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14 September 2022

The Queen had an unwavering belief in the necessity of her strange, parent-like role

Mourning a long-lived figure is deeply bound up with accepting our own histories of loss.

By Rowan Williams

People often remark on how the death of a parent can be a psychological watershed. Suddenly there is a sense of being on the front line, without the generation ahead of you offering some sort of protection against mortality and drastic change. It doesn’t even have to be the death of a literal physical parent; losing an older adult who has helped shape your identity and your aspirations can have a similar effect.

This surely is part of the reason for the rapidity with which royal transitions are managed. A new monarch is announced and publicly acclaimed within 36 hours or so. There is no vacuum in which to brood on loss and disorientation. But I suspect that the death of Queen Elizabeth has been, for a lot of people, an experience hard to process quite that quickly. Polly Toynbee wrote perceptively in the Guardian that mourning such a long-lived figure was going to be deeply bound up with both grieving and accepting our own histories of loss; not a matter to be rushed.

It is not sentimentality to compare the Queen’s death with the death of a parent. We spend a lot of our lives dealing with the legacy of relations with our parents, from idolising to rebelling to accepting, perhaps ultimately to understanding something about them and about ourselves. For a small child – all being well – a parent is a source of both excitement and security, mild glamour and practical dependability together; very much how the Queen was seen in the Fifties. But then comes adolescent contempt for the outmoded, hypocritical, philistine regime holding us back from the liberation that is our due – something of the flavour of the Sixties.

[See also: Scotland’s long farewell to the Queen]

It is possible after a while to settle down to a more tolerant but more distanced relationship. A parent is who he or she is, and we can live with that, but might not want to spend much time in their company; which feels a bit like the last years of the last century. The first signs of real human frailty prompt a new softening, not unconnected with both impatience and anxiety. And gradually the generation below us may come to see our own parents as embodying something we lack. They represent viewpoints, even wisdom, that have been hard-won and long-tested, they aren’t interferingly in your face all the time, they can put the tiresomeness of parents into perspective and offer a less suffocating or intrusive kind of love. And we may find ourselves able to see them a little more clearly and gratefully through the eyes of our own children.

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Good parents, like good therapists and priests, will develop ways of handling this variegated emotional process, recognising projection, recognising their own complicated feelings about it, learning to carry on and not be paralysed by guilt or resentment, or seduced by adulation. The Queen’s resolutely stoical and reticent style was not always popular (remember those telling cries of “Show us you care!” at the time of Princess Diana’s death), but one thing that could never be said of her was that she basked in celebrity.

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Gradually, for some even grudgingly, the realisation grew that she was not driven by the need to be adored. The private face, according to those who knew her best, was often one of intelligent and deflating irony – a kindness that could be disconcertingly bracing, a manifest sense of the absurdity of much of the theatre she lived with (including the theatrical requirement of saying little of substance in public) – and yet also a completely uncompromising belief that it was necessary that she be there and be who she was, a belief rooted, without apology, in her religious conviction. That conviction was nothing to do with a sense of spiritual exceptionality, let alone of infallible wisdom or unchallengeable power. It simply grounded her capacity to weather public changes or crises, private griefs, popularity and unpopularity.

She believed she needed to be there. Not everyone would agree, as she well knew. Her being there, as some have observed, could sometimes shield the nation from noticing just how dysfunctional the rest of society was becoming. But the idea that societies and individuals alike still need images of stable anchorage, of fidelity, that aren’t subject to any kind of glamour contest is not a stupid or reactionary one. Imagining and valuing human solidarity as such is nourished by institutions that do not depend on the glamour of compelling public personalities and their success in making (some) people feel good. Sometimes the Queen made us feel good and sometimes she didn’t, or didn’t do so immediately (Diana again). That was never the point. The point was a relationship as prosaically taken-for-granted as parenthood.

Thinking about this strange quasi-parental role, which the Queen understood in such unfashionably religious terms, just might help us think about our need for communities, practices and institutions in society – voluntary societies and charities, faith groups, the arts, the academy – that have a capacity to keep our eyes on something more enduring than the popularity vote. As politics and entertainment seem to coalesce in the shallows of populism, our perhaps reluctant recognition of what the Queen represented may offer a lesson about what is needed for political – not to mention personal – maturity.

[See also: It is right to question the existence of the Crown – yet on the environment the King’s voice may be crucial]

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This article appears in the 14 Sep 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Succession