‘I am among you as one who serves’
It is fitting that Her Majesty The Queen has chosen to commemorate her Platinum Jubilee with The Queen’s Green Canopy – not to mention tea with Paddington Bear! Across the nation and across the Commonwealth communities and groups of people are taking up her invitation to ‘plant a tree for the jubilee’. I had the pleasure of visiting the beautiful ancient churchyard at Warlingham last month with Dame Judi Dench. In the glorious May sunshine, we each planted a tree – two beautiful oak saplings. In that churchyard there is a yew tree believed to be two thousand four hundred years old – indeed it has been DNA tested. Oaks are not that long-lived – they become ‘ancient’ when they are a mere four hundred years – but the two planted that day will be living monuments to Her Majesty for many years to come, a sign of the esteem in which she is held – and will continue to be held.
Trees suggest many different virtues. They are rooted. They have dignity, stability, even nobility. Remarkably, they communicate with each other after a manner of speaking! They provide shelter. They are interdependent. It is not surprising, then, that trees play an important role in Judeo-Christian tradition. There are trees in the Garden of Eden – the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil and the Tree of Life – and it is on the wood of a tree that Christ accomplishes our salvation. In Heaven, so says the book of Revelation, there is a tree whose leaves are for the healing of the nations – these words are inscribed around the Olive Tree planted in the Cathedral Courtyard for the victims of the London Bridge Terror Attack, the fifth anniversary of which we commemorated on Friday with a very moving Service here in the Cathedral followed by an Interfaith Reception at Harper Road Mosque. And Jesus himself described the Kingdom of Heaven – which breaks through into this world wherever there is mercy – as a tree in which ‘the birds of the air make nests in its branches’ (Luke 13.19).
The trees planted to celebrate the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee carry all these resonances. In an age of anxiety and uncertainty, they indicate stability and continuity; in an age of fear, particular concerning the environment and the wellbeing of life on earth, they promise a future; in an age of hyper-acquisitive markets, they are a type of slow and sustainable growth. They are a sign of the wisdom that has marked her steadfast service over many years and a gift and promise to the future.
Her Majesty The Queen has kept close to the source of wisdom with quiet and godly dignity throughout her seventy-year reign which is her Christian faith lived with an integrity that speaks for itself. What has nurtured and guided her across the years is never thrust on others. But her faith is not simply a private matter for Christianity is a public wisdom – calling out ‘to all that live’ that by gaining wisdom we, too, might ‘live with prudence’ and ‘attain knowledge and discretion’ (Proverbs 8. 4,12). Indeed, it is her faith that enables Elizabeth II, by the grace of God Queen, to be ‘among us as one who serves’ (Luke 22.27).
True service – like that which the Queen has offered after the model of Christ – allows other people to flourish. It creates space for them by allowing their gifts to come to fullness alongside your own. Like the wisdom described in the first reading, it has ‘insight’ and ‘strength’ (Proverbs 8.14) so it never feels a need to dominate. It is a kind of canopy under which we can take shelter and in which the birds of the air might indeed make their nests (cf Luke 13.19). The United Kingdom is not the Kingdom of Heaven but this long reign of seventy years has been like a tree in which birds have made their nests for many people have made their home here and the Queen has taken the lead in this nation and throughout the Commonwealth of which she is Head in welcoming and embracing our steady and irreversible transformation into a multi- ethnic and multi-cultural population. The trees of the Queen’s Green Canopy will remind us that there is space in the branches of this realm for all manner of people to grow and flourish in its shade. We see this as a great God-given blessing and wish our political leaders would do likewise. We need only to follow the example the Queen has set in her long reign over us.
In South London and East Surrey we see many examples of this commitment to flourishing in our local contexts: in churches, synagogues, temples, mosques and gurdwaras across the land people are given shade and sustenance. In these places, and elsewhere, there is good will and hospitality sowing the seeds of social cohesion; we see fruit of our common life borne of our rootedness in the same soil. Surely this is the gift of Divine Providence, for does not God cause the sun to shine and the rain to fall on the righteous and unrighteous alike (cf Matthew 5.45)?
In 1961, a mere nine years into Her Majesty’s reign, an American Trappist who was rather famous at that time for a monk, wrote: ‘A tree gives glory to God by being a tree. For in being what God means it to be it is obeying Him. It “consents”, so to speak, to His creative love. It is expressing an idea which is in God and which is not distinct from the essence of God, and therefore a tree imitates God by being a tree’. It is not so simple for people, though, because God has given us the gift of free will. ‘We can be ourselves or not, as we please. We are at liberty to be real, or to be unreal,’ the monk continued. ‘This means that we should not passively exist, but actively participate in God’s creative freedom, in our own lives, and in the lives of others, by choosing the truth’ (quotations from Seeds of Contemplation, Thomas Merton, Chapter 5).
Her Majesty The Queen in her long service to our nation and Commonwealth has given us a true example of these precepts. She has kept close to the source of wisdom, participating in God’s creative freedom so that she is free to be among us as one who serves, she has found time to balance affairs of state with her family life and she has lived by example, selflessly, devotedly. Many are answering her invitation to play their part in planting the Green Canopy. It would be a fitting commemoration, too, of her glorious reign if we also followed her example, joining God’s creative freedom in service of our neighbour that all might flourish with dignity in this realm and beyond where increasingly we see much to concern us deeply in the wider world. In this, we can never be unaware of the responsibility and tasks ahead of us. But now on this joyful day – knowing whose minister she is and whose authority she has – it is enough simply to pray with hearts full of thanks that this long reign has been happy and glorious and saying, as we shall soon sing, with heart and voice – ‘God save the Queen!’ Amen.