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Sunday: Queen’s 90th Birthday
Date: 12th June 2016
Location: St. Michael’s
A Sermon Preached by Tony Whatmough
Fairly soon after I arrived at my parish in Bristol, I had a visit from the Lord Lieutenant.
In 1974 it had been decided that there should be one county of Avon instead of the smaller area of the City and County of Bristol.
But in 1986, the County of Avon, loved by no one, was abolished, and Bristol returned to its city and county status, albeit with a bit of political juggling!
So it was decided to hold a special service to mark this occasion and to give thanks for all the work of volunteers and charities during the time of the County of Avon.
The Queen had agreed to attend the service, and my church had been asked to host it.
The palace liaison officer subsequently established a few ground rules.
One should not initiate a conversation with the Queen: if she addresses you, you may respond!
You should address the Queen as Mam as in Spam, not Marm as in smarm.
The Bishop of Bristol would preach, and I would organise and lead the service.
Our choir would sing, and we could choose the music.
The Duke of Edinburgh would read a lesson, but it had to be from the New Testament and using the King James Version of the Bible, but the Bishop could choose the reading.
“And Oh,” he said, “would there be a collection?”
“Of course,” I said, “you can’t have a church service without a collection!”
“In that case,” he replied, “I’ll make sure the Queen has some money!”
To say that there was a lot of work is an understatement.
Apart from the Queen being given her pocket money, the flower arranging team got into gear, and arranged a whole series of bouquets using the Queen’s favourite colours.
On the day, the Duke of Edinburgh maintained his royal tradition of opening his mouth and putting his foot in it.
“Lovely service,” said the Queen at the end. “Yes indeed,” said the Duke, “but could someone tell that organist to put a sock in it!” Needless to say, I didn’t pass on that comment.
The day before, one of Bristol’s notorious pigeons found its way into the church and couldn’t be persuaded to leave and in the end, a marksman had to be brought in.
But more seriously, hours before the Queen was due to arrive, despite all the security and sniffer dogs, a mysterious package was found by one of the external side doors.
The Bomb Squad was duly called in, and a remote device was sent down the church path to give it a poke.
Nothing happened, and it was decided that an officer needed to go and examine it.
He put on his helmet and all his protective gear and then to my surprise and horror, his mates came up to him, gave him a hug and said goodbye.
It brought it home to me what a lot we ask of our security forces, asking them every day to put their lives in danger for us. “Live everyday as if it were your last,” we say glibly, but these people really do live that out.
The officer went down to the package, and attached a small explosive device to it, returned back to his armoured vehicle, and after a small detonation, the crisis was over.
Half an hour later, one of our local tramps appeared: “Where’s my lunch?” he complained. He was given a sandwich!
Now I’m not a royalist as such, more a pragmatic royalist. I think the present Queen and most of the Royal Family do a good job and they can add something of real value to our national life.
So it was on this occasion.
It was a moving service.
There is something about singing the National Anthem, Parry’s I was Glad with the vivats in front of the Queen, and no she didn’t sing the Anthem herself, although the Duke of Edinburgh did. And yes, she did put her collection in the bag!
But her presence was appreciated by the voluntary organisations which were present.
Here was someone who didn’t have an overt political axe to grind, who has been a symbol of national stability amongst all the changes and chances of political fortune.
I also found out, that the Queen seems basically to be a shy person, and all the public appearances that she undertakes must take a toll on her.
Yet she willingly puts herself out to fulfil her role, to which she committed herself at her coronation, as you’ll find on the back of the service booklet.
I also found out in a roundabout way, that the Queen and the Duke take their religious duties seriously.
I said that it had been agreed that the Duke would read a lesson, but that it had to be from the New Testament and in the King James Bible version.
It was a surprise to then, after sending off a draft of the service, to receive a message from the palace, that the Duke had specified that the reading was to be from the Old Testament, from the Book of Proverbs, and that it would be read from the New English Bible.
Why was it a surprise?
Well I had naively supposed that the Queen does these kind of activities all the time as part of her everyday routine and whilst it was special to us, it might not be so to her.
Well I was wrong.
She and the Duke obviously take these duties very seriously, seriously enough for him to look at the planned service, to think about it, and decide that the reading he wanted was better than that suggested by the Bishop, and that he knew his Bible well enough to find exactly what he was looking for.
And he read it with obvious spirit and understanding.
To quote Jeremy Paxman, her religious views are ‘quietly held, authentic and well known.’ That was my experience too both in the service and informally after.
So whatever your views, whether you are an ardent royalist, a pragmatic royalist, or even a closet republican, I think there is much to be thankful for as we celebrate the birthday of the Queen.
And what we pray for on her behalf, we also pray for all sorts and conditions of humankind:
Thy choicest gifts in store,
Be pleased on her to pour.
What we wish for her, we wish for everyone who lives and moves and has their being on this planet.
Our prayer could be summed up in her own words:
God sent his only son,
‘to serve, not be served.’
He restored love and service
to the centre of our lives
in the person of Jesus Christ.
Amen to that!