scorching heat.’
For the Lamb in the centre of the throne
will be their shepherd.
‘He will lead them to springs of living water,’
and ‘God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.’
One way of thinking about being a Christian, whether we are in fact monarch or man or woman in the street, is to imagine ourselves as those promised the gift of heaven, and allowing that gift and promise to shape our living in the world. Imagine living with Paul’s promise that, to believe and follow Jesus Christ is to be “swallowed up by life.” What an energising gift to living that image is!
What are kings when regiment is gone, but perfect shadows in a sunshine day? All things pass away. Nothing remains. Our time will come too. However long our shadow might be cast, in years or in good works, let the shadow we cast on the world, whatever our station (to use an old-fashioned word), let the shadow we cast on the world be that of Christ. Such is the shadow many of us saw cast by the life and example of Queen Elizabeth II, shaped in all truth by her abundant privilege, her unique destiny and her innate sense of duty. But in all of that, which we must acknowledge with a complex sense of gratitude, she took it all, mixed blessing that it must have been at times, and used it to serve us and her Saviour. Let that be our legacy to the world when our time comes. Let us use what we have been given, in all its complexity, to serve the Lord until kingdom come.
Let Philip Larkin’s line stand as her epitaph and ours: “What will survive of us is love.” Amen.
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