We are in a season of celebrating the 90th birthday of Her Majesty Elizabeth II. Her actual birthday is 21st April but the official celebrations will be in June, but for either (or both) let me add my voice to the many who are wishing the Queen a very happy birthday.
Sometimes with birthdays of 'a significant age' you are celebrating no more than the fact that someone has survived for a very long time. In the case of Queen Elizabeth II, however, we do not simply celebrate years but virtues as well. For me I think our Queen has demonstrated three great virtues, all particularly commendable because they are rare in our age.
The first virtue the Queen has displayed is that of service. In 1947, at the tender age of 21, she said this in a broadcast to the nation: 'I declare before you all that my whole life, whether it be long or short, shall be devoted to your service and the service of our great imperial family to which we all belong.' The 'imperial family' has long since faded into history but she has kept that promise. I know little about what the Queen will be doing this week but I imagine that it will be pretty much business as usual. She will maintain her conscientious daily watch on the affairs of state; will meet with the Prime Minister, where she will be consulted and will advise; and she will no doubt attend the usual functions with her habitual grace and charm. We take her service to the nation for granted but it's worth remembering that we live at a time when putting yourself first is almost universally taken to be the first rule of life. Ours is an age of self-indulgence, self-expression and ultimately self-centeredness. Denying this, our Queen has served - and continues to serve - her people and nation.
The second virtue the Queen has displayed is that of duty. We have a Queen on whose shoulders have fallen enormous responsibilities yet who has remained committed over six decades to fulfilling them. And duty it has been. One shudders to think of all the handshakes she has endured, the speeches she has had to listen to, the smiles she has been forced to make and the many times she must have had to hold her tongue. This lifelong commitment is striking given how unpopular duty is in our age.
One of the overriding trends in Western culture has been the gradual erosion of commitment and obligation in almost every area of life. Whether in private or public life, we find that where there were once solemn bonds there are now only loose, breakable and disposable links. Behind this trend is the belief - now celebrated as a universal truth - that we human beings can only find the true purpose of life if we have the freedom to seek our own pleasure. Here, too, the Queen has gone against the flow.
The third virtue Queen Elizabeth has displayed is that of perseverance. In one sense perseverance - steadfastness or 'stickability' might be words we prefer - is the least of virtues. In another, it is the rarest. After all, we can all do a bit of duty and service for a few hours or even a few days; the challenge is to do it for a lifetime. And that is exactly what the Queen has done.
Here again we find that perseverance is not one of the values of our unsettled age. During her long reign the currents of shifting values and fashion have flowed so fast and fierce through British life that age-old traditions and social patterns have been swept away. Cultural moods have exploded on the scene and then, just as suddenly, vanished. Amidst it all, the Queen has persevered, enduring as a fixed element in the tumult of our time. Indeed as the bonds that unite the peoples of Britain seem to become fewer and more strained, her role as the embodiment of what we are as a nation has become even more vital. There can be no higher praise for the Queen's role here than the fact that it is troubling to imagine the thought of Britain without her.
The Queen has demonstrated service, duty and perseverance. That she has been able to do this against the spirit of the world is surely because she takes her bearings not from the world and its wisdom, but from something else. That something else is her strong Christian faith, something that Her Majesty has openly and unashamedly talked about. The qualities she has displayed are Christian virtues, lived out to the full in Jesus Christ who came to serve and to give his own life for the world. The Queen exhibits these virtues not simply because she seeks to imitate Christ but because she has a relationship with him. She knows, I believe, the great truth that in order to live out Christ's teaching you must live in Christ. In Her Majesty Elizabeth II we see a great Queen, but her greatness comes from the fact that she has trusted in an even greater King. Happy birthday, Ma'am!