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What explains Britain’s inimitable pageantry?

Queen Elizabeth
Queen Elizabeth is the great-grandmother of Princess Charlotte and Prince George. |

Why is it that, whether it be a somber state funeral or a joyous coronation, the British do pomp and pageantry like no other nation can? 

It doesn’t hurt to have over 1,000 years of history and tradition, nor military rituals and regalia that add color to special occasions, nor palaces and castles befitting kings and queens. Merely having a monarchy ensures an air of well-practiced ceremony that other forms of government simply can’t duplicate. But, there’s something more.

As the beauty, order, and majesty we have witnessed during this somber time reminds us, beneath it all is a faith tradition going back centuries. At funerals and services of thanksgiving, we expect to hear sacred music, but we must not take for granted that sacred music, more than any other, best speaks to the hurting hearts of those who mourn. As testimony, Classic FM has comforted a grieving nation for days, playing music to soothe the soul, from John Rutter’s glorious “Requiem,” to Bach’s “Sheep May Safely Graze,” to Samuel Barber’s moving rendition of “Agnus Dei.”

In the words of one presenter, “Solemn music worthy of a solemn season.” Yet, not just solemn, but sacred. Faith put to music. Faith that comforts, consoles, and gives one hope that death is not the end.

There’s also the uniquely-British literature of faith. The scripture “lessons” being read from the Bible, of course, and — especially for such a time as this — the elegant wording of King James’ 400-year-old translation. Then, too, we heard King Charles III saying farewell to his “darling Mama” by invoking Horatio’s words in Hamlet: May “flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.” Shakespeare was never far from biblical allusions. Nor is British pomp and ritual — all broadly and deeply steeped in faith. 

Take away the faith element, and pageantry is emptied of its power. More troubling, take away faith, and churches themselves are emptied. You wouldn’t know it from the scenes we’ve observed with the Queen’s passing, but in Britain these days even the most splendid churches are largely vacant. Raising the question: By the time King Charles passes, will faith still be found? 

Oh, royal funerals will likely still take place in Westminster Abbey. It’s tradition. But with each passing generation, the already-tenuous vestiges of faith will surely shrink. Indeed, cultural vandals are already clamoring at the gates. Shakespeare — that dead white male bard — is being dropped from curricula at every level, concurrently cancelling his vast storehouse of biblical allusions. So, too, there’s a target on classical music, penned mostly by dead white males (with patronages from the “evil rich”), whose lyrics and themes are distinctively Christian, not religiously inclusive.   

For all the poignant ritual surrounding the burial of the Queen, today’s Britain (no less than the lovely blooms forming the wreath on her coffin) is a cut-flower culture, severed from its roots of faith, and even now withering away. As genuine and heartfelt as faith has been during this period of mourning, far sadder is the “whited sepulcher” (to use Jesus’ imagery) of Britain’s great religious heritage, increasingly now filled with the bones and stench of disbelief. 

In the words of the Bard (from “Romeo and Juliet”), what could be said in honor of the Queen could be said conversely in dishonor of a once-thriving faith culture that has turned its back on belief:

“Death lies on her like an untimely frost; Upon the sweetest flower of all the field.”

Considering the rapid decline of faith on this side of the pond, which reading of that epitaph will be ours?  That of a believing Queen, whose faith-inspired farewell pageantry has made us weep, or that of an unbelieving society of cultural vandals whose self-lauding, empty rituals should make us cry?

F. LaGard Smith is a retired law school professor (principally at Pepperdine University), and is the author of some 35 books, touching on law, faith, and social issues.  He is the compiler and narrator of The Daily Bible (the NIV and NLT arranged in chronological order). 

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