It’s been quiet on the waterfront at Bowness-on-Windermere this week, as the Lake District starts to show signs of autumn, with cooler mornings, early morning mists lingering over the lake, and darker evenings. After a summer of endless visitors, many of whom, come rain or shine, could be found eating ice-cream on the Windermere waterfront at Bowness, suddenly the waterfront seems emptier. The new school term has started, so there’s fewer families, but those who are still here seem quieter. It’s been that way now for several days. Since the queen died last Thursday, the tone is more sombre, serious, subdued.
Just next to the Windermere waterfront is the local parish church, St. Martin’s, where the Union Jack now flies at half-mast. Lots of people visit this church on any normal day, and since the queen’s death, the lady on duty in the church told me that there’s been even more visitors than usual. People coming in to offer prayers, light a candle, bring some flowers, write their condolences or just sit awhile. She was offering leaflets in a variety of languages, including Japanese. Windermere has become a very international tourist destination in the last few years, and people from all countries and all faiths can be seen walking along the main street, queuing for boat trips, shopping, eating and enjoying the sights and sounds of the Lake District.
Last Tuesday, I was in the nearby village of Grasmere, famous for being the home of William Wordsworth and his family, they’re buried in the churchyard. Many people were visiting that day, including in the church, while outside they were lining up to buy the famous Grasmere Gingerbread from the old school next door….
On Saturday, two days after the queen’s death, I was there again, and the village seemed eerily quiet. The outdoor cafes and coffee shops were open and had people in them, but there wasn’t the lively atmosphere of people on holiday enjoying themselves. The Union Jack on the church was at half-mast, while inside the church was a steady stream of visitors coming in to sign the condolence book at the front.
The last time I remember being in the UK for a period of mourning for one of the royal family was when Princess Diana died, 25 years ago, on August 31, 1997. I can still remember where I was when I heard the news, and the sense of shock and bewilderment that lasted for weeks afterwards as the country tried to come to terms with her sudden death. Like many of my friends of the same age and background, I’m fairly ambivalent about the role of the monarchy ~ as the elite of the land enjoy all the benefits of power, prestige, wealth and glory, the rest of us have to live with what’s left, resulting in huge inequality, injustice, poverty, discrimination and more.
In 1997, I had just returned to the UK having spent 7 years working with the Church Mission Society (CMS) teaching in Anglican Church-run primary schools in Tanzania, and was fairly convinced of the evils of the British Empire, which in reality was one big power grab but portrayed as intended to bring development and civilization. Being associated with CMS it’s difficult to avoid our historical connection to the British Empire, but as in all things, it’s never quite so black and white ~ and the Anglican Church in Tanzania was (and is) clearly doing much valuable outreach and mission work, including through their primary schools.
Though we grew up in 2 different worlds, Princess Diana and I were both born in the same year, 1961, so we grew up at the same time, in the same country, and when her marriage to Prince Charles started to fall apart, it was impossible not to feel some sympathy for her. She had so much media scrutiny, so much criticism from the royal family, and then her death robbed those 2 boys of their mother at such a young age, in such tragic circumstances, their every step and every emotion so publicly watched by millions. The royal family did not come out of it well, and I’d had more than enough of them.
But us women of the world must unite, and there’s no denying the queen herself was an incredible woman, serving the country for 70 years with grace, humility and a devotion to duty that is hard to find fault with. When we saw images of the queen seated alone at the funeral of Prince Philip last year, it was painfully hard to accept, and yet thousands of other people had to endure the same. The pandemic brought Britain to its knees, and since coming back from Taiwan 2 months ago, I’ve listened to stories first hand from those who suffered and are still suffering. There is still so much pain and anger, much of it directed at the government. This previous government leadership may have taken credit for the vaccines and for providing financial support during the pandemic, but then came news of partying at No. 10 the night before Prince Philip’s funeral, as No. 10 totally disregarded the rules which they had set and which the rest of the country, including the queen and royal family, were expected to follow.
So, although I’m not entirely happy with the monarchy as such, I also know the appeal – and therefore the danger – of electing charismatic populist leaders who make wild promises they can’t fulfill and end up bringing division and instability to the nation. And so I find myself asking would it really be any better if we had a president instead?
I am moved by my friends in the Taiwan Episcopal Church, including the diocesan youth leaders, many of whom have shared photos on social media since the queen’s death, exhorting us to pray for Queen Elizabeth II and her family. Several have also shared in detail about the role of the queen as the supreme governor of the Church of England. To be part of the Anglican Church worldwide is to acknowledge the historic role of the kings and queens of England in the church through the centuries. My Episcopal friends in Taiwan know far more than I do about Henry VIII and the problems of his succession that led to the establishment of the Church of England. I just try to remember all 6 of his poor wives, 3 of them called Catherine, and most of whom met an untimely end just because they couldn’t produce a son and heir. What a legacy for a church to inherit.
