For one brief day the world was porous again.
For one brief day we recognised that the invisible world still leaks into the visible.
For one brief day—perhaps one final day—transcendence was admitted into the public square in the modern western world, and we all stood and acknowledged it.
For one brief day, the immanent frame of our secular imaginary was peeled back and we were given a vision—albeit in shadow form—of what true majesty might look like.
And for one brief day, the nation—indeed billions around the world—watched as a Queen, whose every fibre acknowledged that transcendence, was honoured and laid to rest.
And for an even briefer two minutes, the whole nation fell silent and the shockwaves of that silence spread to us as well. No phones, no blips, no bleeps, no pings. Silence.
In this final passive act, the Queen called us to acknowledge not our inner selves … but God Himself above.
In this final passive act, the Queen called us to acknowledge not our inner selves, or our felt selves, or our authentic selves, or whatever the latest psychobabble describes incurvatus in se, (the self curved in on itself)—but God Himself above.
Her commitment to transcendence—God’s transcendence—meant that down here she lived a life lived directed outward and upward. Archbishop Justin Welby acknowledged that very fact as he opened his homily:
The pattern for many leaders is to be exalted in life and forgotten after death. The pattern for all who serve God—famous or obscure, respected or ignored—is that death is the door to glory.
A Transcendent Exception
I read in The Times just prior to the funeral, that French President Emmanuel Macron would throw “a hissy fit” if he were not right up the front. Perhaps that makes sense, coming from that most secular countries. Though we make sticking to this world (the immanent frame) a public virtue, our desire for transcendence never goes away—it is merely transferred.
Tony Blair’s senior advisor famously said that the British Government doesn’t “do God”. And my, how it has shown over the decades since.
And yet seating arrangements were such as to ensure warring nations were kept apart, and ancient enmities acknowledged, shows how porous reality is. Hell has leaked upwards. It may be around for some time yet.
The Queen was the ultimate counter to all the immanent politics.
The Queen, however, was the ultimate counter to all the immanent politics. Her funeral was a breath-taking acknowledgement of the reality of heaven above us, hell below us.
And the whole ceremony was a counter to the dreadful opening ceremony of the Tokyo Olympics—the high point of immanence in our public life—where John Lennon’s Imagine was the opening hymn. Right in the midst of a pandemic we were told to look within ourselves and be happy. Imagine that indeed.
Imagine too if the Queen had died during the pandemic. We would have not witnessed what we did. Perhaps this was a gift from God to us, to give us one last look at something that publicly pointed to something (to Someone) beyond itself and beyond herself. Am I over-egging the cake? It might seem that way to those who don’t believe in a transcendent God who is capable of engineering it that way.
For myself, as a low churchman whose church planting efforts have always begun in a household setting, there is a small ache for some transcendent moment in church. I know, I know: we walk by faith and not by sight; the real way we know of the heavenly rule of Jesus is because the Holy Spirit has been given to us from (that porous) heaven above. But still … when it’s almost a mantra that the only movement in church is horizontal (it’s only about serving other people), and never vertical, well you can see why people whose whole lives are stuck in the immanent frame Monday to Saturday, might just want a bit of transcendence. Hillsong et al. try to make up for it, but somehow end up turning the church into a mall. It’s no wonder there’s a fatal rush to Rome from so many younger evangelicals.
A friend complained to me over private messaging (we were all on Facebook tracking each other’s responses weren’t we?) that he couldn’t make out a word of most of the songs. Perhaps that is no bad thing. I’ve been in enough church services where I wish I couldn’t.
So we listened. We listened hard to try and make out the words: a counter to the easy listening we have become accustomed to in church; the difference between a beef-steak and a milkshake. We watched it in rapt attention.
And the liturgy was amazing. I thought that in the circumstances (others demurred) that the Archbishop did a good job with the homily. But the real sermon, the absolute moment of the ceremony, was the Word of God read from 1 Corinthians 15 by the Commonwealth Secretary General, Patricia Scotland, from Dominica.
The words are electrifying enough, but she delivered them not simply as orator, but almost as prophet. We were sitting there, saying “Yes, yes, that’s it, that’s what I believe! That’s my hope”. God was speaking to us by his Word as he promised he would. And if there’s ever an advertisement for the return of the public reading of The King James English version in church, that was it. And she didn’t start with “If you’ve got your device with you …”
But more importantly, 1 Corinthians 15 is what the Queen believed. For as I said, all of the pomp and ceremony around the Queen’s funeral, was a reflection and anticipation of that great day when the last funeral in the world is ever conducted, when the last death has trundled off the grim production line and over the edge, and then Death itself is folded in upon itself.
I have to confess I was done by the time the hearse laden with the Queen’s coffin was driving to Windsor for her interment. Sleep called.
Our world will nestle deeper and deeper into immanence, while those of us who demur, will collectively steel our nerve and lift our eyes.
And I awoke this morning, early, to get coffee—committed as ever to the reality that we live in a porous world; but also suspecting that we had just witnessed the last public act in our world to acknowledge that transcendent reality. The rest of the world awakens to get on with dismantling that framework. We will pick up again where we left off, with our Instagram, travel plans and whitegoods.
So our world will nestle deeper and deeper into that immanence, while those of us who demur will collectively steel our nerves and lift our eyes heavenwards from whence our hope comes. We will reframe our lives before heading back out into the immanent frame. Or to put it another way—we will do keep doing church, and we will keep going out into the world.
And we will understand that as we turned out in our millions—and watched in our billions—we witnessed, not only the burial of a queen, but the burial of a way of understanding this world that has stood the test of time for centuries. The thought of that is unbearable.
But we have the words that can enable us to wake another day and “do transcendence” once again.
…then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written, Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory? The sting of death is sin; and the strength of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, which giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. (1Cor 15:55-56)
Thanks be indeed. Lord, thank you for the life of the Queen, whose faith and trust in you spoke to us even louder in her death.
First published at stephenmcalpine.com