Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be always acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer.
Some ninety years ago, on 21 April 1926, Princess Elizabeth Alexandra Mary was born in London, to Prince Albert and his spouse Elizabeth. As the daughter of King George V’s second son, there was no expectation on Princess Elizabeth’s birth that She would become queen.
Well. History rarely runs in straight lines, and the events by which Princess Elizabeth would eventually inherit the throne are well known. Four years ago, in 2012, we celebrated the Diamond Jubilee, the 60th anniversary of Her Majesty’s accession. The Queen is now our longest serving monarch and, from the age of 82, had already been our longest lived. She is also the most widely travelled and surely, in this media age, the most recognizable and the best known.
And now She has reached the age of 90. Many of us have already noted and perhaps marked Her actual birthday in April: with a glass of champagne, a pleasant feeling of patriotism, perhaps a sense of nostalgia. We have, the majority of us, grown up with The Queen as a fixed point in our lives, and we all have our personal memories of Her place in them. From today in Athens and from next Saturday in London, we are now marking Her official birthday – with the Trooping of the Colour in Horseguards and The Queen’s Birthday Party in every British Embassy across the globe.
These moments of celebration are perhaps also moments to pause a little and ask ourselves, what exactly are we celebrating when we celebrate our monarch’s 90th birthday?
Well, first and foremost, it seems to me, at least, that reaching a grand age should itself always be a cause of celebration. Too much of modern life and modern culture resembles a rather tiresome and repetitive cult of youth. But a long life, well lived, with its share of accomplishments and difficulties faced and overcome, is a source of joy to all. We should rejoice in the wisdom, in the forbearance, in the insight of many years.
Some of us here today have spent some part of the last fortnight honouring the remaining handful of British, ANZAC and Greek veterans – surprisingly stout men in their late 90s, who fought against tyranny, between 1940 and 1941, in the skies above Athens, in the Battle of Kalamata and in the Battle of Crete. The nonagenarian veterans of the Second World War remind us of service, service in the face of great peril, and at great cost.
As our monarch grows older, we have in Her person someone who also reminds us, and reminds us very clearly, of the value of long service, a service that has been patient and painstaking, and not without its risks, whether reputational or physical. During the war years, Princess Elizabeth famously joined the Auxiliary Territorial Service, to work with other women as a trained driver and mechanic. In Her coronation address of June 1953, Her Majesty pledged herself clearly to her peoples’ service. “Throughout all my life,” she said, “and with all my heart I shall strive to be worthy of your trust.”
Her long reign has been marked by that striving to build and maintain trust, by an indefatigable spirit of service. At the time of Her Diamond Jubilee, The Queen was patron of over 500 charities, particularly favouring those that deal with civic or community issues. As the CEOs of Her charities will tell you, Her patronage is not that of a figurehead, but of someone who is actively involved, seriously engaged. Research suggests that She has helped the many organisations of which She is patron raise over £1.4bn.
The Queen is, of course, above politics. She is careful not to become embroiled in political questions. She has abided steadfastly and loyally by the rules of constitutional monarchy, acting only on the advice of her Prime Ministers. At the same time, The Queen, through her long reign and experience, is in a unique position. She has had twelve British Prime Ministers alone, from Winston Churchill to David Cameron. It is always interesting to read the memoirs of former Prime Ministers, as they allude gently and carefully to Her role as wise listener and good counsel to them. We should not forget this largely unknown aspect of her service.
Her Majesty has also been a symbol of change, in the United Kingdom and Her far-flung realms and the Commonwealth.
When The Queen was born, Her grandfather George V reigned over a vast Empire. The Great War had brought about a realignment of power, the effects of which would continue to work themselves out for many decades. Communism had ignited in Russia, though not yet in China. Fascist and Nazi ideologies were growing. Nuclear bombs had not yet exploded. In the year of her birth, John Logie Baird demonstrated the potential of television for the first time. The Internet and the BlackBerry were not even dreams – or bad nightmares. Our democratic freedoms were not yet complete. Women did not all have the vote in Great Britain until the equal franchise in 1928. The UK was a country of deference and hierarchy. Debutantes were still presented at court. Except for the bishops, the House of Lords was entirely hereditary. While clever boys and girls might win scholarships to grammar schools, only a tiny percentage of the population went to university.
