It’s now a week since the death was announced of Her Majesty the Queen, and since then, many millions of words have been written about her life, mostly by people far better qualified to do so than me, so I was slightly taken aback when I was invited to contribute ‘a remembrance’ at the University of Edinburgh’s Service of Commemoration at the McEwan Hall.
The Chaplaincy at the UofE was one of the first consciously to brand itself as being ‘for people of all faiths and none’, and it’s regarded as an exemplar in its field. Under the leadership of Dr. Harriet Harris MBE, it has become known as a listening place for both staff and students who want to touch base on their concerns or anxieties, or are looking for a timely or purposeful conversation.
The ceremony truly was ‘a multi-faith & belief event’.
After some opening words and a prayer from Harriet, we all sang The Lord’s My Shepherd’. Then, after some lovely singing, both choral and solo, we heard prayers or readings from the representatives of many faiths; Anglican, Jewish, Sikh, Bahai’i, Methodist, the Edinburgh Chinese Christian Church Fellowship and of course, the Church of Scotland. Very appropriately, the ‘Moment of Silence’ was led by the Honorary Buddhist Chaplain, Ani Rinchen Khandro.
In case you’re wondering, this is what I said.
“The second Elizabethan Age is over, and it’s hard to know what to say this evening about her Majesty the Queen. Since her death, literally millions of words have already been written about her but for me, Jeanette Winterson said it best.
“Queen Elizabeth II was an icon, and it doesn’t matter how much of that was projection. She was the embodiment of our connection with history – history as a lived and living past, a rope slung across time.”
Like her namesake and predecessor, Elizabeth the Second of England – and let’s not forget, the First of Scotland – came to the throne very young and ruled far longer than anyone could have imagined. At the age of just 21, she said, “My whole life, whether it be short or long, will be devoted to your service.” Through seventy years of profound social change, she kept her word.
45 years ago, in the quatrain he wrote for her Silver Jubilee, Philip Larkin got it right.
In times when nothing stood
But worsened, or grew strange,
There was one constant good:
She did not change.
The United Kingdom was a largely religious country when Elizabeth was pronounced Queen “by the Grace of God”. During her reign, it became a predominantly secular one, but despite her own deep religious conviction, she kept her promise to “respect and value all people of whatever faith and none,” and where others aimed to divide, she sought to bring peace and reconciliation. I believe we can all be grateful for that.
I would like to end – as Winterson did – by quoting a speech made more than 400 years ago by the first Queen Elizabeth as she approached the end of her own life.
“It is not my desire to live or reign longer than my life and reign shall be for your good. And though you have had, and may have, many mightier and wiser princes sitting in this seat, yet you never had, nor shall have, any that will love you better.”
Those words are as fitting an epitaph for a queen now as ever they were. Requiescat in pace.”
This evening, I and my colleagues were sent an email by someone who had attended which said,
“I heard such a lovely comment today from a student who was there that for the first time he felt he was part of something greater, and something good that represented the very best of what Edinburgh offered.
And although it was a sad occasion, he felt uplifted because of the kindness of people around him.“
I am sure that anonymous student was not alone in feeling that; I am just glad that he did, and that he was so touched by ‘the kindness of the people around him’.