Wednesday’s service in Northwest DC, following days of American remembrances — and debates — outside the British Embassy and elsewhere, symbolized the deep religious ties between Britain and its former colony. The cathedral, a regular site of major political and social services, is also the seat of the US Episcopal Church, which began as a branch of the Church of England in the early 1600s.
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The British monarch is the “supreme governor” of the Church of England, although the position is ceremonial and symbolic only. The queen had nothing of the religious stature of, say, a pope, but she represented in life, and death, an image of an enduring, quiet faith, experts on the monarchy and the church have said.
Michael Curry, presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, speaking on Wednesday to a cathedral full of invited mourners that included Vice President Harris, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), offered a sermon that tied together the queen, Jesus, Martin Luther King Jr., Toni Morrison and gospel icon Mahalia Jackson. The first African American leader of the denomination, Curry avoided debate about colonialism and instead declared that Elizabeth II’s legacy must reflect Jesus’ call that the way to live forever is to serve others.
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“We aren’t here just to consume oxygen! … We are here to give back! Back to the world! Can I get an amen?” Curry, in his white-and-red vestments, invited from the towering Canterbury Pulpit. “We have assembled here this morning to give God thanks for the ways her majesty served, often at some personal sacrifice. Her commitment to serving others was a common refrain by commentators and people who stood in lines, sometimes up to 16 and 17 hours to pay their respects, and to say thank you.”
The cavernous cathedral filled with applause.
Queen Elizabeth II became more open about her personal faith after the early 2000s, and Curry quoted her 2014 Christmas message, saying that Jesus was a role model because “he stretched out his hands in love, acceptance, and healing.”
“Christ’s example,” the queen said then, “has taught me to seek to respect and value all people of whatever faith or none.”
Washington National Cathedral was founded in the early 1900s to be the Westminster Abbey of America, a goal that reflected the early, elite status of the Episcopal Church. But church-state relations are very different in England, where the population is much more secular and the Church of England is the official state church, whereas the US Constitution bars government establishment of any religion.
The Episcopal Church is now tiny compared to the power and size it had in the colonial period and in early America, representing just over 1 percent of the US population.
Attendees Wednesday morning said they were struck by the queen’s legacy — in different ways.
Bill Kelso, an archaeologist credited with discovering key aspects of Jamestown, the first permanent English colony in America, was in attendance Wednesday wearing a blue cross, one of Britain’s highest honors given to civilians, signifying him as an “Honorary Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire.” He had given the queen a tour of Jamestown in 2007, and he called her an “extraordinary role model of dedication” to passing down and protecting what she inherited.
“She maintained the legacy that was given to her, and that she thought was worth saving,” said Margaret Fowler, who accompanied Kelso. “The founding of America is a British story.”
Kelso said some of the Jamestown sites he excavated included the remains of clergy, and that he was able to show some of that history to the queen. She didn’t express anything related to her role with the church, he said, and she seemed to understand the site was “where the British began to expand” and was interested in things of a more secular nature.
Standing near a group of dozens of diplomats in black before the service, LaVerne Adams said she was there to show a kind of respect for the queen’s apparent pragmatism. Adams, an executive coach and United Nations peace ambassador, said her family is from Barbados, which last November formally severed ties with the queen, ending 400 years of British rule.
“She was a figurehead and served in her capacity well,” Adams said. “This was her role — she couldn’t get out of it. She had a responsibility and she kept it.”
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But, thinking of her parents and family who grew up in Barbados, the birthplace of British slave society, she said history must be remembered in full. That includes acknowledging the way that more harmless aspects of British culture are woven into former territories along with the more horrific parts of colonialization.
“Americans might not get that: It’s something that just is. You can be upset about it, but now we have to forge ahead,” Adams said. “For me, today is a day of reckoning: deciding you can be separate, but respectful.”
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The Rev. Gary Hall, who was dean of the cathedral from 2012 to 2015, was pondering similar concerns Wednesday — including what he called “one of those questions I’ve always had.”
In the Bible, “we use this language to talk about Christ as king,” Hall noted. “What does that mean in the 21st century? Kings are these useless goofballs that dress up but don’t have authority. What are we saying?
“Everyone admired her personally,” he said of the queen. “But how much do we honor the living embodiment of a colonial enterprise is a quagmire.”