The mourning of the Queen’s death has been, largely unconsciously, a nation in a state of 'appearing', writes Joe Haward
The Queen’s coffin arrived at the west gate of Westminster Abbey on the state gun carriage. The carriage itself was drawn by 142 Royal Navy sailors, followed by a military procession, the King, and other members of the Royal Family. For the millions watching, there was a sense that more than a monarch had died.
As the Procession of the Coffin moved through the Abbey, the Choir of Westminster Abbey sang The Funeral Sentences: “I am the resurrection and the life, saith the Lord.” Ancient words reverberating off ancient walls; the remnants of the British Empire clinging on for one final moment in the spotlight. Yet there will be no resurrection here.
Tributes in prayer were made to the Queen, speaking of service and duty. The Archbishop of Canterbury made an evangelistic plea, imploring those watching and listening to claim for themselves the faith of Elizabeth II. These predatory habits of British Christianity, a sureness that something is being given that will better the world of savages and subjects, effortlessly glided from lips and hung there in the air of that space of privilege.
The ceremony was quintessentially British – a display of pomp, pageantry and poignancy. It remembered the life of one who represented, to many, what it meant to be British. Yet, paradoxically, such a display of tradition could only highlight all that has been lost, as the long gone Empire leaves us with the spectacle of what once existed.
The long-lived confidence in a culture of advancement and civility, with a God-ordained right to rule over others, faded with every decade of the Queen Elizabeth II's reign.
The French philosopher Guy Debord once said that "just as early industrial capitalism moved the focus of existence from being to having, post-industrial culture has moved that focus from having to appearing".
The mourning spectacle since the Queen’s death has been, albeit largely unconsciously, a nation in a state of appearing – grieving the loss of its own place in the world, the death of an empire that is held up like a puppet, putting on a lifeless show.
Empire and Being
The Romans left Britannia in the early 5th Century. By 927, the Kingdom of England was formed under Alfred the Great’s grandson, King Æthelstan. A long, complex and bloody history of conflict, invasion, power, and betrayal then unfolded. This was the beginning of being – of what would become British identity, formed and forming, expanding across the centuries over geographic Britain.
That identity of ‘being’ would be shaped into an existence of ‘having’. Five years before the birth of Queen Elizabeth II, the British Empire covered 24% of the Earth’s total land area; a population of more than 413 million people.
By 1945, everything had changed. Even with its victorious stand in 1940, and the moral prestige this gave, Britain could not escape the shattering impact the war had on Europe’s political structure. The American insistence of the sale of oversea British assets to meet its debts highlighted the transfer of power from one empire to another. Yet this power shift also brought with it an identity change, from having to appearing, exemplified by King George VI.
His insistence on remaining in London during the Second World War had a profound impact upon British morale. It in many ways defined the role of the modern monarch and how significant the Royal Family could be within society in an ever-changing world. His daughter would go on to symbolise the appearance of stability for the next seven decades of shifting times.
The spectacle of British life continues, with the population distracted by faux 'culture wars' and vapid political announcements that serve only to maintain the illusion of a functioning democracy; stoking the fires of division through the language of a dead empire. But everyone knows it is over.
The queue to see the lying in state of the Queen perfectly encapsulated the unconscious recognition that Britain as we know it has died, and such is our loss, we do not know what to do with ourselves, so we grasp hold of what we know. The past becomes increasingly attractive as the future becomes increasingly uncertain.
Where do we go when our happiest days are behind us? We wait in a queue in the hope those days will not be forever lost.
Reverend Joe Haward is a community and business chaplain
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