The Revd Robin Sims-Williams
I remember watching one of the events around the Queen’s Golden Jubilee in 2002. Prince Charles was introducing the Queen on stage in one of the events on the lawn behind Buckingham palace. He started well ‘Your Majesty’, but then followed up with ‘Mummy.’ The Duke of Edinburgh could be seen mouthing the words ‘What did he say?’ and the Queen herself - well her eyes opened that minute amount only a practiced monarch attempting never to show any sign of shock can. Charles’ familial reference to Her Majesty jars against the weight of tradition and authority of the Monarchy, but it’s become a tradition in itself as he repeated at the Diamond jubilee. It’s just another tradition among the thousands new and old which shape the role of the Queen in our politics and our lives.
When training to perform at a high level in sport, athletes perform drills to build up their muscle memory. That is when your body becomes so familiar with what you need to do that it can kick in without thinking. When I was rowing back when the Queen was celebrating her Golden Jubilee, we would do drills, focussing on making the perfect moves in a controlled and calm environment. Much like the footballers competing in Euro 2016 will practice perfect plays, all so that when they need to make the play in the anything but perfect environment of a tournament game it will come naturally to them. Rowing drills were all about practicing how to row the way we really wanted to row, but slowly, so that our arms and legs would move in the same way as we increased our speed. Traditions are a bit like training drills, they shape how we behave when time is short.
I read a short article in the social media newspaper called the Huffington Post. The article claimed to be a debunking of myths. Some of them were useful, it had a reminder that, just because parents are desperate for their children to start sleeping through the night, there is no reason that a toddler should suddenly start sleeping through the night because they are a 1 year old. Sure it’s more likely and many do, but some don’t and parents shouldn't beat themselves up over it.
One of the myths the article claimed to debunk was that toddlers should say thank you and please. The article said - ‘toddlers are still the centre of their universe, concepts like sharing, being thankful or even sorry are beyond them. So the article claimed making them say Please, Thank You or Sorry was silly and while there are cases when parents should say them on the child’s behalf - given they don’t understand it we should stop making children say them. But manners matter - they make a difference to how we are received, and actually, saying sorry, thank you and please encourages us to think about what those things mean. Practicing the act of saying thank you makes us thankful. Saying grace before a meal isn’t about making sure God knows how much we rely on divine love, or even how much we appreciate the food - God knows. It’s about encouraging us to be thankful for what we have been given.
In the Gospel Jesus is invited to dinner at a Pharisees house. This Pharisee even has a name - Simon. Perhaps Simon is confident of his righteousness under the law, but he fails to observe basic etiquette by providing water for Jesus to bathe his feet or greeting him with a kiss. But a sinful woman - someone who is not righteous under the law - comes in and, in a rather embarrassing way, starts crying, washing his feet with her tears and kissing and anointing his feet.
In a rather typical way, the Pharisee accuses Jesus of not knowing how shameful a person she is. The thing is, while the Pharisee perhaps doesn’t think he has anything about himself to improve, this woman is aware of who she is, how short we all fall, and wants to be a better person. She never says I am sorry, or I repent, her actions are enough that Jesus knows that this is what she wants to do.
When we come to church and say the words of confession and then when we are absolved, we are practising how we should live our lives, willing to apologise for our mistakes, and willing to be forgiven. When we come forward and eat bread and drink wine together, we are reminded that for all any one of us has done, or not done, we are all equal before God. It’s not that we come to church and confess and are absolved, or that we receive bread and wine because we’ve already got it. Remember, even Judas is there at the last supper and receives the bread and the wine. We share the Eucharist because we are aspiring to be better people,
to be a better community. How right it is then that children, who are no different than us in their need to grow into full relationship with God, through the grace and teaching of Jesus, receive along side us - a reminder that we are all aspiring to grow into the model we participate in on a Sunday. And you could say the same thing about each aspect of the Eucharist, even the coffee and tea or even toast afterwards, it is a model for how we wish to live. Going through these traditions is like the drills when I was rowing, it builds up our ‘social memory’ for how we treat each other.
The Queen’s service, the traditions around her shape her but also us all. Her role is clearly full of pomp and ceremony, highlighting the importance and the enormous impact of governing - reminding politicians of the weight of their responsibility - but also their transience, she brings a sense of service and discipline to the role of government. She reminds us of the importance of self-sacrifice and care for others. Through it all she wears a crown on her head with a cross sitting on top of it, a reminder that God is truly sovereign over all things, and, much like Charles calling her 'mummy' that she too is human and that we are all equal in God’s creation. She is an example to us all of self-sacrifice and care for others. A reminder and model of what we are all seeking to become as we grow into the love of God.