So while, historically, the strength of the Anglican Church worldwide can in part be attributed to its association with the British Empire, that doesn’t apply in Taiwan. Taiwan was never part of the British Empire, instead it was a colony of Japan from 1895-1945, and the Japanese Anglican Church in Taiwan at the time was only open to Japanese people, not the Taiwanese. You might have thought that all that association with empire would have put Taiwan people off from joining the Anglican Church. Apparently not. And you might have thought that all that association with empire would have reduced the size and importance of the Anglican Church in those countries that were once part of the British Empire. Certainly, when I visit such countries, it is difficult to know what to do with all that colonial guilt and shame that sometimes hangs in the air if I say I’m from the UK, or work for CMS. Let’s hope and pray that our new king, Charles III, plus world leaders and coming generations face up to the challenges, get on with bringing out the truth and start to right the wrongs of the past.
In Grasmere Church this past week, I was struck by the fact that on the church bookstall, apart from books about local history, the only other books on sale were a series that included one called ‘Sayings of the Buddha.’ If I tell my Taiwan Episcopal Church friends this, I know they will ask me why. Why, indeed? In Taiwan, where so many follow Buddhism, Taoism and folk religion, many do indeed take comfort from the sayings of the Buddha and try to live their lives accordingly. We respect all religions, but we also have many in our churches in Taiwan who have become Christians from a Buddhist background, and they talk about finding hope and joy in the promise of eternal life through Christ. Many, moved by attending Christian funerals, see the difference that the Christian faith makes when facing death.
On Thursday afternoon last week, I gave the first talk of my home leave to a group of retired people in Troutbeck, including showing them some photos of our Taiwan Episcopal Church ancestor memorial liturgy, and I talked about our eternal hope in facing death. Only a few hours after the talk was over, we heard the sad news of the queen’s death. Since then, many church leaders have spoken of that promise of eternal life to all who follow Christ as an important part of the queen’s own deep personal Christian faith.
Who could not be moved by the events of this week, as we watch the royal family and the whole country grieve the loss of a much-loved mother, grandmother and queen; hers was a life of dedication, duty and humble service right to the end. One local business owner told me today she would be closing her shop on Monday for the queen’s funeral, not because she is a royalist, but out of respect for a woman who took up the role given her and poured her whole life into serving her people, right up until the very end. In her shop window is Paddington Bear, who has also appeared much on TV in the past few days, in a lovely sketch with the queen made for the Platinum Jubilee earlier in the summer. In honour of the queen, therefore, I am taking marmalade sandwiches up the fells with me each time and thinking of her – and Paddington – as I eat them.
As we remember Queen Elizabeth II in this national week of mourning, let us give thanks for her life, faith and service to others, including the times when she made us smile. May she rest in peace and rise in glory.
‘Majestic’ is a word not just used of the queen, but also of Britain’s national tree, the oak, chosen as a symbol of endurance and strength. This one is in Grasmere….
And as it’s autumn so the oak trees here are now covered in acorns – containing the seeds – symbols of the next generation.
Our next generation of the royal family need our prayers too, for wisdom, discernment, courage and strength. The responsibilities they face are huge, with the whole future direction of the monarchy and that of the Commonwealth at stake. And so we pray for King Charles III, Princes William and Harry, their wives and children. And we pray too for ourselves, our nation and all nations, and our world. From the leaflet published by St. Martin’s Church, Bowness-in-Windermere in honour of the queen’s death, “Help us to work together so that truth and justice, harmony and fairness flourish among us, through Jesus Christ our Lord.” Amen.
Updated Sunday September 18, 2022: These are 2 other churches in the area, Kendal Parish Church, Cumbria’s largest parish church – and one of the widest churches in England with 5 aisles, where people have been laying flowers outside the church as well….
And St. Paul’s Church, Grange-Over-Sands, where the town flag flies at half-mast next to the church….
Many churches, including Grange are holding their own special commemorative services…
In Jesus Church, Troutbeck, we sang the first verse of the National Anthem, ‘God save the King’ at the end of our Sunday service today. It has been quite a week, and we pray for the Royal Family and the whole country preparing for the queen’s funeral tomorrow, and especially for King Charles III as he takes over his official duties and responsibilities as king.