Grief, love, hope and faith

Gordon Giles, Canon Chancellor of Rochester Cathedral, editor of New Daylight, and author of At Home in Advent and At Home in Lent, reflects on the death of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.

18 September 2022

Hope eternal

The death of Her Majesty the Queen on 8 September (the Feast of the Birth of the Blessed Virgin Mary) brings the longest reign of a sovereign and its accompanying era to a sudden, if not unexpected, end. Our prayers are with the Royal Family at this time of loss, tinged as it is with the instantaneous awareness of the accession of a new king, Charles III.

The death of a monarch is a unique event and never more so than currently – 91% of the world’s population have known no other sovereign on the British throne. So even if we can remember the last occasion, the world has changed and handles such an event differently now compared to 1952 – when we had not conceived of the internet. Twenty-four-hour broadcasting, commentary and global interest shine a light into every corner of grief, love, hope and faith. The Queen’s death is not only historic but international.

Changes may come, but at this time we look back, we mourn, we pray for the bereaved and we give thanks. We give thanks to God for Queen Elizabeth II’s life and service, and we celebrate the Christian faith which underpinned her thoughts, words and actions. For it is in her faith, our love and ultimately through our grief that we rejoice in the eternal hope which she shared.

‘It is in her faith, our love and ultimately through our grief that we rejoice in the eternal hope which she shared.’

Our private griefs revived

After the horrors of 9/11 it was the late Queen Elizabeth II herself who reminded us that love and grief are inextricably connected, quoting Colin Murray Parkes who said: ‘The pain of grief is just as much a part of life as the joy of love; it is, perhaps, the price we pay for love, the cost of commitment.’ Yet no matter how technological, global or even indifferent our nations may have seemed to become, these basic emotions do not change. There is genuine grief at the death of Her Majesty, because there has been genuine love. So wherever there is a level of love, there is a gradient of grief.

Some of that grief is focused not only on her, but on ourselves: we grieve what we have loved and lost in a beloved public figure and all she represented, believed and did, but our private griefs are also revived. These present times are disorientating for us all, combined as they are with climate crisis, war in Ukraine, post-Covid recovery and financial fears. It may feel that we have recently lost far more than our queen as her era ends.

‘Wherever there is a level of love, there is a gradient of grief.’

Her life had begun as the daughter of the brother to the heir to the throne, and with the British people she endured bombing raids during World War II, before losing her father at a relatively young age, not being at his side when he died. Just as King Charles III does now, she had to combine personal grief with immediate, time-consuming duties and appointments, as well as being thrown into a new limelight.

An example for years to come

In looking back so soon over so long a time, there is much to celebrate, and cause for great prayer and thanksgiving, not simply for her long reign over us but for 70 years of service. The Queen’s service to our nation and others, in state, charity work, diplomacy, Commonwealth support, and by being a fixed point in an ever-changing world, is something not to overlook or take for granted.

She not only held the title of Defender of the Faith and Supreme Governor of the Church of England, it is palpably clear that she took her sovereignty as a vocation: a calling to serve and lead. Independent of the nature of monarchy, and the various viewpoints people express, Queen Elizabeth II was a remarkable woman of faith, an example to so many, whose service and commitment is worthy of thanksgiving for years to come.

‘It is palpably clear that she took her sovereignty as a vocation: a calling to serve and lead.’

Queen Elizabeth II gave her allegiance to God before anyone gave allegiance to her. Her son King Charles has done likewise. She spoke to us of faith every Christmas, as he will likely do. Sometimes her words were worthy of a sermon. On Christmas Day 2011, she said:

God sent into the world a unique person – neither a philosopher nor a general, important though they are, but a Saviour, with the power to forgive. Forgiveness lies at the heart of the Christian faith. It can heal broken families, it can restore friendships and it can reconcile divided communities. It is in forgiveness that we feel the power of God’s love.

On 5 April 2020, Palm Sunday, in a broadcast addressing the global impact of the coronavirus pandemic, the Queen made reference to her first broadcast, made in 1940, helped by her sister, Princess Margaret. As children, they spoke from Windsor Castle to children who had been evacuated from their homes for their own safety. She drew parallels between the enforced separation of evacuees and their families and the costly separations we all experienced during lockdown. She concluded her message of support and encouragement with words from Dame Vera Lynn’s song ‘We’ll Meet Again’, which, popular as it is, also resonates with the ultimate Christian hope in which a third of the world puts its trust.

‘My inner light’

A week later, aged 93, the Queen gave her first ever Easter broadcast, telling the nation and Commonwealth that ‘We need Easter as much as ever,’ and she spoke of lighting candles: ‘As dark as death can be – particularly for those suffering with grief – light and life are greater.’ We are reminded of Christ as ‘the life (and) the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it’ (John 1:3b–5). These well-chosen, caring and insightful words of comfort, joy and encouragement, were grounded in her faith in Jesus Christ.

The following Christmas, she said to a nation deprived of ‘normal’ gatherings:

The teachings of Christ have served as my inner light, as has the sense of purpose we can find in coming together to worship.

At this time, coming together to worship is something that many are doing. From cathedrals to village churches and school halls, or watching on television, people want not only to mark this historical moment but also to be part of it. Her funeral will be broadcast on television worldwide and we are all invited to the act of worship that every Christian funeral is. It will be a live broadcast of an event that marks her passing from earthly life, through the gate of death to eternal resurrection life, opened up to us all in the death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ:

Listen, I will tell you a mystery! We will not all die, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed.

1 Corinthians 15:51–52

A beautiful, miraculous gift

Trumpets acclaimed the new king, Charles III, and they remind us of glory, honour and majesty, heralding a new monarch, but they also point us to our heavenly king, in whose heavenly presence trumpets sound, ushering in a new realm (Revelation 8—11).

Yet the trumpets are also the last trumpets, reminding us of the universal call to repentance, judgement and redemption. Something in ourselves dies with the changing of the monarch, so we do well to guard our faith, hold on to hope and love more deeply.

‘Something in ourselves dies with the changing of the monarch, so we do well to guard our faith, hold on to hope and love more deeply.’

For, to God, a thousand ages in his sight are as an evening gone, as the hymn ‘O God our help in ages past’, based on Psalm 90, puts it. God is the one who surveys the whole of history, in whom all our pasts, presents and futures combine, but are dwarfed by eternal hope and love. Our sins are before God, and the length of our days momentary in the great scheme of things. Yet God creates us, loves us and sustains us, meeting the horizontal plane of our history, with the vertical line of his story, the brief span of divine life among us that is offered and fulfilled in the life, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Such is our life, and that of Her Late Majesty Queen Elizabeth: bound to the cross of Christ, and it is a beautiful, miraculous gift.

Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.

Luke 1:29–32

Gordon Giles is Canon Chancellor of Rochester Cathedral. He is the editor of New Daylight and the author of several books, including At Home in Advent, At Home in Lent and the forthcoming At Home and Out and About.

If you have appreciated this reflection, you might be in interested in Gordon’s earlier articles Arks of lockdown and Easter people in lockdown.

At times of grief and loss

Following the death of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, the BRF ministry teams have produced suggestions and ideas for churches and individuals to use.