I’m an unabashed Anglophile. Casual conversation with me can quickly uncover this fact, and those closest to me have relentless fun teasing me for it. I’m always planning my next trip to the U.K. (no, I don’t particularly want to go somewhere different on my next vacation—why?), I learned the art of afternoon tea with fascination, and I eagerly mine the catacombs of British history and literature in my spare time. Thus, perhaps more than the average American, I felt a sense of loss upon hearing of the death of Queen Elizabeth II.
I’ve heard family members, friends, and political commentators I respect scoff at the British for holding on to their monarchy and any interest the American news occasionally shows in the British Royal Family. Even for them, however, I think Queen Elizabeth’s passing marks the end of a significant era worthy of notice. British, American, or otherwise, we would do well to recognize in her not only a widely respected world leader, but a worthy model of a bygone age’s convictions. We can and ought to learn from Queen Elizabeth’s example, the likes of which we may never see again in such a public position.
Devotion to Duty
My friend Heidi White likes to talk about the battle between duty and desire in the human soul. Every age throughout history has tilted towards one or the other, from the yearning poets of the Romantic era to the honor-bound traditions of the Victorian age. Ideally, duty and desire should unite for the good of self and others. Total dominance of one over the other will have negative costs.
That said, the selfish and desire-driven climate of our current moment could benefit from a long, hard stare at Queen Elizabeth—the epitome of duty who never once, over 70 years, wavered from her commitment to serve her country. Our age dismisses and even mocks the idea of foregoing personal desires for the sake of duty and service to others. Yet, Queen Elizabeth was loved all over the world precisely for her willing subordination to a task that she saw as greater than herself. Furthermore, she never sought it, and it fell to her years earlier than expected, which makes her long devotion to it even more countercultural. Australian MP Andrew Hastie remarked, “A lesser woman might have chafed at the imposition, so early in life. But she gave herself to the institution and became the leader that we came to know…”
Indeed, few could have known how wholly and for how long Queen Elizabeth would give herself to the institution. Her famous 21st birthday speech, delivered via radio broadcast from South Africa in 1947 has received renewed attention lately. How many of us can look back on ourselves at 21 and see the caliber of noble dedication that she embodied in that address? Self was not her focus, nor did she dwell on her feelings regarding her future role or the personal challenges it would involve. Instead, she declared a conscious, committed choice to serve her people for her entire life.
How many would not only commit their lives so completely to the service of others, but also make good on that commitment for over 70 years? Queen Elizabeth and her generation recognized the simple honor in faithfully carrying out a duty, even a difficult one that meant personal cost. As we remember her decades of faithful service, I hope we also might see an example worth recovering across culture.
Monarchy and the Divine
Additionally, for all the pomp and flare of the British monarchy, it could be worth pausing to contemplate the enduring interest in its longevity and beautiful rituals. Consider that lavish ceremonies stopped news cycles worldwide to commemorate Queen Elizabeth’s life. People flocked to London from all over the U.K., waiting in line upwards of twelve hours to simply observe her coffin lying in state for thirty to sixty seconds. An estimated 4.1 billion people—over half of the world’s population—watched her funeral service, an event of grandeur and pageantry if ever there was one.
Why did so many people go to these lengths to watch events of such extravagant spectacle? For all our secular age’s outward railing against hierarchy and “excess” beauty, we’re still drawn to it. Last summer, I had the privilege of seeing Buckingham Palace a few weeks before Queen Elizabeth passed. Nobody who sees it can deny its transfixing splendor. During her funeral, the strains of “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling” from Westminster Abbey’s magnificent pipe organ sent chills down my spine.
Maybe we are riveted by ritual and beauty because, deep down, we long for the transcendent. Maybe people went to extreme measures to pay respects to their Queen because she was the closest thing they knew to real constancy and order. Maybe all humans are, by nature, worshippers. As C.S. Lewis wrote:
“Where men are forbidden to honour a king they honour millionaires, athletes, or film-stars instead: even famous prostitutes or gangsters. For spiritual nature, like bodily nature, will be served; deny it food and it will gobble poison.”“Equality” by C.S. Lewis, 1986. In Present Concerns, by C.S. Lewis. Boston: Harcourt
Many explained their desire to honor Queen Elizabeth by reflecting on how she became a symbol of unity and longevity for people of multiple generations. Through the turbulent shifts of the turn of a century, she remained. Her extraordinary life naturally drew respect, but she also represented so much of what humanity innately longs for—stability, order, greatness, and good authority. We are drawn to things higher than ourselves. Monarchy, vividly embodied for so long in Queen Elizabeth II, reflects these things dimly in this life. I hope the days of renewed focus on a great earthly Queen will draw more souls into fellowship with the King of kings as he makes ready the next life, in which Americans and Brits alike will bow the knee to his divine monarchy.