My reflections on Queen Elizabeth II’s state funeral: Two keys to her greatness

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My reflections on Queen Elizabeth II’s state funeral: Two keys to her greatness

September 20, 2022 - Jim Denison, PhD

The funeral of Queen Elizabeth II in Westminster Abbey in central London, Monday Sept. 19, 2022. The Queen, who died aged 96 on Sept. 8, will be buried at Windsor alongside her late husband, Prince Philip, who died last year. (Ben Stansall/Pool via AP)

The funeral of Queen Elizabeth II in Westminster Abbey in central London, Monday Sept. 19, 2022. The Queen, who died aged 96 on Sept. 8, will be buried at Windsor alongside her late husband, Prince Philip, who died last year. (Ben Stansall/Pool via AP)

The funeral of Queen Elizabeth II in Westminster Abbey in central London, Monday Sept. 19, 2022. The Queen, who died aged 96 on Sept. 8, will be buried at Windsor alongside her late husband, Prince Philip, who died last year. (Ben Stansall/Pool via AP)

I remember vividly the awe I felt when I entered Westminster Abbey for the first time. Parts of the present structure date to the 1040s; the Abbey was rebuilt by King Henry III and consecrated in 1269. The interior is much taller than it is wide and stands 101 feet in height. It gives those who enter an immediate sense of the vertical, drawing us from ourselves to God.

Queen Elizabeth II designed her state funeral conducted within the Abbey yesterday in the same way: vertically. She chose the music and the readings for her service personally. Each song was Scripture set to music or worship directed to the Almighty. And each reading came directly from the word of God.

For example, as her coffin moved through the Abbey, the choir sang The “Funeral Sentences” setting Scripture to music. The first hymn was Psalm 42 set to music and was “inspired by Her Majesty’s unwavering Christian faith,” according to Buckingham Palace. The second was “The Lord is My Shepherd”; the third was an anthem called “My Soul, There is a Country,” which points to “One who never changes—Thy God, thy life, thy cure.”

The fourth song, “O Taste and See,” was composed for the queen’s coronation in 1953 and sets Psalm 34 to music. The last congregational song was the national anthem and prayer, “God Save the King.”

Scripture readings were taken from 1 Corinthians 15 and John 14. As a result, billions of people around the world heard proclaimed the truth that God “gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 15:57) and Jesus’ declaration, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6).

The reading from John 14 ended with Jesus’ statement, “He that hath seen me hath seen the Father” (v. 9, KJV). The queen wanted the same to be said of her.

Awe produces humility

Watching her service yesterday morning was a true worship experience for me. Upon reflection, I believe I understand the source of the queen’s commitment to God and others: awe and adversity.

Her state funeral was so God-honoring because she lived her life in the same way. True awe of God always produces true humility toward God which leads to true service to others.

For example, when Isaiah “saw the Lord sitting upon a throne,” he was humbled by his sinfulness in light of God’s holiness and then he served God and others as one of the greatest prophets in history (Isaiah 6:1–8). Jeremiah saw his finitude in light of God’s revelation and was empowered to speak God’s word to the world (Jeremiah 1:4–10). John saw the risen Christ on Patmos, fell at his feet, and then gave the Revelation to the world (Revelation 1:9–20).

Queen Elizabeth II was similarly awed by God. Ministers who knew her best say her humble worship empowered her sense of divine calling to her duty. One said she was so immersed in Scripture that she would “just evangelize naturally.” Archbishop Justin Welby noted at her state funeral yesterday: “In 1953 the Queen began her Coronation with silent prayer, just there at the High Altar. Her allegiance to God was given before any person gave allegiance to her.”

From her example and those in Scripture we learn this fact: we can measure the degree to which we truly worship God by the degree to which we serve him and others.

Adversity produces humility

Adversity produces humility as well. Joseph’s years of slavery in Egypt taught him to treat his brothers not with pride but with humble service (cf. Genesis 50:18–20). Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” led him to say, “When I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:10).

Queen Elizabeth II, for all her wealth and power, knew personal adversity as well. She was twenty-five years old when her father died suddenly at the age of fifty-six and she inherited his mantle as the sovereign of a nation seeking to recover from World War II. Prime Minister Winston Churchill said of her, “But she’s just a child.” Historian Tracy Borman says that other officials likewise feared that she was “naïve” and “didn’t know anything about running a country.”

Guiding her nation through the Cold War, armed conflicts, deep political divisions, and very painful family struggles, she became what one commentator yesterday described as “the greatest monarch in the history of this planet.” She knew firsthand the truth of the statement she made famous in the aftermath of 9/11: “Grief is the price we pay for love.”

“We are all visitors to this time, this place”

Here’s the caveat: awe and adversity produce humility and service only if we choose for them to do so. When Jesus raised Lazarus from the grave, many were awed and placed their faith in him (John 11:45), but the religious leaders “made plans to put him to death” (v. 53). I have likewise seen adversity turn people from God rather than to him.

But if you will live your life in awe of God, using adversity as an opportunity to trust and serve him, your life will count in this world and be celebrated in the next.

Archbishop Welby observed yesterday, “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.” Later he noted: “People of loving service are rare in any walk of life. Leaders of loving service are still rarer. But in all cases those who serve will be loved and remembered when those who cling to power and privileges are forgotten.”

In her 2011 speech to the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Australia, the queen quoted an Aboriginal proverb: “We are all visitors to this time, this place. We are just passing through. Our purpose here is to observe, to learn, to grow, to love, and then we return home.”

Now Queen Elizabeth II has returned “home.” She is no longer a queen—she has an even higher calling as a worshiper of the King. But I believe she will hear for all eternity those words we should all long to hear: “Well done, good and faithful servant” (Matthew 25:23).

When last were you awed by God?

When last did you use adversity to trust and serve your King?

Why not today?

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