A REFLECTION FROM DEAN THOMASON
A Queen and the Project of Democracy
In the days since Queen Elizabeth died, I have received several inquiries about what we at Saint Mark’s Cathedral planned to do. Some had an expressed need for formal ritual to honor this woman of remarkable grace and fidelity to her role; others found it troubling that a monarch who epitomized the colonialist structures of a fading empire would be regarded at all. I will admit being a bit amused by the machinations other cathedrals and churches undertook to have special services, watch parties, and the like.
For our part, we split the difference: we commended her in our prayers on Sunday morning September 11, while the Compline Choir devoted parts of the service of compline that evening to special intentions for the Queen. It felt like a Via Media approach worthy of our Anglican heritage.
I am no royalist, but I fervently believe we pray for those who have died, as we did for Elizabeth, using her full name, Elizabeth Mountbatten-Windsor, as we did for her husband Philip last year. Her name was read alongside others’ names—in our baptismal and resurrection theology, no one person is more important than others. We buried my sister-in-law on September 8, the same day Elizabeth died, and I was preparing for a parishioner’s funeral at Saint Mark’s two days later. These others were no less important to observe than a queen’s.
But the energy given this particular queen’s death amidst the pomp and circumstance of royal customs surrounding her funeral provides an opportunity to reflect on what is really involved for us as we gaze upon the ritual from a distance—from a country that fought a war to separate ourselves from this imperial throne. We can have it both ways (independent yet with bonds of affection), but we should give considerable thought to what it is in this moment that draws us into this queen’s orbit.
Rowan Williams offers a fine reflection on the ways her life and work as monarch were sacramental, grace-filled and faithfully exercised. The invitation is to see not just Queen Elizabeth’s life in that light, but how we might see ours alongside such an invocation of the Spirit to speak into our lives as faithful enterprise.
Serge Schmemann wrote an opinion piece in the September 11 issue of the New York Times: “To function in an otherwise normal democracy, a hereditary monarchy requires that the citizenry accept a bit of fiction — namely that one family, standing above politics, can represent the nation and its values.” What is it about royalty that captures our imagination, and why?
And Hari Kunzru wrote in the same issue: “the British elite have always understood that the monarchy is a screen onto which the people project their own fantasies.” What does that mean for us as Americans?
There are 56 countries in the British Commonwealth; 14 of those are constitutional monarchies (including Canada) who will now replace their queen’s image from their currency with their new king’s. There is already talk about which of those nations may choose this time of transition to reflect on what has been, and how they may orient to a different polity. I pray that work is guided primarily by principles of justice for all their citizens. To be sure, we have work to do in this regard as well.
None of us choose the family into which we are born. Elizabeth was born wealthy, and when called upon to serve as queen, she did so with courage and commitment to her people. She did not seek the throne. I believe history will account for her effort as one of faithful devotion in which she sacrificed her ego in the cause of service to her society. And perhaps that is the image worthy of emulation—servant to the larger project of democracy, just society, and the common good. May we have the grace and courage to be such servants here and now.
Blessings and peace,
The Very Reverend Steven L. Thomason
Dean and Rector