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Dutiful, reticent, humble before God – and not a banker

2012 February 10
by Paul Vallely

The virtues for which Her Majesty the Queen has been praised this week, on the 60th anniversary of her accession to the throne, are most illuminating for being so out of tune with the manner of the age: service, commitment, discretion, loyalty, resilience and – odd though it may be to say it of a monarch – modest, and not just in her use of breakfast Tupperware. Above all there is the sense of duty, or what her own mother called “your devoir”.

This is not the occasion on which to mirror those virtues with the ingrained vices of contemporary society. But it is interesting to contrast them with the self-absorbed short-termist individualism of our times which – for all the widespread rhetorical lamentation – shows no sign of going away. This week we had Sir David Higgins, the chief executive of the partly-public Network Rail, announce he would waive a possible £340,000 bonus this year. But it is not one-year waivers we need so much as a reformation of culture.

What the Queen shows is that the ideal of public service is not so much old-fashioned as timeless.  The “culture of responsibility” which the Labour leader Ed Miliband appealed is not something that needs to be re-invented so much as re-discovered. And there is the Queen as the embodiment of it.

The Bishop of Norwich, the Rt Revd Graham James, had an interesting reflection on that in Thought for the Day on Monday, the actual anniversary of the day on which the 26-year-old princess discovered, far away in Kenya, that she had become Sovereign. He referred to the criticisms that were made in 1955 of the young Queen’s lack of modernity by the controversialist journalist John Grigg, then Lord Altrincham.

Criticising the young Queen’s speeches he said that “the personality conveyed by the utterances which are put into her mouth is that of a priggish schoolgirl captain of the hockey team”.  Lord Altrincham wanted less of the reticence and restraint the nation has so come to value and more of the “feelings and passion” which have come to plague our self-indulgent times.

The young Queen took no notice but instead stuck to the vow in which she offered in a broadcast to the people of the Commonwealth. “My whole life,” she said, “whether it be long or short, shall be devoted to your service and the service of our great imperial family.”

The empire may have passed away, but – as the Queen becomes the second longest-serving monarch in British history after Victoria – the service has not. It has taken immense strength of character which has weathered difficulties including her self-proclaimed “annus horribilis” of 1992 and the death of her daughter-in-law in 1997 when not just the monarch but the monarchy seemed momentarily to wobble.

One of the themes which has emerged – quietly but persistently in recent days, as those who know the monarch personally have paid their understated tributes to the media – has been the extent to which her faith has underpinned that sense of service. Hers is a sacramental role; apart from the Pope she is the only Christian monarch who has been anointed to her task. But that faith is not ceremonial but deep and personal.

There is a theology to that, as the bishop pointed out in his Thought. He referred to something of which I had never heard, the Christian “the doctrine of reserve” which insists that our deepest beliefs should not be aired lightly or loosely in a setting which would not allow justice to be done to their profundity. It is not to do with secrecy but appropriateness and honour, which is why the Queen tends to air the subject only once a year in her increasingly personal Christmas messages. To those other virtues we should add humility before God. She will be a hard act to follow.

Church Times

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