Reflections on the Queen and the notion of duty

On Monday, September 19, Shawnigan students and staff were invited to a special Chapel service to honour Her late Majesty Queen Elizabeth II's lifetime of service and duty. During the service, The Rev delivered a poignant address about the Queen and the notion of duty to our School community, which I am sharing here in my column today, with his permission.
I have spent a bit of time this week looking at the tributes to Queen Elizabeth in the mainstream media and missing, I admit, most of the critical discussion on social media. What has struck me in what I have seen is that rather than focussing on the late Queen’s accomplishments, the discussion has centred on her personal traits and characteristics; the way she was rather than what she did.
The words that have been bandied about include things like dignity, loyalty, and responsibility. But the word I want to talk about for a few moments is the one highlighted in the BBC’s obituary, entitled: “Queen Elizabeth II: a long life marked by a sense of duty.”
Duty isn’t a word we tend to use a great deal. We talk about it mostly in relation to soldiers or policeman. As complex as her duty was, Queen Elizabeth often said that the most important aspect of duty was service – not service to ideas, but to people. This was the notion of duty she most often expressed: to serve one’s fellow human beings.
There are other ways that duty is understood and expressed, however. Duty has a dark side. When duty takes the form of blind obedience, especially blind adherence to an ideology, it can have very negative consequences.
When I say ideology I mean a set of ideas, beliefs, and behaviors that become, in some people’s minds, the truth. We have many stories about how the world is. When one story is seen as the only correct one, that story becomes an ideology. Capitalism, socialism, Catholicism or Protestantism, liberalism, conservatism; all isms contain elements of truth and they all contain weaknesses and limitations. When individuals commit themselves blindly and unquestioningly to any ideology, any ism, we get another kind of ism, fanaticism, and we know that fanaticism never leads to anything positive. When an individual’s commitment, their duty, is to an idea, even if the idea is a really good one, rather than to people, that individual tends to become static and closed to new ideas; they become fanatical about aligning unquestioningly with a particular worldview or set of beliefs.
When our first commitment is to people rather than to causes or ideals, we allow ourselves the openness to learn and grow, and we avoid the trap of becoming isolated with our own thoughts, ideas, and plans. So much of the violence that we see perpetrated in North America these days (the random brutality and the mass shootings) is committed by individuals who have been captured by an ideology of some sort, individuals who become so obsessed with one story that they lose touch with their own humanity and with their fellow human beings. The answer to this kind of violence is not more violence, it is more understanding, more connection, more dialogue. The antidote to the darkness of a duty to an ideology that leads one to harm those who disagree with that ideology is the cultivation of a culture of service.
I am not an expert on the late Queen, but as I read her speeches and look at the things that are said about her life and work, it seems to me that her commitment was never to any ideology, never to a political viewpoint or set of beliefs. Her commitment, and she often reiterated this, was to people. In part, this had to do with the traditional understanding of the role of monarch as staying politically neutral, but the late Queen seemed to have had a particularly acute sense of why her role required her to remain outside of the political debates of her time. Naturally she exerted influence, but in a way that considered people over politics.
In her very first televised Christmas address in 1957, she described her role this way: "I cannot lead you into battle. I do not give you laws or administer justice. But I can do something else. I can give you my heart and my devotion to these old islands and to all the peoples of our brotherhood of nations."

It appeared that for Queen Elizabeth, and I hope for us, duty is first and foremost about loyalty to people.
Of course, the rest of us – the non-monarchs – are free to express our political views with passion, and we should do so. However, we should also keep in mind that some political positions are in service to abstract ideas rather than to flesh and blood humans. No ideology or political worldview or philosophy of life is worthwhile that is not in the service of people and of bringing people together.
Duty, in its best form, is the expression not of our beliefs or opinions or causes, but of our compassion and kindness toward one another. It is an attitude of willingness to engage and be a part.
A sense of duty as service is what greases the wheels of this community. It is our willingness to get involved, and sometimes to sacrifice what we want in the moment, that makes the Shawnigan community work for all of us. Our greatness as a community depends on this more than anything else.

Of course, there are many questions about the value of the monarchy in today’s world, and about the role that the British Empire played in the enterprise of colonialism that was so often brutal and agonizing for the colonized. We are just beginning to understand the real importance of these questions. However, I can’t help but think that in a very subtle and simple way Queen Elizabeth helped to move the empire that she was fated to rule from an oppressive colonial power to a commonwealth of nations that respects the independence and integrity of its members. We don’t choose the time or the circumstances into which we are born. Not one of us here earned by ourselves the privileges we enjoy. But we do choose our words and our actions, we do choose what we do with what we have been given. I suspect that in the end Her late Majesty felt okay about her choices.
There is much yet to be done to fully dismantle the negative structures of colonialism that still exist, but no solution will serve us that holds ideologies above relationships or principles above people.
If we want to honour Queen Elizabeth on her passing, committing ourselves to a duty that always holds people first might be the best way to do so.

Click here to watch the full service. 
We acknowledge with respect the Coast Salish Peoples on whose traditional lands and waterways we live, learn and play. We are grateful for the opportunity to share in this beautiful region, and we aspire to healthy and respectful relationships with those who have lived on and cared for these lands for millennia.