Tuesday, 20th September 2022. The period of national mourning for Queen Elizabeth has come to an end. The present resumes. An uncertain future, which has been largely ignored, comes back into view.
These last ten days have a been a time of memory. Not that many of us can remembers the whole of the reign of the late Queen; not many of us ever met her, let alone knew her personally. But together, in this country and across the world, we have collectively been remembering. Remembering what, exactly? There has been a collective ‘story’ which has been told in liturgy and ceremonial, and in the media. But there are also millions of individual stories, much more diverse.
What affected me most of all was the sudden absence of a figure who had always just “been there”: one of those unquestioned realities that you absorb as a child. Now, at the age of 61, I was strangely disconcerted by that absence; I’ve been trying to tease out why, and what it might mean for the future as well as the past. It was more than mere longevity; there was also something about the way Queen Elizabeth inhabited her role which was individual and personal, the absence of which has left a gap.
I see in Queen Elizabeth someone who embodied in her own life a deep commitment to the truth. She was true to the promises she made at the beginning of her reign. She embodied consistency and constancy, through changing circumstances, good times and bad, in times of great celebration, through the ‘terrible year’ of 1992, and more recent upheavals in our society and the Royal Family. She was not always just ‘there’: in everything, she exhibited the same dedication to her vocation: and as time went on she became more and more explicit about the Christian faith which sustained her. She lived the truth she believed.
As I turn back to the future, I will try to take from this period of remembering a renewed commitment to truthful living, despite the many temptations and diversions which make it a challenging path to follow. There is the temptation of just clinging to one source of information and ignoring voices I don’t like; or the temptation just to switch off and stop trying to participate in anything beyond my private life; or the danger of sinking beneath the confusion of different voices. Worst of all is the cynical option, of assuming that everyone is lying to some extent. None of these are good – for any of us as individuals, and still less for a functioning society. In order to live well with ourselves, and still more to live together, we need to have a level of trust, an acceptance of the basic trustworthiness of others, which come from a sense that there is a shared truth about who we are and how we relate to one another. The alternative is the hellish world described by Thomas Hobbes, ‘the war of all against all’.
Truthful living I believe starts in trust, which means in relationship. Truth is now most often defined in the terms of mathematical or scientific knowledge, even in fields of knowledge in which scientific method cannot apply, and anything not “scientific” is downgraded to personal opinion, superstition, or just untruth. But we are social beings, not individualised rational machines, and it is in community that our selves are formed. Truth is relational before it is anything else. If there is no trust in the truthfulness of the other, anything they say can be doubted or denied, however logical it may be.
So who can we trust? All of us have our personal histories of trust, or the lack of it, and that makes a huge difference to how we engage with the world around us. We were brought up in families which had their own narratives of truth, with a sense from our earliest childhood of how much we could or could not trust others. For Queen Elizabeth, it was faith which was her foundation.
For those of us who share that faith, the good news of Jesus Christ is that in him God shows us one in whom we can place our trust without reserve. God has opened Godself up to us, coming in weakness to this world, never coercing but always inviting, and in a relationship with God in Christ we can find a foundation of trust and truth from which we can build. And because we are social animals, that can never be just about an individual relationship with God. We are more than that; God is more than that. The creator of heaven and earth cares for the whole of creation, and entrusts us with the task of rebuilding it as his kingdom.
One of the many challenges that faces society in many parts of the world is to find foundations of truth and trust which can function beyond the boundaries of interpersonal relationship. We need to build standards of public truth by which avoidance or denial can be challenged and held to account. Having found foundations of truth in our own lives – whether in Christian faith or in another creed or philosophy – the challenge is to take that out into the world and to exhibit, and demand, those same qualities in a public square which has become cynical and jaded about the possibility of truthful discourse. It is a societal task, not one that can be left to someone else. Trust is rebuilt step by step as people demonstrate that they are trustworthy; truth becomes valuable when falsehood is challenged, when lying is greeted with horror rather than a shrug of the shoulders.
In the late Queen, we saw someone who trusted in God, and was trustworthy. The work of remembering her into the future is not eternal television replays; it is to incorporate into ourselves, and to make our own, what we valued in her example. We can all do that, whatever our place in society. To live truthfully is hard work, but it’s also essential to living a fully human life. The truth may sometimes be scary, and dangerous, and we won’t always agree about what is true. But when we seek to know and live the truth, whatever our obligations and responsibilities may be, whatever the future holds, at the deepest level of our being we are free.