The Pilgrimage of Queueing

This a reflection I wrote after my experiences of joining the queue for the Lying in State of Her late Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.

The ‘Road to Emmaus’ (Luke 24:13-35) is undoubtedly one of best known and most popular episodes in scripture. It is interesting to note, though, that one of the most intriguing aspects of the tale is that the journey is just as important as the destination

No one nowadays is completely sure exactly where the village of Emmaus was but we know that it was in there that the moment of revelation occurred. As Luke famously records, Jesus was “made known to them in the breaking of the bread” (24:35). But it is on the journey to Emmaus that the disciples actually walk and talk with Jesus. It is on the road that the real experience of Emmanuel – God with us – takes place. It is only as they travel together – right at the end of the Gospel – that they finally understand what Jesus’ mission had been and why the Crucifixion had to take place. In hindsight, they realise that hearts had been burning within them long before they reached their destination (24:32). In other words, the journey ultimately was just as important as – and perhaps even more so than – their final destination.

I had cause to reflect on all this for myself last month on a very special Friday. The day began early; exceptionally early, in fact – 4:00 am. The previous night I had decided that I would use my day off to pay my last respects to our late Queen and visit her lying in state in Westminster Hall. As you all know, that was much easier said than done and I knew it would involve joining a long queue. But I shouldn’t really say ‘a’ queue but ‘the queue’, because – as we all know – for a few days in London last week there was only one queue that people were really talking about! The queue that was snaking its way across most of London to allow the late Queen’s subjects, and many others, to pay their last respects. It had its own website and Twitter feed, and seemingly had taken on a life of its own

I had been monitoring its length for the previous day and had determined that 4:00 am was the optimal time to join. My partner, Steve, thought I was absolutely mad, and I must admit I thought so too when my alarm went off! Determined, though, I pressed on and after quickly getting dressed, I consulted the internet and found that the queue was currently at somewhere called Southwark Park. I had no idea where this was – and had a vague fear that I didn’t even go that far on my holiday! – but I set off into the dark streets of London. The journey involved three night buses and the first two were exactly as we might have expected: a few bleary-eyed souls heading into jobs in the City and elsewhere. But after making my final change at Elephant & Castle, everything changed. The C10 pulled up and was busier than Oxford Street at midday. Every seat was taken and it was clear that nearly everybody onboard had only one destination in mind. Many were dressed in black, others looked far too smart to be on a night bus, and most looked well prepared for a long day. Everyone was on their phones checking the progress of ‘the queue’ and it was undoubtedly the chattiest night bus – indeed chattiest bus full stop – that I had ever caught in London. People were comparing notes about where they had come from and where exactly the queue was at that moment. With joy, we collectively realised that it had in fact shortened dramatically in the last hour and was now merely at Tower Bridge. With gay abandon, we leapt off into the night in search of the Thames, a ragamuffin group drawn from across the world.

With a few missteps, we found the fabled ‘end of the line’ underneath Tower Bridge and with it one of the most important people in London that day: the woman with the wristbands! The golden wristbands without which no one was allowed to join the queue and which we would have to show repeatedly throughout the day. For the first few hundred yards, we sped through the night at a gallop with no sign of other people. ‘This would be a breeze,’ I foolishly thought! We scurried past Tower Bridge, HMS Belfast, the Tower of London; all beautifully flood lit on this cold, clear September night. We turned the corner under London Bridge station, near the place that provided the backdrop for the murder of Nancy in ‘Oliver Twist’, and our progress immediately halted. Here was the beginning of a line of humanity that stretched for nearly 5 miles, all the way to Westminster. My time in the queue had begun.

I think it was only then the reality of what I was doing finally struck me. I was going to stand for the next 11 ½ hours with a group of strangers, slowly shuffling through the streets of London to spend no more than a few minutes paying my respects to a dead monarch. What an earth was I doing? Like so many others in the queue, though, I found that it was precisely those strangers that I met who would keep me going. I soon got chatting with those around me and I could not have asked for a better group of fellow travellers. There was a family from Canada, who had come over specially for the occasion. Two friends from London, one of whom had simply turned up at the other’s house in the small hours of the morning and said, “Get dressed. We’re joining the queue.” There was a lovely woman from the bus who worked for Macmillan, the cancer charity. And there was a man from Sheffield with his seven-year-old daughter, who remarkably who made friends with everyone in the queue and whose perseverance was an example to the rest of us. And this was not all. As the day progressed, I noticed that there were far fewer people wearing headphones or with their eyes glued to screens than usual in our city. I found an atmosphere in the queue that I had not experienced since the days of London 2012, with nearly everyone wanting to chat and keen to help one another. It was a remarkable experience.

Together, we slowly progressed to Westminster, on what often felt like the slowest guided tour of London. As the sun rose over the Thames and the night chill eventually gave way to warm sunshine, we passed by so many familiar landmarks: Borough market, the Globe theatre, Tate Modern, the South Bank and the National Theatre. Everywhere we went, people were going out of their way to help us. The Globe opened through the day and night to give access to their toilets: “for this relief much thanks”! Five star hotels offered free tea and coffee. Volunteer stewards and chaplains were constantly on hand to offer advice and encouragement. Our incredibly slow pace of our progress also allowed me to observe things about my city that I had never noticed before. As I was wearing my dog collar, people also seemed to feel they had permission to speak to me more about faith and even matters of life and death.

Eventually, after around seven hours on the march, the Houses of Parliament came in sight and we dared to hope that we were nearly there. Little did we know that this was a false dawn and the last stretch of the queue would be the most challenging, with a seemingly endless zigzagging line after Lambeth Bridge leading up to Westminster Hall. It was in those last few hours that the toll of a day on our feet really began to show. People clutched the small of their backs, thighs began to ache and weariness was visible all round. I was reminded of a verse from Isaiah:

Strengthen the weak hands,

   and make firm the feeble knees.

