Church of England Diocese in Europe

Sermon in Ankara for H.M. The Queen's Official Birthday (12th June 2021) - The Revd Patrick Irwin

Earlier in the service we sang I vow to thee, my country, a popular hymn in Britain that was composed by the diplomatist Sir Cecil Spring-Rice. I remember once attending the marriage of an Englishman to an American girl, at which this hymn was sung. There were those who raised their eyebrows at the choice of hymn, presumably because bride and bridegroom would be thinking of different countries as they sang the first verse together, but actually it was remarkably appropriate.

Members of Sir Cecil’s family have described to me how he served as British Ambassador in Washington during World War One. The British were extremely keen that the United States should join the alliance against Germany and so eventually the United States did, in 1917. Yet David Lloyd George’s government in London felt that Sir Cecil had not worked hard enough to achieve this and in January 1918 he was peremptorily sacked in a one-line telegram. 

Already a sick man Sir Cecil sat at his desk in the British Embassy in Washington, his career in ruins, and wrote this splendid hymn, actually an adaptation of a poem he had written when serving in Stockholm before the War. Three weeks after leaving office he died in Canada on his way home to England, in the Vice-regal residence in Ottawa, Rideau Hall. In the circumstances of the collapse of his career and his failing health the patriotism and devotion expressed in the hymn are truly remarkable. The Americans were so irritated at the treatment accorded the Ambassador by his own government that they paid for his children’s education. 

That is the story of the hymn that we have sung. In many ways it sums up the spirit of devotion with which Queen Elizabeth has served her realms and territories in the sixty-nine years of her reign. She has assiduously carried out her duties as she promised to do at her Coronation and in so doing has inspired admiration and gratitude from people throughout the Commonwealth and beyond. She has indeed offered to her peoples the service of her love. Whether in giving Commonwealth Prime Ministers the benefit of her unrivalled experience or in waving to cheering crowds in great cities or little villages around the world, she has shown both care for those she meets and a shrewd appreciation of their needs. 

In Her Majesty’s life of service to her realms and territories we may see a shining example of selfless public service and a reminder to us all of the values of true patriotism and of care for others. The British Army has six core values, in which all ranks are regularly instructed, and The Queen could well serve as an example for them all: Courage, Discipline, Respect for others, Integrity, Loyalty, and Selfless Commitment. The Queen’s life and work display these values particularly well, but they are values that all of us can take to heart in our own lives, just as all of us, from whatever nation, can follow the call to true patriotism expressed in Sir Cecil Spring-Rice’s first verse. 

Yet there is another country, to which Sir Cecil turns in his second verse. This country is the kingdom of heaven. It is worthy of note that the first verse speaks of vowing the service of love to one’s country, all earthly things above. Patriotism is not intended by Sir Cecil to supplant loyalty to God. The second verse speaks of this other fatherland, our spiritual home, and is an encouragement to us never to lose sight of that spiritual dimension without which our lives are impaired. The Queen has a devout and resilient faith in the Christian faith as revealed in the Church of England, although she undergoes a temporary conversion every time she crosses the river Tweed, as in Scotland she is presumed to be a member of the Established Presbyterian Church of Scotland. She is however well aware of the variety of religious belief in the world, her own realms and territories containing examples of most if not all religious traditions, and regularly emphasises the importance of religious faith.

Nowadays national services of thanksgiving and the like held in London, tend to be services conducted according to the tradition of the Church of England, but with representatives of other Christian denominations and other faiths as welcome and indeed familiar guests. Their presence emphasise a common concern for the value of religious faith and a spiritual dimension in our societies. I am told that Cardinal Heenan in speaking of different Christian denominations once said, “There may be chocolate cake, and fruit cake, and sponge cake, but what matters is that it is all cake.” I am sure that Her Majesty would concur, as she is both a steadfast supporter of the Church of England and a person fully aware of the variety and richness of religious expression among the faiths. 

So on her Official Birthday we give thanks for Queen Elizabeth’s years of service on her various thrones and for her example of a life well lived, both as patriot and as believer. The best way for us to honour this astonishing achievement is to emulate her, both in our care for others and loyalty to our own nations, and in devotion to the God whom we serve. There are indeed two fatherlands to which we owe allegiance, to our own country and to the kingdom of heaven. A well-balanced individual is one who is at ease with his country and his God. There have been times in history when true loyalty to country has been made more complicated by perverse or unworthy regimes, yet the true fatherland remains as a patriotic ideal. Similarly, there have been times when the behaviour of religious leaders and zealots has obscured for the faithful the vision of the kingdom of God. Yet the two fatherlands abide for us, as described by Sir Cecil in his hymn. We may be grateful that Queen Elizabeth’s life serves as an example how to serve effectively both fatherlands. God save the Queen. Long may she reign.