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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The photo album

My parents have a number of photograph albums at home. They date from the time when on family occasions or on holiday the camera would emerge, a film would be put in and a few snaps taken. It was the days when you took the finished film along to the chemist and then waited with huge anticipation for the day when you would collect the packet of prints and with trembling hands see what you had taken. Mum would look through them first – ‘I’m ripping that one up’ she would regularly say. ‘Let us see it first’ we’d plead – but no. She didn’t like how she looked in it! Then there were the under exposed and over exposed pictures; the ones taken, by mistake one assumes, of feet. But amongst them were a few worthy of being mounted in the photo album, with its back paper pages. Mum would write in white ink so that we would remember, where and when – ‘Cromer 1968’, ‘Andrew’s baptism September 1957’, ‘Jane and Stuart’s wedding 1981’.

That's me in the middle, as a shepherd, when I was in Primary School

That’s me in the middle, as a shepherd, when I was in Primary School

We sometimes take the photo album out and flick through the pages and the pictures. It reminds me of what Dylan Thomas says in ‘Under Milk Wood’ where he describes photographs as

‘the yellowing dickybird-watching
pictures of the dead.’

It’s a book of memories, a book of the past and often an uncomfortable experience as you look at what they record. ‘I was slimmer then’, ‘I thought I looked so good in that!’, ‘Don’t I look like grandpa did then’, ‘What did I think I was doing?’

Now we have a camera in every device we carry with us. We snap interesting and uninteresting things and it eats up the memory on our phone or computer. We Instagram pictures, post them on Facebook, use them to illustrate our Tweets. I have thousands of pictures I never look at, I don’t print them out and give them the recognition that comes in putting them into a special book because they are special pictures. Our family photo album ends when we got a digital camera and I suppose this computer on which I write is my album and the Cloud is where I store them.

Unless I make them public my pictures are private. Clergy live semi-public lives, of course, but, generally, we are not of sufficient interest to people for our own pictures to become the object of interest. And I’m glad about that. I wouldn’t want all of my photos to be public – some of them are frankly embarrassing. I look dreadful with long hair in my flared trousers – it’s bad enough seeing myself but I don’t want others to see it. Well meaning aunts and uncles make us do ridiculous things in front of the camera, its not only the family cat who might be dressed up for a ‘funny picture’ we do it to each other as well. But no one sees my mistakes or my ridiculousness.

Of course, for those who live out their lives with the public looking on there is no place to hide. Everything they say and do can be picked over, analysed and criticised. That, I suppose, is part of the price of celebrity.

One of the joys of this summer so far was to be invited to a Garden Party at Buckingham Palace. As the day approached I watched the weather forecast on my phone change from rain to sun, and as we queued to be admitted to the Palace and its garden the sun shone on the wonderful cross section of our society invited that afternoon to take tea with the Queen.

We stood on the lawn, enjoying good sandwiches, cake and a delicious cup of tea. Then the moment arrived and Her Majesty The Queen with the Duke of Edinburgh and other members of the Royal Family emerged onto the terrace and we sang the National Anthem. The emotion of that moved me. Ok, I admit, I am a royalist. But in that moment I was simply immensely proud of who we are as a people and enormously grateful to the Queen for her personal leadership of us and the exemplary leadership she has given as a Christian.

It is a great year as we approach the day, in just a few weeks time, when Her Majesty becomes our longest serving monarch. I am glad to be a ‘new-Elizabethan’ and proud that she is my Queen.

The joy of welcoming Her Majesty The Queen to Southwark Cathedral

The joy of welcoming Her Majesty The Queen to Southwark Cathedral

So what do I make of the front cover of The Sun this weekend and that picture of the young princesses and what appear to be Nazi salutes? We live in a society with a free press and I give thanks for that. We rely upon the press for pressing for the truth; in days when it looks like Freedom of Information legislation might be under attack from those for whom it has proved to be inconvenient.

Who knows what was happening when that home movie was made; who knows what it all meant, what Uncle David had asked them to do? All I know is that through the war the Royal Family gave united and wonderful leadership to the nation; all I know is that for all these years the Queen has been a magnificent Head of State and represented the United Kingdom in a way that has captured the hearts and loyalty of people around the world, even amongst those not her Subjects. All I know is that as she stood on the terrace of the Palace and as she stood in the nave of Southwark Cathedral it was a privilege to sing ‘God save the Queen’ and a privilege to offer that prayer day by day.

And I thank God that no one digs through my own photo album for a photo of ‘public interest’.

This is one of the prayers for Her Majesty The Queen in the Book of Common Prayer and I offer it with thanksgiving.

O Lord, our heavenly Father, high and mighty, King of kings, Lord of lords, the only Ruler of princes, who dost from thy throne behold all the dwellers upon earth: Most heartily we beseech thee with thy favour to behold our most gracious Sovereign Lady, Queen ELIZABETH; and so replenish her with the grace of thy Holy Spirit, that she may alway incline to thy will, and walk in thy way. Endue her plenteously with heavenly gifts; grant her in health and wealth long to live; strengthen her that she may vanquish and overcome all her enemies; and finally after this life she may attain everlasting joy and felicity; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

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