The Queen, the great uniter, couldn’t make it. Alas, Boris the great divider could | Zoe Williams

Service of thanksgiving raised the Genesis question – how many people can you swap out of this lineup before it ceases to be Genesis?

The archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, couldn’t attend the service of thanksgiving in St Paul’s Cathedral, having tested positive for Covid a few days before, which was not a problem, since it was for this very purpose that the centuries-long enmity with York was cultivated – so there would be a Stephen Cottrell waiting in the wings, with a sermon ready to go.

Then Prince Andrew also got Covid; it is unclear who could understudy his role in the proceedings, let’s hope nobody. By the morning of the event, the first platinum jubilee in the nation’s history, the Queen wasn’t feeling very well, either, and would not be attending. By 2022 protocol, they should have got Prince Charles to speak on behalf of everybody, surrounded by their hats.

Maybe it raised the Genesis question: how many people can you swap out of this lineup before it ceases to be Genesis? Or maybe holding a massive service of thanksgiving for someone who isn’t there, assured that they are watching from afar, is exactly what the Church of England, and indeed all churches, are all about.

With 400 public servants – teachers, NHS and charity workers – already seated, David Dimbleby and Sophie Raworth did a game call-and-response buildup to which royals we should expect. It would be a bigger crowd than on Thursday, Raworth said, which was just “working royals”. The phrase always reminds me of the New Yorker cartoon, a man saying to his beseeching collie: “I know you’re a working dog, Angus, I just don’t have anything for you right now.” It’s not exactly work, is it? It’s more of a breed standard.

This reign, the third longest in history, after Louis XIV and the recently departed King of Thailand, has spanned 14 prime ministers, four of whom – Major, Blair, Brown and Cameron – were chatting nicely, or at least they were to one another’s wives, mindful that royal events are when we pretend we all get on (or, to be more precise, in the phrase of a royal biographer beforehand, “the prime minister represents all that divides us; the Queen represents all that unites us”). This mood lasted up to the arrival of Boris and Carrie Johnson, which the crowd greeted with noise, and a lot of it. Were they booing or cheering? Did it (a personal view) start with booing, which the more respectful mob members tried to drown out with cheering? It would have been useful to have some kind of commentator there, maybe one with his own very long pedigree of saying news. Dimbleby resolutely didn’t mention it, which was weird, because he mentioned everything. If he told us what the bishops were wearing once (robes from the silver jubilee of George V, in 1935), he must have told us a thousand times.

Harry and Meghan were naturally the main event, in terms of royal arrivals, the only ones with any suspense attached, principally: would they look happy? And would other people look happy to see them? Tick, tick and thrice tick: they held hands, they got a huge cheer, they smiled away like good ’uns, they had a procession of their own into the cathedral, their welcome looked authentic, though we will of course have to wait for verification from the lip readers. It would have taken a heart of stone not to feel some genuine empathy for William, Kate, Charles and Camilla, walking down the aisle to John Rutter’s arrangement of Sir Hubert Parry’s coronation anthem, a piece so rousing, so powerfully devotional, that anyone would feel unequal to it. This is their whole lives, walking unnaturally slowly over ancient mosaics, trying not to let their too-human sweat-licked brows juxtapose too harshly against the beauty of creation. You wouldn’t wish it on a corgi.

There was much hand-holding. Is this a peculiar new way for adults to carry on, holding hands like they’ve just sworn bff in the playground? Certainly it was au courant, with the Johnsons, the Khans – everyone, indeed, except the Cambridges, so they ended up looking chilly and out of place, just by being normal. Those are the rules, I’m afraid, nobody knows who made them.

The prime minister read an appositely inane verse from Philippians, crescendoing: “The lord is near. Do not worry about anything.” Cottrell’s sermon tickled a metaphor nearly to death, drawing on Her Majesty’s love of horse racing, marrying it to the scriptures’ description of life as a “race before us”, observing that “your reign represents the distance of Aintree rather than the sprint of Epsom … Thank you for staying the course, thank you for showing us how service and faithfulness matter.” “Please stop,” begged the horse, “I’m actually not ticklish.”

The dead zones between each arrival were filled with interviews, on site and in the studio, decent, civic-spirited people trying their utmost to say something that was at once true, meaningful, original and personal about the monarch, the monarchy and the occasion. The impossibility of that was outweighed, for the most part, by their sheer niceness – the poet laureate, Simon Armitage; the master of the Queen’s music, Judith Weir; the retired archbishop John Sentamu: all these thoughtful, reflective people, dredging their creative brains for a non-platitude. Ishmael the 11-year-old choirboy said it best – asked by Raworth how he felt, he replied with feeling: “It’s been very stressful.” A huge number of people, bringing great stress upon themselves, then trying with all their valour not to show it – that’s pomp for you.

• This article was amended on 4 and 8 June 2022. An earlier version suggested John Rutter, whose surname we misspelled as Ritter, composed the coronation anthem played at the jubilee thanksgiving service; it was his arrangement of Sir Hubert Parry’s composition.


Zoe Williams

The GuardianTramp

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