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The Memory of What is Missing
At Westminster, a last post for a lost faith.
I was, alas, too wimpy and too sleep-deprived to get up at 5:30 in the morning and watch live as Queen Elizabeth was laid to rest on Monday. As many others have now written, it was a service of surpassing beauty and dignity. I nibbled around its edges the day after, like sheepishly sampling bits of a sumptuous banquet. Playing back the beginning of the ceremony on my phone, as the young pallbearers darkened the doorway with their precious burden, I felt a pale imitation of the thrill it must have been in person to hear the choir break forth, “I am the resurrection and the life!” To make it doubly moving, we knew that this was exactly as the late Queen had planned it herself—that by her death, all should be reminded of Death’s final defeat.
It was like that for the whole service. Song after song, scripture after scripture, calling upon the captive audience to remember. Remember. Remember.
The words of the King James, of the Book of Common Prayer, of the old hymns—these, as Jonathan Van Maren aptly writes, are the crown jewels of England’s Christian inheritance. And as they were carried across the sea, around the globe, they became the world’s inheritance too. They became my inheritance.
I’ve written before about how I grew up in an Anglo-Catholic church built like a one-room schoolhouse, whose congregation mainly consisted of a handful of Episcopalian refugees and a very occasional family with small children. For the Nine Lessons and Carols at Christmas, I did the honors as our resident substitute choirboy. (I was really good too, not to brag.) It was only later, and gradually, that I realized I’d been incubated in that rare niche of Christendom, a medium-high Anglican church that still remembers what all this stuff is even about. No wonder, once I tumbled into the real world, it would take me so long to find any kindred spirits. Of the people who could interpret me, only a fraction would understand me. I remembered. But, it seemed, almost everyone else had forgotten.
Still, the late Queen’s passing, with its infinite layers of pomp and preparation, does show that there is value in the carrying on of religious ceremony for religious ceremony’s sake. This value has only been made clearer for the many tweets sneering at it, wondering aloud why in 2022 the modern West must still drag around all this elaborate superstitious baggage. There is value in continuing to sing an ancient song, even long after the meaning of the words has been forgotten. As Paul Kingsnorth reflects, the world was witnessing “a rolling, dense mat of symbolism.” No doubt he’s right that it was “a last post” for the Christian West, symbolizing “something that our culture has long stopped believing in, and as such can’t really process effectively, or even perhaps quite comprehend.” No doubt Von Maren is right when he conjectures that many of the aristocracy and dignitaries in attendance felt little personal connection to the stirring words of Scripture sung and read. It may well be that they listened respectfully simply because they were there, and they had to. But this was a good thing, for whatever it is still worth. Let them sit and listen. Let them be aware, as the philosopher Jurgen Habermas famously wrote, of what has been missing.
Habermas opens his essay with the memorial service of Swiss playwright Max Frisch—a gathering which took place in a church (St. Peter’s, in Zurich), but by careful design felt like anything but a church service. Habermas himself was in attendance, along with a few other areligious intellectual colleagues. “We let our nearest speak,” Frisch’s lover stood to read out from his own pre-written statement, “and without an ‘amen.’” After two friends gave eulogies, the band of mourners dismissed themselves without a priest. It was a profoundly unsettling study in contrasts, but as Habermas thought back over it, he concluded that this was no accident.
The late Queen passed serenely untouched by the angst Habermas articulates in the essay, the conundrum of the modern man who feels he must follow reason but cannot wholly abandon faith. In Elizabeth’s mind, there was no such agonized tension, no need to carve out carefully separated magisteria. There was no “Christian Elizabeth” as distinct from the rest of Elizabeth. There was only Elizabeth, Queen, Head of the Commonwealth, Defender of the Faith. Granted, hers was not a firebrand’s faith, nor a faith that expressed itself in flashes of great eloquence. Nevertheless, it was clear and firm. On Monday, through the voice of her people, her whispered devotion swelled to a triumphal roar.
It’s worth considering these two funerals together: one a symbol of victory, the other a symbol of defeat. As a post-Christian intellectual, Max Frisch was quite aware that “the enlightened modern age has failed to find a suitable replacement” for the old, time-honored rituals. And so, in death, he didn’t even bother to pretend.
Of course, there is more than one way to pretend. How many of Her Majesty’s own priests and bishops ascended the pulpit in how many cathedrals to do just that, in their own way? How many of them prepared sermons on the resurrection and the life year after year, only to confess in their candid moments that they didn’t think Jesus really knew his way out of the grave? How many of them eased this tension by progressively draining their sermons dry of all lifeblood, until they might as well have delivered a homily on Easter eggs? (My parents still vividly recall an Easter sermon in an American Anglican church where the priest actually did this.)
Former Bishop of Edinburgh Richard Holloway has written many books documenting this journey for himself. Eventually, he pushed the envelope past what even the CofE would tolerate. But though he couldn’t affirm her creed in good faith, he will tell you he never lost his abiding love for the church, nor his recognition of what her rituals can offer in the face of suffering and death. In his book Waiting for the Last Bus, he recalls attending a friend’s Solemn Requiem Mass:
The setting for the mass was for baritone soloists by the French composer Duruflé. My friend lay in his coffin in the chancel. And my sadness was eased when the young baritone soloist sang Hosanna—save us—again and again over his dead body. I heard it as a protest against the finality of death. Death was a brute power, and it had beaten my friend to the ground. But the beauty of the music defying his death was itself a kind of victory. It reminded me of that young man years ago in Tiananmen Square waving a handkerchief at the huge tank grinding towards him. Death will roll over us all in the end, but it cannot take away our songs. And they strengthen us in ways words never can.
Here Holloway offers us the best humanism can manage in the ruins of Christianity, though, paradoxically, he feels that only a Christian ritual can give it proper voice. But the ritual’s victory has been stolen, replaced with a noble defeat. Now there remains only the “victory” of a song that lasts only as long as there is a human voice with breath to sing it, a human heart to keep it in memory. To be sure, a noble defeat can be its own kind of victory. In such “songs” as the defiant handkerchief-wave of the Tiananmen Square protestor, there is a kind of permanence. This has been the consolation of every man who has ever sacrificed himself for someone or something with no certain hope of eternal reward. This is how the atheist playwright Robert Bolt makes sense of appropriating St. Thomas More as an existentialist hero in his play A Man for All Seasons. Yet he still laments in his preface, “It may be that a clear sense of the self can only crystallize round something transcendental, in which case, our prospects look poor, for we are rightly committed to the rational.” Like Habermas, he sees this as the great all-consuming task that now lies before Western man: “to get for us…a sense of selfhood without resort to magic.”
This is the humanist creed. But for a creed to be truly consistent, A. J. Balfour reminds us that “there must exist a correspondence between the account it gives of the origin of its beliefs and the estimate it entertains of their value; in other words, there must be a harmony between the accepted value of results and the accepted theory of causes.”
Can the humanist creed bear the weight of a royal coffin, lined with lead, borne up on waves of glory? Can such a vessel hold the wine of such a feast?
And do we not miss Him, as the poet writes, “when the radio catches a snatch of plainchant from some echoey priory;/ when the gospel choir raises its collective voice/to ask Shall We Gather at the River?/or the forces of the oratorio converge/on I Know That My Redeemer Liveth/and our contracted hearts lose a beat”?
The last post has been sounded. The piper’s last call has faded into the distance. And the people blink, and wipe their eyes, and wonder if it was a dream. If it was all just a dream.