The Queue

It’s perhaps one of the things we are best known for as a people, our ability to queue and our patience in doing so. Not for us the mad scramble to get on a bus that you can experience elsewhere, nor the sharp elbows often experienced as pilgrims battle with each other on the precarious steps down into the Grotto of the Nativity at Bethlehem. However long the queue is we are willing to join it and respect each others place in it. The death of Diana, Princess of Wales, is memorable for the openly expressed grief on the streets, the mountains of flowers, the vigils outside Kensington Palace. We will probably remember the queue when we look back on the ten days of mourning for Her Late Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. As someone who embodied so much of what it means to be British it is perhaps fitting that such a British part of life should characterise our mourning.

Thursday morning

Let me say up front that I haven’t joined the queue. Having had the privilege of meeting the Queen in life and having opportunities to show my respect and express my gratitude in so many ways, at the altar and from the pulpit as well as in front of a variety of microphones, I haven’t felt the need to take a place in the line that someone else could take. Instead I have witnessed this phenomenon from the Deanery and the Cathedral. The queue makes its way past both and has become a feature of our life from Wednesday onwards.

As the Queen’s coffin made its way from Buckingham Palace to Westminster Hall we wondered when the queue would reach the Cathedral. It arrived by tea time and at first was quite slow in lengthening. But in subsequent days it has got longer and longer, stretching down to Southwark Park until capacity was reached and the queue time was estimated at a staggering 24 hours.

Friday morning

Opening my curtains each morning has been deeply moving, a slow flow of people alongside the gently flowing Thames, people who had been out all night, facing the cold, the agony that comes with standing, the self imposed privations. Looking out and walking alongside the queue and stopping to talk to people as I have gone backwards and forwards along Bankside this is not a single demographic that is making up the queue, not simply older people with time on their hands and long memories. There really is a representative group of people in line, young as well as old, children, people from numerous ethnic backgrounds, people from around the world. Some folk you talk to have just come from another pat of London but others have travelled from the far reaches of the country to be here, to be in the queue, to pay their respects. There isn’t a feeling, not a sense, of grief, though may people have expressed their sadness. Instead what people seem to be describing is thankfulness, gratitude and a desire to somehow express all of that.

Saturday morning

I’m not the first to describe this queue as in many ways a pilgrimage. People are there not just for the goal, Westminster Hall, and the sight of the catafalque and the coffin, the order, the dignity, the simple grandeur of the place, but also for the journey. There is something about the cost of the journey that seems to match the offering that the Queen made over her long reign, that the asceticism is part of the offering. We are queuers but we are also pilgrims, by heart and nature, by desire and inclination, whether the goal of the journey is the sacred turf of Wembley or where the shrine stood in Canterbury. I don’t think it is too much of an exaggeration to say that the pathway alongside the Thames through Southwark has become something of a ‘Camino’, a way, almost a sacred way. Like all pilgrims, those who Chaucer chronicles in ‘Canterbury Tales’, the lone walkers on the Camino to Santiago de Compostela who find themselves with new companions, friendships are made and stories are shared, new community is established. In a place where so much pilgrimage has begun, where pilgrims have passed through for generations, it is good that Southwark has been able to play, once again, its historic and God-given role – after all, even on the arms of Southwark Borough Council there is the figure of a pilgrim. This is in our community DNA and this, the latest iteration of it.

Isaac Watts wrote a beautiful hymn which always gives me joy to sing ‘Give us the wings of faith’. The final verse is this.

Our glorious Leader claims our praise
for his own pattern given;
while the long cloud of witnesses
show the same path to heaven.

‘The long cloud of witnesses’, this queue which will live on in the lives and memories not just of those who have joined it, and waked the path, but of all of us who have, with respect and a sense of humility, witnessed it, is one of the greatest tributes ever made. I simply want to say thank you to those who with quiet dignity have shown us such a powerful way to bear witness and express in the sight of the world just what the Queen has meant to so many of us.

Loving God, bless us as we walk the path to heaven; bless those who have made any journey of thankfulness. Amen.

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