October 28, 2021

I’ve met the Queen twice. Once in a cathedral and another time in her garden. I say ‘met’, though neither encounter constitutes what could normally be described as meeting someone. We shook hands in a line-up, all of us dressed a bit funny. Both times I was too self-consciously focused on my own etiquette to use the three or four seconds of our meeting to establish any sort of connection. Remember, “Your Majesty” first, then subsequently “ma’am” which rhymes with spam not palm. I never got to the “ma’am” bit on either occasion. I bowed my head, we shook hands, she said something nice, I smiled and agreed, she smiled and moved on.

I wonder how many times she has done this? 10,000 people a year? For 69 years. Round up a bit. That’s three quarters of a million. A YouGov poll in 2018 found that 31% of the British public said that they have met or seen the Queen. By a long distance, she has been the most met monarch in history. Which is extraordinary given how shy she is. “You were so shy” Prince Philip recalled, thinking of their first meeting. She once told a friend that she was “terrified” of sitting next to strangers “in case they talk about things I’ve never heard of.” She soldiered on anyway. 

Fewer people will meet her now. Rest, withdrawal, and slight diminishments are her future. After all, she is 95. More audiences on Zoom, which she won’t like. Back to her Tupperware packed lunches and jigsaw puzzles by the fire. No more gin in the evening, on doctors orders. Her troublesome children to worry about. And now a widow. Her vulnerability only underlining once again how central she remains to this nation.

But this vulnerability has long been a characteristic of her reign. Just 5ft 4, she walks among suited and uniformed men towering over her. The only Prime Minister to ever look her directly in the eye was Margaret Thatcher. She was just 25, little more than a girl, when she acceded to the throne, and 27 when the Archbishop of Canterbury placed the responsibility of the crown upon her head. 277 million people worldwide were gathered round their small black and white television sets.

What they didn’t see was the central moment of the whole ceremony. Then the Queen was disrobed of her crimson cloak and her jewellery removed. Here she sat in a simple white dress on a wooden throne to be anointed by the Archbishop of Canterbury with holy oil, a mixture of ambergris, civet, orange flowers, roses, jasmine, cinnamon, musk and benzoin, ladled from a 12th century spoon. This is when the choir sings ‘Zadok the Priest’, its words extracted from the first Book of Kings, sung at every English coronation since 973 AD. These echoes of the Hebrew Bible are deliberate. She, like Solomon, was dedicated to God. Kings and Queens are supposed to be servants too. In Christian terms, like the servant king who emptied himself of power in order to achieve His most important work.

This bit was too raw for the cameras, the daylight of technology threatening to cheapen the magic of sanctity, to paraphrase Walter Bagehot. The monarchy, he wrote in The English Constitutionwas the “dignified” branch of power. Romantic, awesome, sublime. The government was merely “efficient” — cabinet ministers and civil servants chewing pencils and pushing paper.

Monarchy is a religious business — or else it would be nothing more than a technical constitutional necessity that sits at the intersection of money and class and power. And the essence of this religious business, the unseen holiness as it were, is a kind of vulnerability that places one’s life in the service of other people and of God. This is why all these headlines we now see about the Queen being “tired” and “exhausted” reflect something of the heart of her ministry — for that is what her role remains.

In theological terms, the crucial word is kenosis, which means self-emptying. Christ “emptied himself, taking the form of a servant” is how Paul’s letter to the people of Philippi puts it. What is being described here is a process by which the ego is set aside for the fullness of God’s love to enter into a human life. The less of me, the more of You. In this way vulnerability is regarded as the defining feature of precisely the sort of holiness that was there in that moment of the Queen’s anointing. A ‘tired” Queen is an exemplification of just this sort of kenotic servant monarchy. In other words, a “tired” Queen is the perfect sacrificial embodiment of what a monarch should be. And demonstrates why the well-being centred virtue-signalling showiness of some of her relatives is such a grotesque parody of the role.

But to put this in more secular terms, vulnerability is the means of connection between people. Our vulnerability is how we are open to the other and the other is open to us. Which is why — and I don’t think I am just imagining this — the present vulnerability of the Queen is establishing a renewed kind of intimacy between the Queen and her subjects. Given the formality within which she is encased, it is entirely inappropriate to say this  but I want to give her a hug. We don’t need the handshakes or the curious peering into a familiar woman’s face to try and work out what is going on behind all that well-rehearsed small talk. The more vulnerable she becomes, the more human, and so also the more fully a Queen in the theological sense.

Such public defencelessness is rare, at least in leaders. The last one I can remember achieving anything like this was Pope John Paul II. His last few years — and these may well be the last few years of the Queen’s life — were marked by a reduced physical capacity, while at the same time he became a more intense version of what he was called to be. To be a Pope is partly to perform a certain function. But when ill health robbed him of the ability to perform that function, all the job description utilitarian bits of being Pope dropped away and his, as it were, symbolic role was more fully exposed.

A tired dying Pope turned out to be a beautiful example of what a Pope should be. In his pain, and specifically in the dignity of his final years, he expressed a kind of solidarity with the suffering of the world. That, in turn, modelled the solidarity of God with human beings as expressed in the final hours of Jesus, a king, a man crowned with thorns. In this vulnerability, he became most fully the Pope as saint.

Thankfully, the Queen is not yet this ill. But she is 95 and easily the longest serving monarch in history. Her Christian faith has long been a comfort to her. And this is especially evident now, in the twilight of her years. Indeed, the version of the Queen that we are now seeing is the greatest of her roles as our monarch. It is not important if she misses COP26 or other political talking shops. She is doing something much more important now.

She is showing us what human life is all about when we loosen our grip on power and status and function. Her last act may well be her finest.