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The Queen's Lying-in-state

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When ‘The Vigil of the Princes’ also became ‘The Vigil of the People’

The Vigil of the Princes also became the Vigil of the People and I was one ofthem. One of the hundreds of thousands who chose to wait in line to walk past thecoffin of our late Queen.

Why queue for 8 hours for something which lasted no more than 10 minutes?Why indeed?A hard question to answer even to myself.A mark of respect?A way to say thank you?A gesture of solidarity?The end of an era?All I can say is that I felt the need to do it.

I was already due to be in London on the Friday of that week to visit a BritishMuseum exhibit on ‘Feminine Power – from the divine to the demonic.’ My part-timerole allowed the flexibility and so, a plan began to form, to visit the Queen as she layin state. Initially to go to London early Thursday morning and then as they began totalk of 30-hour queues, a change of plan.We left home in Gloucestershire on Wednesday evening – a small bag each, to seeus through the next two days. A car drive, train, tube and then a walk took us to theback of the queue, close to the Globe theatre. And so, our pilgrimage began, for thatis how it felt.The Dome of St Paul’s illuminated across the river,an iconic landmark on the London skyline, markedour beginning. We chatted briefly with those aroundus but for me this was predominantly a time forquiet. The stillness of the river, the night-timepeacefulness of London felt an appropriatepreparation for this vigil.It reminded me somehow of the birth of my three children. With each of them, I hadlaboured through the night. The recognition that some things are worth the effort andthe waiting.

I remembered too fragments of T.S Eliot’s poem The Journey of the Magi – thedescriptions of that ancient pilgrimage, which speaks of birth and death. Of how theyexperienced others saying, ‘That this was all folly.’ Some people had seemedincredulous that I would choose to go but others had understood, perhaps evenfeeling grateful that I could go.

In the Sunday service following the Queen’s death we’d had a sharing time. Someshared their memories of her Coronation Day. One remembered having been inLondon – a child sat in the temporarily-erected stands watching the Queen’s coachpass by. Most of my congregation too elderly now to attend and so I went, not just formyself but somehow as representative of church and community.

About 2.30am we approached WestminsterBridge. The Houses of Parliament, Big Bensignalling we were close to our destination.But the queue takes a different route,continuing along the riverside towardsLambeth Bridge past the Covid Memorialwall.We waited herefor a long time,discovering fromTwitter that thequeue waspaused for a naval rehearsal in Westminster Hallpreparing for their role in Monday’s funeral.It gave me the opportunity to remember other losses, andthe grief of those families, still recent and raw, bereavedby Covid. Remembering how they had to mourn their lossin such different times. That image of the Queen, satalone at the funeral of Prince Philip, the iconicrepresentation of the aloneness of Covid grief.

Perhaps it was that image, seared into the national consciousness, which was part ofwhat compelled us toward this queue. A sense that the Queen, alone then, becauseof her willingness to share with her people in the restrictions required by Covid, mustnot be alone now. A desire to show her family that we stood with them in their grief.That it mattered to us too.We queued through the night without complaint. I cannot recall a cross word spokenby anyone around me throughout the walk. Instead, a shared sense of purposefulmovement towards our destination, the joy of brief moments to sit down, to take theweight off your feet, the encouragement to one another to keep going.

Early on, a Birmingham man near us realised he’d left his wallet in the taxi and setoff for a rendezvous with the driver to retrieve it. We promised to save his place andrejoiced with him on his return. Those in the queue included some who’d joined asthey finished work, an impromptu act, others had travelled from towns or cities fromacross the land.The final stretch zigzagged acrossVictoria Tower Gardens. Anopportunity to observe others in thequeue as we moved back and forth. Arealisation that there were people ofall ages – from sleepy children to theelderly, individuals and family groups,British people of all skin tones – somedressed in their funeral best, most intheir ordinary garb. People from other nations. Everyone there quietly waiting tomark this momentous time, to say their own personal goodbye.

We approached the security check. A last-minute panic – somehow, I had lost mywristband in this final stretch. The security guard unwilling to let me through untilthose around me in the queue convinced him I had been present with them for thelast eight hours. I was allowed to past, grateful for the support of strangers.And suddenly we were entering the building, ascending thestairs. An attendant encouraging us to take our time, toexperience the moment. We had arrived. Looking down on thescene, the coffin and surrounds seemed so still, so unmovingthat it could have been a waxworks tableau. Only the eyemovement of the beefeaters showed these were real flesh andblood. The coffin, the crown, the orb and sceptre – all seemeddwarfed by the vastness of Westminster Hall. This ancientbuilding, a fitting setting for the pageantry and solemnity of theoccasion.

A deep peacefulness, a reverent hush, a realisation that this was the destination ofour pilgrimage. Strangers bound together in a common task but each marking themoment in their own individual way.I approached the coffin and said a silent prayer, of thanks for the life of this willingservant of her God and her people, for her example of faithfulness in keeping thevows of duty and service she had chosen to make.

In Journey of the Magi, they experience a birth which was like a death. A death oftheir old way of being so that ‘they return no longer at ease in the old dispensation.’As we emerged from Westminster Hall into the dawn of a newday, I realised that we had born witness to a death, which alsobrings birth. The birth of a new dispensation, a new King.My hope and prayer is that this new dispensation will find itsstrength and source, as the Queen did, in that birth more thantwo thousand years ago. That moment, honoured by the Magiin their journey, when God became one of us, entering ourworld in humility, not to be served but to serve.

Rev. Esther Mason,
Christ Church L.E.P (Baptist, Methodist, U.R.C)

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