What motivates hundreds of thousands of people of all ages, backgrounds and beliefs to travel to London, queue for hours and pass briefly by the coffin of her late Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Second?
Many answers to that question have been suggested over the past few days:
- grief at the loss of the one who has been uniquely and publicly constant in our lives for longer than most of us can remember
- gratitude for the Queen’s integrity, selflessness and devotion to duty
- the desire to be part of something bigger than ourselves, a moment in history to be treasured and passed on to subsequent generations; we are not going to see so long a reign, encompassing so much social change, nor a Queen as Head of State, any time soon
- the unifying effect of a shared emotional experience which enables us to lay aside (at least for a time) the things that divide us
- perhaps also the transference on to the Queen of some of our personal griefs, which may have lain dormant
- a wave of emotion fanned by overwhelming media attention and focus: specialists in the psychology of crowds have been observing with interest
There is probably some truth in all these suggestions. But there is something in what we have witnessed this week which is deeper and more significant.
This is the powerful reality of representation. In our individualistic, atomised lives we have lost conscious touch with the way representation works. But it is still there and still powerful. Think of the way people identify with a football team: when “our” team wins or loses, “we” (the fans) win or lose too, despite never having set foot on the pitch. The same holds good for many other spheres of human activity: the few act for a whole community, the one represents the many.
A monarch represents his or her people. That is, he or she in some sense sums up the nation. He or she speaks and acts for them at key moments of national significance at home and abroad. This is specially true of a constitutional monarch. A constitutional monarch is by definition above party politics, which means being above and beyond the success or failure of particular governments and particular policies. They represent the interest of the nation as a whole rather than a faction or interest group within the nation. If you’re Henry the Eighth or Ivan the Terrible, you are very likely part of the problem – perhaps even the problem; if you’re Elizabeth the Second or Charles the Third you’re above the problem.
There is a sacred dimension to monarchy. The Queen was anointed at her coronation, as King Charles will also be, as a sign of the gift of the Holy Spirit to enable her to fulfil her calling. The practice goes back to the Bible. David was anointed King of Israel, and in the power of that anointing and on his people’s behalf, he defeated Goliath: the one for the many. His victory was Israel’s victory.
Supremely, representation is the key to understanding the work of Jesus Christ. He takes upon himself the vocation of Israel. Where Israel failed in obedience to the Lord, Jesus lived out a perfect obedience on their behalf, taking that obedience all the way to death, even death on a cross. (Israel was always going to fail, and in her failure the Divine Purpose was mysteriously being worked out, pointing forward to Jesus.) Jesus represents Israel, the one for the many, and because Israel was chosen to represent the whole of humanity, he represents all of us. And he does what we cannot do, going where we cannot go, going to the cross to take our place, so that we, and the whole creation with us, can be reconciled to God and restored to wholeness.
Faced with scenes of vast numbers of people queuing to pay their respects to the Queen, seeing the perfectly-executed and spectacular ceremonial enacted these last few days, some commentators have been saying that monarchy is wonderful but irrational. The secular mind-set has no frame of reference to understand what monarchy is and how it works. But in the light of the Bible and Christian faith monarchy makes perfect sense. We have been blessed to have a Queen these last 70 years whose life and faith have been a signpost to the King of Kings.