Bishop reflects on the changes during The Queen's reign

Bishop reflects on the changes during The Queen's reign

First published on: 5th June 2022

To mark The Queen's Platinum Jubilee, Rochester Cathedral hosted a civic service of celebration on Sunday 5 June. Bishop Simon Burton-Jones, the Bishop of Tonbridge, gave the following address, in which he reflected on some of the main changes he thinks have occurred in society during the seventy-year reign of Her Majesty The Queen.

 

Platinum People

No-one under seventy years of age has experienced another monarch.  Even those over seventy will remember only dimly what it was like to have a king.  The Queen has been such an integral part of our common life that it is hard to imagine what it would be like without her. 

It is also difficult to make the kind of audit of her reign that future historians will produce with the benefit of time and against the background of a different kind of reign, whether it be Charles or William or another successor.  But some observations we should make today will surely stand the test of time. 

What is significant about Queen Elizabeth II is not just her length of reign, but the nature of her office.  For seven decades she has held unswervingly to a sense of duty where the calling has been privileged over privacy. 

Public ceremonial office of any kind might look to some as if all you have to do is turn up, but there is deep symbolic and relational significance to it.  And it is tiring.  You are on show – The Queen more than anyone – and people watch you closely. 

One of the great strengths of her reign is the apolitical space she has carved in the public arena.  Her presidential role, above party politics, helps to create a public sphere which is not sullied by the disputes and compromises which inevitably mark political life. 

To keep this space, she has had to exercise resolute discipline, for even the odd throw-away word in this digital era could change perceptions of the Queen and her role.  A monarch who has advised Prime Ministers from Winston Churchill to Boris Johnson will have plenty of views on life, but she has subordinated these to great effect.  And society has changed almost out of recognition in her time.

At the time of The Queen’s diamond jubilee in 2012, Prospect magazine asked several opinion formers what is characteristic about being British.  They decided: we don’t take ourselves too seriously by cherishing comedy; we are rooted in a stout democratic tradition and are tolerant of outside influences; we are proud of the NHS, the BBC and the Beatles and like a nice cup of tea and talking about the weather. 

Ten years later and it’s possibly only the first and last characteristics that we all agree on: comedy, a cup of tea and chatting about the weather.  And the Beatles, of course.  New trends emerge slowly at first and then quickly, and we’ve seen that acceleration in the last decade across a range of issues, lubricated by social media.

In a spare moment, you might want to map out the little things that mark us as British: a love of the underdog and queueing properly, perhaps?  Match of the Day and Test Match Special, maybe?  But even there we run into difficulty because the latter are very English commodities. 

Among all the changes that have happened in the seventy years since Elizabeth became Queen, I’d like to focus on just three today.  We may feel strongly about some of these changes – for better or for worse – but there is little doubt they have happened and that we are a part of them.

The first is the change from us to me. 

One of the consequences of the kind of war the nation had recently endured in 1952 is the way it draws people together, forging a social bond that endures.  The State also becomes more centralised in war to ensure the campaign is efficiently ordered under a chain of command.  The impact of long periods of peacetime is to loosen not just political centralisation but the social bonds that once glued people together. 

We are more individualistic in how we live.  Me has become more important than us.  People volunteer less and do fewer things together now face to face.  This is down to several things, including longer working hours and the emergence of compelling privatised forms of entertainment. 

There is a shift in attitudes as the war generation, of which The Queen is a part, gives way to the baby boomers and beyond.  One of the central dilemmas of public policy is how to manage this transition without losing a sense of common purpose.  How are we British together?  How are we English together?  Because we may have to answer that second question eventually.

The second change is identity is from producer to consumer. 

Britain had a strong manufacturing base seventy years ago but the picture has altered.  We are now largely a service economy and we see ourselves primarily as consumers.  An Amazon account has become more important than a union membership card, if you like.  Shopping is central to our identity and obstacles have been removed to enable this, not just in the liberalisation of Sunday trading laws but in a deluge of advertising which encourages even children to privilege ownership over citizenship. 

This would have been unthinkable a generation ago.  The change is reflected in our use of language: we are no longer passengers but customers on trains and we look to public services as consumers.

This begs the question: what is the mark of a good society?  The use of Gross Domestic Product to determine this has led some to say that it is a patriotic duty to go out and shop.  Others are less sure and believe more intangible measurements are needed to express the purpose of life.

The third change during the reign of Elizabeth II has been legal.  We speak of rights more than duties. 

This is one of the more difficult issues to tackle because it excites such passion.  Human rights were established to protect the most vulnerable and their absence in some parts of our world is a grievous stain on humanity.  Today the story in a society like ours, which is mercifully free of arbitrary arrest and state torture, is on defining the limits of our personal rights.  This is subject to a constant process of judicial review.

For every right there has to be a reciprocal duty and so this process is profoundly altering the way we relate one to another.  Many people believe true community means the first step we take towards others should be one of obligation, not entitlement.

Celebrating Elizabeth’s reign this year is one way to bring some attention to these changes, because she has wished her role to offer a sense of ‘us’ rather than ‘me’ and of ‘duty’ rather than ‘right’.  The Queen is often mistakenly described as the ‘Head’ of the Church of England; she is actually its Supreme Governor.  Jesus Christ is the Head of the Church of England and it is a distinction she will understand because one of the gifts we are grateful for is The Queen’s personal faith in Christ. 

There are countless other changes in her time which we could mention but the slow decline of Christian faith is one of the more striking.  Some are content with this, but it may be that Christianity’s declining role in public life has sharpened some of the trends and questions I have raised here. 

Amid all these social changes, The Queen has carried her role with a sense of dignity, offering continuity and purpose. In this way, her reign has witnessed - as we all can in our own way - to the sovereign rule of almighty God before whom all shall bow the knee.

 

Simon Burton-Jones
Bishop of Tonbridge

5 June 2022, Rochester Cathedral