The statistics are staggering. 400,000 people queued to file past the coffin of Queen Elizabeth II in the Hall of Westminster and an estimated 2 million people were gathered in central London today to witness the procession to her state funeral.
This almost pales into insignificance compared to the estimated figure of four billion people who are thought to be tuning into the service from around the world. That probably makes Justin Welby’s sermon, reaching half the world’s population, the most watched sermon of all time!
I have been thinking about how different the United Kingdom of 2022 is to that of 1953 when the Queen was crowned. Then most people in the UK would have had some experience of attending a Christian service and would have possessed the vocabulary needed to speak about Christianity’s central tenets.
It has been observed that the numbers attending and responding to the message at Billy Graham’s fruitful London crusades of the 1950s was a combination of a generation that had experienced war and one that still recognised the language of the Christian narrative.
Graham’s preaching helped many to join the dots of what they knew of the Christian faith so that intellectual and cultural knowledge became saving faith.
Sometimes a preacher today can feel like a person standing in front of an ATM machine, punching in their PIN code only to find that there are no funds to withdraw.
Preaching the Christian narrative in Britain today, far from eliciting the nod of recognition, is often met with heads shaken in incomprehension. We live in a generation that has largely forgotten the vocabulary of the Christian story, that is if they have ever known it at all.
In the 1950s the language of the Authorised Version of the Bible and the 1662 Book of Common Prayer were widely used. The Revised Standard Version of the Bible was not published until 1952.
I wonder what the average non-churchgoer made of the service today. Much of the language would have been unfamiliar and not a little quaint.
Yet there was certainly a sense that something significant was going on, and it was clear that the faith proclaimed today was one that had gripped our late Queen personally.
Someone suggested that the service which reflected the late Queen’s wishes was the work of a theological genius. Some poignant lines struck me in the service, the words of the Lord’s prayer, “Thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory,” and the words of the hymn, Love Divine All Loves Excelling,
“Changed from glory into glory,
till in heaven we take our place
till we cast our crowns before thee
lost in wonder, love and praise.”
They reminded me that the head that wore the crown understood that she was serving a higher throne and a greater sovereign.
Premier Christianity posted that the sermon was “the greatest evangelistic opportunity in history.”
How did it go?
Justin Welby, in his restrained and generally well-judged sermon, was clear and accessible. He spoke in short understandable sentences, that included the following:
“Jesus did not tell us how to follow but whom to follow.”
Jesus said: “I am the way, the truth and the life.”
The archbishop reminded us that: “We can all share the Queen’s hope.”
None of the preachers who are reading this will get to preach before so many, so I am praying that these simple words will begin to touch and transform some of those four billion hearers as reflect carefully on what was said.