Queen’s memorial service briefly unites strife-torn Washington

Her final gift to her many admirers in America was an hour and a half of ceremony, sanctity and peace in a city overrun by loud political acrimony.

The Queen was remembered on Wednesday at a thanksgiving service at Washington National Cathedral, an elegant event that brought together Americans of all political stripes, obliged to park their rancour at the bronze gate.

It is unlikely any felt a sudden craving for monarchy after 246 years of freedom. But there was also perhaps cause to reflect, in a nation where seemingly everyone has an opinion about everything, on the benefits of a head of state whose duty is to not have an opinion on anything.

It was, of course, a low-key affair compared with the Queen’s state funeral at Westminster Abbey in London. No draped coffin, no crown, sceptre or orb, no British royals, not even a former US president unless one counts Woodrow Wilson, who is among more than 220 people interred here.

But the front row of the congregation did include the vice-president, Kamala Harris, her husband, Doug Emhoff, and the House speaker, Nancy Pelosi – all Democrats – sitting beside the House minority leader, Kevin McCarthy, a Republican and political adversary. There were cordial greetings between them.

Sitting further back was Sean Spicer, the former White House press secretary who infamously claimed that Donald Trump’s inauguration drew the biggest crowd ever.

Such episodes were put aside on a sombre day in a theatre fit for a queen. The national cathedral took 83 years to build and is the sixth biggest in the world. It boasts 112 gargoyles and 215 stained glass windows, one of which contains a piece of moon rock. At moments, sunlight poured rainbow colours on to the great stone pillars. The Queen set foot here four times, first as a princess.

Many of the flowers and greens that bedecked the cathedral came from the British embassy, including a cutting from an oak the Queen planted in 2007.

Vice-President Kamala Harris, from left, her husband Doug Emhoff, House speaker Nancy Pelosi, and House minority leader Kevin McCarthy, sing the national anthem during the memorial service for Queen Elizabeth II.
Vice-President Kamala Harris, from left, her husband Doug Emhoff, House speaker Nancy Pelosi, and House minority leader Kevin McCarthy, sing the national anthem during the memorial service for Queen Elizabeth II. Photograph: Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP

A sepulchral hush descended as the British Armed Forces Colour Guard and the American Army Color Guard walked the nave carrying their national flags. The only sound was their polished shoes on the marble floor. Then came the tolling of the bourdon bell.

Wearing black, Dame Karen Pierce, the British ambassador, described the Queen as “a great friend and admirer” of the country who paid six official visits, addressing Congress, meeting presidents and taking in baseball and American football as well as commemorative events.

“She well understood the affinity between the US and the UK, stressing not just our common heritage and kinship but our common values. To Congress she said, ‘Some people believe that power grows from the barrel of a gun. We have gone a better way. Our societies rest on mutual agreement and on contract and consensus.’”

Pierce expressed gratitude to the US for its tributes to the Queen, noting that a flag had been lowered to half-mast at the site of the Battle of New Orleans, the last time UK and US military forces fought as enemies.

“With her deep sense of history, I think the Queen would have liked that,” she said.

The Queen, for whom faith was defining, would have appreciated hymns including Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah, I Vow to Thee, My Country and Lord of All Hopefulness. Prayers cited her son, King Charles III, and “the long and historic relationship between the United States and the United Kingdom”.

The British ambassador to the US, Karen Pierce, speaks during the memorial service for Queen Elizabeth II at Washington National Cathedral.
The British ambassador to the US, Karen Pierce, speaks during the memorial service for Queen Elizabeth II at Washington National Cathedral. Photograph: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

Bishop Michael Curry, who delivered the sermon at the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, offered a homily with characteristic joie de vivre. Paying tribute to the Queen, he said: “We give God thanks that one such as her did walk among us.”

When she became Queen, Curry said, she vowed to serve the people all her life. “She kept her word. She kept her word. We are here to give God thanks that it is possible to serve and keep your word.”

The cathedral swelled with the sound of bagpipes and drums, prayers and a choral amen. There was a rendition of British national anthem – the first time in 70 years that the words “God save the King” had been sung at such on occasion on American soil. The Star-Spangled Banner followed.

Two hundred miles away in New York, Joe Biden was addressing the United Nations about the crisis in Ukraine and preparing to meet the new British prime minister, Liz Truss. Harris, Pelosi and McCarthy returned to their posts. The special relationship remained special but the politics of a troubled world were about to crowd in again.