Sermon, The Accession Platinum Jubilee St Mark’s, the Vicar, 6 February 2022

Seventy years ago this morning, King George VI died in his sleep at Sandringham. His heir presumptive, Princess Elizabeth Alexandra Mary aged just 25, acceded to the throne, on the first leg of a Commonwealth Tour the King himself was too frail to make.

In a moment I shall read part of the speech, given the following day by Winston Churchill. Today, we celebrate this long reign, and we acknowledge with the Queen and her family that it is also represents a day of memorial. It was the end of a reign which had encompassed over five long years of War. And before that an abdication crisis which had shaken the character of constitutional monarchy.

I preface what follows with a word about the Accession Service itself, which we use today, and acknowledge what a remarkable milestone today marks.

The accession service was first used in 1576 to celebrate the anniversary of the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, and used annually thereafter. One of the first acts of any reign is to reissue this service by Royal Proclamation and for it to be used annually. It remains a rather delightful appendix to the Prayer Book. And falling on a Sunday, too good an opportunity to miss. It has special readings, prayers, suffrages, and offers us the chance to hear the Te Deum, a special hymn of praise to God, dating possibly from the mid 4th c, but more likely that early 6th c. From those times it was used on feast days and special occasions.

You remember that after the death of Oliver Cromwell and the short-lived reign of his successor Richard, the nation heaved a collective sigh of relief, as to a man, woman and child they exclaimed Lord Protect us from Lord Protectors!

The question of the Crown in Parliament remains an uneasy separation or perhaps amalgam of powers. The Church is not uninterested, because it is the Archbishop who anoints and crowns the monarch and that rite underlines the sacral nature of the rule by which we are ultimately governed, and sets it apart from other political office. That rite is over 1000 years old on these shores and dates back to Byzantium and through that the anointing of King Solomon in about 970 BC.

There is a prayer of great poignancy towards the end of the Accession Service, it prays:

Give us grace seriously to lay to heart the great dangers we are in by our unhappy divisions. Take away all hatred and prejudice, and whatsoever else may hinder us from godly union and concord.

One might think, that it was composed at the time of the Restoration, although it might have served at the start of any number of reigns, Elizabeth I, James I, Charles II, William and Mary. Actually, it was composed on the accession of the first Hanoverian, George I, descendent of Charles I, through his daughter Anne of Bohemia. Regime-change, for that is what it was, is often painful. This prayer along with all those that have been used on the anniversary of successive successions is sincere and it is our prayer in solidarity with and thanksgiving for our Queen. Thank God for this last 70 years, and thank goodness that our nation’s anthem, which is really our nation’s prayer, set to music, has been answered: Happy and glorious, [she has indeed been] long to reign over us; God save the Queen.

My friends,

When the death of the King was announced to us yesterday morning there struck a deep and solemn note in our lives which, as it resounded far and wide, stilled the clatter and traffic of twentieth-century life in many lands, and made countless millions of human beings pause and look around them. A new sense of values took, for the time being, possession of human minds, and mortal existence presented itself to so many at the same moment in its serenity and in its sorrow, in its splendour and in its pain, in its fortitude and in its suffering.

The King was greatly loved by all his peoples. He was respected as a man and as a prince far beyond the many realms over which he reigned. The simple dignity of his life, his manly virtues, his sense of duty – alike as a ruler and a servant of the vast spheres and communities for which he bore responsibility – his gay charm and happy nature, his example as a husband and a father in his own family circle, his courage in peace or war – all these were aspects of his character which won the glint of admiration, now here, now there, from the innumerable eyes whose gaze falls upon the Throne.

We thought of him as a young naval lieutenant in the great Battle of Jutland. We thought of him when calmly, without ambition, or want of self-confidence, he assumed the heavy burden of the Crown and succeeded his brother whom he loved and to whom he had rendered perfect loyalty. We thought of him, so faithful in his study and discharge of State affairs; so strong in his devotion to the enduring honour of our country; so self-restrained in his judgments of men and affairs; so uplifted above the clash of party politics, yet so attentive to them; so wise and shrewd in judging between what matters and what does not.

All this we saw and admired. His conduct on the Throne may well be a model and a guide to constitutional sovereigns throughout the world today and also in future generations. The last few months of King George’s life, with all the pain and physical stresses that he endured – his life hanging by a thread from day to day, and he all the time cheerful and undaunted, stricken in body but quite undisturbed and even unaffected in spirit – these have made a profound and an enduring impression and should be a help to all.

He was sustained not only by his natural buoyancy, but by the sincerity of his Christian faith. During these last months the King walked with death as if death were a companion, an acquaintance whom he recognized and did not fear. In the end death came as a friend, and after a happy day of sunshine and sport, and after “good night” to those who loved him best, he fell asleep as every man or woman who strives to fear God and nothing else in the world may hope to do.

The nearer one stood to him the more these facts were apparent. But the newspapers and photographs of modern times have made vast numbers of his subjects able to watch with emotion the last months of his pilgrimage. We all saw him approach his journey’s end. In this period of mourning and meditation, amid our cares and toils, every home in all the realms joined together under the Crown may draw comfort for tonight and strength for the future from his bearing and his fortitude.