The Queen has lived through a period of enormous social change. But She has not just lived through it, She has reflected and, in part, moulded it, changing the style of her court, opening it up to democratic scrutiny, making the monarchy and royal family more accessible, running the royal family’s finances in a new way.
Overseas, The Queen’s role has also changed and evolved. In this congregation today, there are Ambassadors and diplomats from the Queen’s other realms, and they know better than I how carefully and successfully The Queen has played her hand as Queen of Australia, or Queen of New Zealand and so on. The Queen’s love of all Her realms and of the Commonwealth, of which She is the proud Head, is well known. She has travelled extensively across the Commonwealth, building up its principles of “friendship, loyalty, and the desire for freedom and peace”. In Ireland, in Germany and elsewhere, The Queen has made hugely significant gestures of reconciliation. Her Majesty is some part of the glue keeping the international system together.
In Her first televised Christmas message of 1957, The Queen commented that, “It is inevitable that I should seem a rather remote figure to many of you – a successor to the kings and queens of history; someone whose face may be familiar in newspapers and film but who never really touches your lives”. Despite that characteristic modesty, in the nearly sixty years since that broadcast, The Queen has managed to touch many, many lives.
Those of you with access to the BBC will know that it has run a wonderful series of programmes, talking to people up and down Great Britain and Northern Ireland who have met the Queen and have stories to share. In this congregation today, some of you, I know, have also met The Queen. I hope you will share your stories later in the churchyard.
Those of you who care about such things will know that my formal title is not British Ambassador, but “Her Majesty’s Ambassador” etc etc. We represent Her and Her Government overseas, and we are appointed under commission from Her.
Well, titles are largely fripperies and don’t matter very much. But the most exciting – for me – aspect of the title I hold is that The Queen expects to meet all of Her new ambassadors in private audience before She sends us off to foreign lands, at an ancient ceremony called ‘the kissing of hands’.
As a boy I was brought up in a small, rural Yorkshire village, and I was reflecting on that on the day I went to kiss Her Majesty’s hands at Buckingham Palace. It was an amazing experience. We were driven by limousine into the palace’s inner courtyard, past the crowds who were gathering for a separate investiture ceremony, being conducted by Prince William. And we were greeted by an equerry, who moved us from waiting-room to waiting-room, briefing us about the correct protocol, until finally we knew we were close to Her Majesty because one of us tripped up over one of Her corgis.
We are not supposed to reveal the details of our conversations with The Queen and I don’t propose to break that laudable convention. But I will say this: that I was enormously taken by Her presence – not in the sense that I was meeting someone grand and majestic, though I was, but in the sense that throughout the audience She was intensely present to me and my three colleagues, as She talked to us each in turn. She had done this hundreds of times before. But She was interested in us, well briefed about us, and attentive to us. She made us feel at the centre of Her life that day. It was an enormously generous lesson in the difficult art of being immediately accessible, immediately present to a complete stranger. It’s a rare skill to have, and one which, in part, explains The Queen’s great popularity.
This is an address, not a sermon. But I want to close on a quiet and reflective note. In the readings we have heard today and in the psalm we have sung, we have been encouraged to reflect on kingship and faith.
The anointing of King Solomon by Zadok the Priest and Nathan the Prophet on the instruction of the old king, David.
The king’s psalm of praise to the God of blessing and of our salvation.
Christ’s careful, but teasing words about the things of God and the things of the Emperor.
And the Epistle to the Ephesians, which has been chosen to hint gently at The Queen’s faith.
In her coronation oath, Her Majesty promised ‘to the utmost of Her power [to] maintain the Laws of God and the true profession of the Gospel’. From her gentle and ecumenical Christmas addresses to her peoples, and in what we know of how She seeks to lead Her life, it is clear that She has placed that promise, and that faith at the centre of Her view of monarchy.
This, I think, is Her Majesty’s greatest service to us all.
Vivat Regina. Ζήτω η Βασίλισσα. Long Live the Queen.
Given at Athens, Sunday 5 June 2016
In the presence of the Lord Mayor of London, the UK Minister of Shipping, the Australian Ambassador to Greece, the New Zealand Honorary Consul and a large congregation