Say to those who are of a fearful heart,

   ‘Be strong, do not fear!

Isaiah 35:3-4

Finally, though, we made it. Through security, with the most polite and friendly police I had ever encountered, and into Westminster Hall at last. The scene was truly mediaeval and took one’s breath away. The ancient hall, which has seen so much of our history, with the coffin in the centre surrounded by its ever present guard, their heads perpetually bowed and weapons reversed. Amazingly, with so many people waiting outside, we were not hurried or chivvied along. We were gently ushered into four neat lines sneaking their way past the catafalque and all of us, from the greatest to the least, had our own private moment with our late sovereign. Walking through, I felt my senses heightened and I noticed so many small details, not least the silence in the hall and the reverent behaviour of all those with me. As I passed by, I was struck by the smallness of the crown – a touching reminder of the humanity behind the pomp and circumstance.

Blinking, we emerged into the warm sunshine of the September afternoon and passed out into a Parliament Square devoid of traffic. For a few moments our little group compared notes on what we had seen, and then we bid each other an emotional farewell as we went our different ways to train stations and tubes, knowing that though we had spent nearly twelve hours together, we would never see one another again. Our journey finally was at an end.

In the days afterwards, the most common question I got from others was, “Was it worth it?”. It was indeed a question I reflected on myself. I had queued for the best part of an entire day to spend no more than perhaps three or four minutes in the Hall, and witness a scene that I could have far more easily by simply switching on my television. As I reflected, though, I realised – like those two disciples on the road to Emmaus perhaps – that it was the journey that had made it worthwhile perhaps even more than the ultimate destination. Without Westminster Hall, there would have been no point to queueing but I knew that it would be the memories of the journey there that would remain with me always.

The Bishop of Southwark, whose Cathedral stood by this line of humanity for so many days, compared the queue to a pilgrimage. I would agree. There was a real spiritual element to it, however we would wish to define that often misused word. Many people I spoke to did not quite know why they were there. It was much more than simple patriotism or jingoism. There was genuine sadness and real gratitude, mingled with memories of all those that we had loved and lost, with perhaps also a contemplation of our own mortality. Like Chaucer’s pilgrims, who gathered in Southwark so long ago, strangers gathered united only by a common purpose and destination. For a time, some of the barriers of class, gender and race were broken, and different sections of society met. As we travelled, others treated us more kindly than normal travellers, and even came to watch us in our quest!

After I had left Westminster Hall, along with many others, I went up to Buckingham Palace. Not with any real purpose in mind but just because I didn’t quite know what to do with myself after the certainty of the queue, and because it felt like the right thing to do. I was funnelled into a one-way system along with hundreds of others and we slowly progressed from the gate to the Palace, along the Mall towards the floral tributes in Green Park. I was immediately reminded of the crowd of pilgrims in Rome or Jerusalem slowly walking from one holy site to another. A Muslim in the queue had compared it all to his experiences of the Hajj in Mecca, with the vast crowds slowly circling the Kaaba. Undoubtedly, this was all something out of the ordinary; a pilgrimage for our time. It even had its own relics to take away in the form of the precious wristband!

So often in life, we can become fixated by the endpoint. Getting through the ‘to do’ list. Finishing the job. That is important but it can mean that we miss the real experience on the way. As Christians, we can offer the impression – to ourselves and especially to those outside the church – that we are far more interested in life after death than life itself. Our faith in Christ does indeed allow us to fix our eyes upon our heavenly goal, and so much of our liturgy and hymnody speaks of that New Jerusalem. Yet, if we think about the life of Jesus himself, we find that he was often equally interested in the journey as the destination. He spent so much time on the road and on his last great journey, as the scriptures recall, “he set his face to go to Jerusalem” (Luke 9:51). But he continually allowed himself to be interrupted by those he met on the way, taking time to talk to the stranger and the beggar by the side of the road, while his disciples tried to hurry him on. Like those travellers on the road to Emmaus so long ago, only in hindsight can we see that what happened along the way taught us so much about following Jesus.

In a similar way, like all of you, I was transfixed by the funeral of our late Queen on Monday, and as I’ve said to you today I wanted to have my own small part in the momentous events that followed her death. Yet was the grand funeral, with its gun carriage and plumes, the purpose and the high point of the Queen’s life? Of course not. As we have been reminded repeatedly in the eulogies and remembrances that have been shared about her, it was how she walked with faithful service and commitment that we celebrated and for which we give thanks. It was the journey of her life that brought those thousands to Westminster Hall, not the pomp of her ending.

The story of the Road to Emmaus and my experiences of ‘The Queue’, remind me to treasure the journey as much as the destination. As Christians, we travel in perpetual hope, knowing that through God’s sacrifice of his only Son, our Saviour Jesus, we have the assurance of approaching boldly the eternal throne and claiming ‘the Crown through Christ our own’ [Charles Wesley]. Yet as we fix our eyes on that eternal goal, let us never lose sight of our companions on the road and the pilgrimage of life to which we are all called. Let us treasure each moment, savour every experience, encourage one another through good times and bad. So that when we look back, I pray, we shall realise that our hearts too were burning within us as we find that Christ was walking beside us, each step of the way. Then we can too can echo the song of those pilgrims so long ago, who sang with confidence and hope as they caught sight of the Holy City:

The Lord will keep

   your going out and your coming in

   from this time on and for evermore.

Psalm 121:8

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