There was another tie between King George and his people. It was not only sorrow and affliction that they shared. Dear to the hearts and the homes of the people is the joy and pride of a united family. With this all the troubles of the world can be borne and all its ordeals at least confronted. No family in these tumultuous years was happier or loved one another more than the Royal Family around the King.

No Minister saw so much of the King during the war as I did. I made certain he was kept informed of every secret matter, and the care and thoroughness with which he mastered the immense daily flow of State papers made a deep mark on my mind.

 Let me tell you another fact. On one of the days when Buckingham Palace was bombed the King had just returned from Windsor. One side of the courtyard was struck, and if the windows opposite out of which he and the Queen were looking had not been, by the mercy of God, open, they would both have been blinded by the broken glass instead of being only hurled back by the explosion. Amid all that was then going on, although I saw the King so often, I never heard of this episode till a long time after. Their Majesties never mentioned it or thought it of more significance than a soldier in their armies would of a shell bursting near him. This seems to me to be a revealing trait in the royal character.

 There is no doubt that of all the institutions which have grown up among us over the centuries, or sprung into being in our lifetime, the constitutional monarchy is the most deeply founded and dearly cherished by the whole association of our peoples. In the present generation it has acquired a meaning incomparably more powerful than anyone had dreamed possible in former times. The Crown has become the mysterious link, indeed I may say the magic link, which unites our loosely bound, but strongly interwoven Commonwealth of nations, states, and races….

For fifteen years George VI was King. Never at any moment in all the perplexities at home and abroad, in public or in private, did he fail in his duties. Well does he deserve the farewell salute of all his governments and peoples.

It is at this time that our compassion and sympathy go out to his consort and widow. Their marriage was a love match with no idea of regal pomp or splendour. Indeed, there seemed to be before them only the arduous life of royal personages, denied so many of the activities of ordinary folk and having to give so much in ceremonial public service. May I say – speaking with all freedom – that our hearts go out tonight to that valiant woman, with famous blood of Scotland in her veins, who sustained King George through all his toils and problems, and brought up with their charm and beauty the two daughters who mourn their father today. May she be granted strength to bear her sorrow.

To Queen Mary, his mother, another of whose sons is dead – the Duke of Kent having been killed on active service – there belongs the consolation of seeing how well he did his duty and fulfilled her hopes, and of knowing how much he cared for her.

Now I must leave the treasures of the past and turn to the future. Famous have been the reigns of our queens. Some of the greatest periods in our history have unfolded under their sceptre. Now that we have the second Queen Elizabeth, also ascending the Throne in her twenty-sixth year, our thoughts are carried back nearly four hundred years to the magnificent figure who presided over and, in many ways, embodied and inspired the grandeur and genius of the Elizabethan age.

Queen Elizabeth II, like her predecessor, did not pass her childhood in any certain expectation of the Crown. But already we know her well, and we understand why her gifts, and those of her husband, the Duke of Edinburgh, have stirred the only part of the Commonwealth she has yet been able to visit. She has already been acclaimed as Queen of Canada.

We make our claim too, and others will come forward also, and tomorrow the proclamation of her sovereignty will command the loyalty of her native land and of all other parts of the British Commonwealth and Empire. I, whose youth was passed in the august, unchallenged and tranquil glories of the Victorian era, may well feel a thrill in invoking once more the prayer and the anthem, “God save the Queen!”

Welcome to church today, as we mark the 70th anniversary of HM The Queen.

It is consistent with the Queen’s no nonsense approach to all things to do with her role that today’s anniversary falls after Candlemas and before the Sundays before Lent. We have designated this a special celebration keeping our white hangings and vestments, because, when before in these islands has any monarch celebrated 70 years on the throne. This is a one off commemoration.

The Queen has made a statement in advance of today, speaking of her eternal thanks for the good wishes and support she has received, recognising the blessing of her late husband in her life, and willing that in due course, the Duchess of Cornwall will be received as Queen consort, at the accession of the Prince of Wales.

Today’s service is often done as quiet commemoration with no fanfare, as part of a said eucharist or the daily office. How fortunate this anniversary falls on a Sunday. The Accession Service as we shall hear has a long history. The provision made for the readings which we shall hear is interesting. St Peter’s calls us to

Submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake: whether it be to the king, as supreme; Or unto governors

And Our Lord answers the question about taxes

Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.

When Royal Court clergy opted for these readings, they perhaps had social control of one sort or another in mind, and certainly wanted to frame obedience to the monarch as divinely instituted. There is more nuance in the readings, when they were written. The Jewish nation and then the Church knew oppression and state coercion. Our Lord is clear throughout his ministry that there is a separation between his Kingdom and the kingdoms of this world. However, when monarchs recognise the origin of their authority, and the limit of their power, godly rule can prevail. We are here to recognise what a blessing we have had in this 70 year reign, and with heart and voice we praise God for this remarkable anniversary.

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