Preached at Liverpool Cathedral on Sunday February 6, 2022; the seventieth anniversary of the Accession of Queen Elizabeth II to the throne.
A reading from the First Letter of St Peter
Beloved, I urge you as aliens and exiles to abstain from the desires of the flesh that wage war against the soul. Conduct yourselves honourably among the Gentiles, so that, though they malign you as evildoers, they may see your honourable deeds and glorify God when he comes to judge.
For the Lord’s sake accept the authority of every human institution, whether of the emperor as supreme, or of governors, as sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to praise those who do right. For it is God’s will that by doing right you should silence the ignorance of the foolish. As servants of God, live as free people, yet do not use your freedom as a pretext for evil. Honour everyone. Love the family of believers. Fear God. Honour the emperor.
The gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ according to Matthew
So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, ‘Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?’ But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, ‘Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin used for the tax.’ And they brought him a denarius. Then he said to them, ‘Whose head is this, and whose title?’ They answered, ‘The emperor’s.’ Then he said to them, ‘Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.’ When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.
The words of St Peter: Honour the emperor.
And the words of Jesus: Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.
I was consecrated bishop in 2010. At the consecration service, Letters Patent from the monarch are read, giving authority to the Archbishop and the the bishops present to perform the consecration. In 2010 at the end of the Letters Patent the text was read out: “Given at Westminster under our hand, this 21st day of September in the year of our Lord two thousand and ten, and in the fifty-eighth year of our reign.”
I remember being deeply moved at such a life lived, so many years of service, such a richness of memories all contained in that number.
If a bishop were to be consecrated tomorrow the Letters Patent would say “Given at Westminster under our hand, this 7th day of February in the year of our Lord two thousand and twenty-two, and in the seventy-first year of our reign.” What was moving then is astonishing now.
In the midst of a culture where it can seem that yesterday is disposable, and where it seems truth and integrity and memory are honoured less and less, we remember today a different way of being.
We enter today into an uncharted territory of faithfulness and of perseverance in service, a weight of commitment to set against the trivialities and the lies of our day. We enter a platinum year. The year is well named.
Platinum is rare. It is the rarest and the most ductile and the weightiest of the noble metals. Every year, approximately 1,500 tonnes of gold is mined, in comparison to just 160 tonnes of platinum. A platinum rod 10 cm long and 1 cm in diameter can be drawn into a wire at least 2750 km long, further than the distance from Liverpool to Athens. A six-inch cube of platinum weighs as much as an average human being.
To be classified as noble a metal needs to be at once resistant to reaction, and a good catalyst. You might sum that up as the role of a monarch in a constitutional monarchy. Above the fray, and yet exercising “the right to be consulted, the right to encourage, the right to warn”.
To have lived for seventy years in that role – receiving the projections of so many people, facing endless demands to speak out and resisting them, embodying a continuity of value, manifesting a way of life that aims to speak of what matters – this is the achievement we celebrate today.
On her 21st birthday, in 1947 in South Africa, the present Queen suggested that we were all called to bring good to the world and then, in words which she herself has re-emphasised today, she said that to do this:
“…we must give nothing less than the whole of ourselves. There is a motto which has been borne by many of my ancestors – a noble motto, “I serve”. Those words were an inspiration to many bygone heirs to the Throne when they made their knightly dedication as they came to manhood. I cannot do quite as they did.
But through the inventions of science I can do what was not possible for any of them. I can make my solemn act of dedication with a whole Empire listening. I should like to make that dedication now. It is very simple. I declare before you all that my whole life whether it be long or short shall be devoted to your service…
I have never heard anyone, not even the most vehement republican, deny that this is exactly what the Queen has done, as a Princess after that speech for five years and then as Queen for seventy more. With the utmost restraint and discretion. With focused and single-minded dedication in this marathon reign. Through good and, yes, pretty bad times too for her family and for the nation. It has been a platinum commitment.
It has been my privilege, as it is the privilege of all Diocesan bishops at least once in their time, to enjoy Her Majesty’s hospitality in Sandringham and to preach in the church there. In speaking to her I mentioned King George V, her grandfather, and his love for the simplicity of York Cottage in the Sandringham grounds. “Yes”, she said, and then reflected and added, “He was always very good to me”. She was speaking of a man who died in 1936.
That is what I mean by continuity – a store of memories almost spanning the century, held with reticence and reserve, bringing a catalytic strength to the unimaginable changes of the last eighty years. We live in a world which George V would have found incomprehensible, but he would have recognised in his grand-daughter the continuity of a way of being, bringing precisely that weight and flexibility and humanity which our constitution invests in its monarch.
All these are reasons, in St Peter’s words, to honour the emperor. But unlike St Peter’s day, although it may sometimes seem that we worship celebrity as if it’s divine, we do not worship the monarch today. When Jesus says “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s”, his words find resonance with the life of this woman whose accession we celebrate.
In 1952 in her first Christmas broadcast, made before I was born (I’m 68; an Elizabethan baby), looking forward to the Coronation, she said this:
“I want to ask you all, whatever your religion may be, to pray for me on that day – to pray that God may give me wisdom and strength to carry out the solemn promises I shall be making, and that I may faithfully serve Him and you, all the days of my life.
And at Christmas 2011 she said this:
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.
It is my prayer that on this Christmas day we might all find room in our lives for the message of the angels and for the love of God through Christ our Lord.
And seven weeks ago, in her most recent Christmas broadcast, she spoke of the Christmas story:
…simple happenings that formed the starting point of the life of Jesus — a man whose teachings have been handed down from generation to generation, and have been the bedrock of my faith.
We rightly say about the monarch in a constitutional monarchy that she is above the fray. In politics, in opinion, in controversy, the Queen’s discretion is absolute. But on one thing she is absolutely clear. She is a woman of faith. In a nation where faith is often contended and sometimes despised, she makes no excuse for her own faith, and she does not hide it. On the contrary it is giving to God the things that are God’s which constitute the engine of her devotion to service.
So as she begins her eighth decade as our monarch, we who are people of faith thank God for that and we pray for her still, as the Bible asks us to do. And I think too that this morning each of us who are people of faith has a lesson to learn again, in this plural England, in this United Kingdom, in this Commonwealth of nations. To be strongly and distinctively who we are, and also to hold an inclusive spirit and an allegiance to God held lightly, but boldly and without fear.
As well as being a rare and noble metal, platinum has its uses. It is essential to the process of reducing pollution through its use in the catalytic converters of modern cars. It is an essential component in heart pacemakers. Cleaning the air of the public square and sustaining the heartbeat of our togetherness – these are among the tasks of the monarch, to be discharged not in the making of heated speeches, but in the living of a quiet life in the crucible of an overheated culture. We celebrate this long life lived, and we honour her.
And together with her we lift our eyes further, and we look in the end to God alone, to God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Ghost, to whom be ascribed as is most justly due, all might, majesty, dominion and power, henceforth and for evermore. Amen.