Sermon by the Rt Revd Toby Howarth, Bishop of Bradford
It’s good to be together at a time like this, and this service carries deliberate echoes of a funeral. The great event of the state funeral will be taking place tomorrow in London, and many of us will be watching it either at home, here in the Cathedral or elsewhere maybe with friends or family. And it’s good that we do that.
But this evening feels like the end of our local period of commemoration here in Bradford. This is our opportunity in our own cathedral, our own space, both personally and as a City and District, to say our goodbyes to a monarch who has been a rock-like presence in the life of this nation and the nations of the Commonwealth, and in our own lives and our families for so many years.
How have these past ten days of mourning been for you? I want to pay tribute here to all those who have laboured tirelessly to keep us safe, to keep us organised and to hold the space that we have all needed to do justice to the change that we are experiencing.
Especially those for whom there has been a lot of extra work. Those looking after our civic commemorations and public services – the Lieutenancy, the Lord Mayor’s team and other hard-working Council officers; also the team (including the choir) here at our Cathedral, under the leadership of our new, brilliant, Dean Andy. Altogether it’s what our Chief Exec at the Council calls, “Team Bradford” and I have to say that “Team Bradford” has done us proud.
I want also to mention the media. Some of us have been concerned for a while that when London Bridge, that name that could not be named, would come, and we all knew that it would at some point, the concern was that some of our communities would be left out of the public mourning narrative.
But that has not happened. There have been very moving pieces across our media from a whole range of communities reflecting how much Her Late Majesty was held in honour by the breadth of this United Kingdom’s heritages. The media has also reminded us how much togetherness across communities and space for difference was at the heart of Queen Elizabeth’s vision for society. And, I think, Bradford and Yorkshire more widely have led on this.
All these people, these institutions, have created and held spaces for us to mourn, which is important. Some of these have been physical spaces, such as this Cathedral or City Park, or the Hindu Temple, or one of the many other places of worship that have held special events over the last week. This Cathedral was full of Muslims last Friday evening, and it was a great privilege to have been invited by the Muslim Women’s Council to lead us all in a minute’s silence to remember Her Majesty. A very moving moment of togetherness.
If I think of the famous queue in London over the last days, yes that historic space of the great hall in Westminster Palace with its pomp and ceremony was the end point, but even the queue itself provided a time and space in which people felt permission to talk and joke but also to weep and hug one another or just to walk in silence through a cold night.
But there is another kind of space that I’ve experienced this week that has been created and sustained by belief in God. Her Majesty’s death has caused us to reflect on our institutions of governance as the United Kingdom. We are a parliamentary democracy, and one could argue that the real business of governance takes place in the House of Commons and the House of Lords rather than Westminster Hall. And yet, the monarchy, clearly established under God, holds a space for accountability and a recognition of values that transcends even the accountability of the ballot box. As the Poet Laureate wrote in the verse for Her Majesty that Lady Margaret will read to us in a moment, “a promise made and kept for life – that was your gift.” As we all know, that was a promise, a vow, made under God and kept with the help of God.
The 121st Psalm, sung just now so beautifully for us by the choir, begins,
“I lift mine eyes to the hills. From whence cometh my help? My help cometh even from the Lord: who made heaven and earth.”
That is the conviction of the Bible: that the active, good, presence of the creator God holds the space for us to live bravely, righteously and with accountability with God, one another and the earth.
Belief in a God who is older and greater even than the mountains or the moors is not about running away to a comfort blanket. It offers, rather, a space for us to face reality and to face pain, even to face death.
We see that in a good funeral service where physical space, liturgy, music and prayers provide a framework that helps us to hold conflicting, raw and unstable feelings, knowing that there is a reality of love that, in turn, holds us. As the Psalmist says, “The Lord shall preserve thy going out and thy coming in.”
In Christian theology, it was the deep knowledge of God’s unconditional love that enabled Jesus to endure terrible injustice and a cruel, humiliating death without bitterness and out of love for his friends and enemies. And it is the space created by Jesus’ death and resurrection that enables his followers to face our own death and the suffering of loved ones with courage and hope.
We, and our nation with our new King, will need all the space that this week has offered us to face the days ahead with wisdom, courage, and gentleness.
Apart from anything else, this past week has invited all of us, in our relationship with the monarchy, to continue to re-evaluate how our imperial past shapes our present relationships: both here in the United Kingdom and across the Commonwealth.
With so many lives and livelihoods in Pakistan destroyed by flooding, what does it mean to be a member of the world’s family of nations in the face of catastrophic climate change? Closer to home, what will we learn from Chris Kaba’s tragic death?
Guided by what values are we going to decide as a nation how to spend scarce resources when so many of us are facing such need?
When we hear the voice of God, in our last reading, saying, “See! I am making all things new,” that is not just about the end times, it is about now. As God holds a space for us, and as we remember with thanks how our Late Majesty and her institutions of state have held the weight of governance for us over the last seventy years, we are called to hold a space for one another.
That means employing all the freedoms we enjoy in law, including freedom of speech, to have the big debates and to take the big decisions needed with the knowledge that we are all accountable to God and to one another.
It means remembering, under God, that the winner can’t simply take all and walk away laughing, but must make room for those who disagree and are outvoted.
It means recognising that we will, from time to time fail, and that while there’s accountability, there is also forgiveness and healing.
It also means, on the basis that God is a God of love and kindness, that we are safe in offering love and kindness to one another.
If there was one quality that has shone through for me that our Late Queen embodied, it was humility. Confident, principled humility. Humility that recognised that she was called to serve, within the space that God and state held for her, sustained by faith and by the love and support of her people.
“See!” says God, “I am doing a new thing!” May we be given confident humility to walk into this future, together.