Sunday, 3 June 2012


I have been engaged in a classic piece of teachers overtime this last week - marking scripts for an examination board - and that means that I have only loosely followed the build up to this weekend's celebration of the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II. It has been interesting to read some of the more personal stories about Queen Elizabeth that are told in some of the interviews with those who meet her. One example of this is Archbishop Rowan Williams' observations about the Queen's sense of humour. His characterisation of Her Majesty as friendly, able to be informal and humorous, and at the same time able to retain an appropriate dignity, is typical of these.

What I think the interviews and coverage reveal about Queen Elizabeth II is a very striking congruence (in mathematics, congruent shapes are shapes that are identical in both shape and size and can therefore be layed exactly on top of each other, whereas similar shapes are the same shape but different size so do not successfully lie on top of each other) between the office that she fulfils and she as the person who fulfils that office. Newspaper accounts of her weekly meeting with Prime Ministers, for example, indicate that those meetings involve a certain intimacy and a well informed discussion of current events. During her very successful visit to Ireland, it was not just the person of Elizabeth II or the office of Queen separately that made for success, but the unity of the person and the office. It is almost impossible to think of any other person who could have carried out that visit, as monarch and as person, in quite the way that Elizabeth did.

If one part of that congruence of person and office is to be found in the way in which Her Majesty carries out functions of state, another part of it is to be found in her relationship to the ordinary people of Britain. The warmth of public response, for example, to the pageant on the River Thames due to take place later today is made up of a respect for the office of the Queen combined with a regard for Elizabeth II as a person. The events of this Diamond Jubilee weekend manifest vividly this aspect of the congruence of person and office to be found in Queen Elizabeth II.

One of Edith Stein's phenomenological studies is one dedicated to an investigation of the ontic structure of the state. It can be seen as the last in the sequence of studies that began with her doctoral thesis on empathy, and through which the nature of the human individual and of relations between human individuals is a developing theme. One of the points that she discusses is how it is part of the nature of a state that it can be represented at times by individuals, or groups of individuals, and Edith Stein analyses this point. In most countries now this might be a prime minister or a president who comes to power in some way. It is interesting to reflect on the extent to which Queen Elizabeth II, in her office as Queen, represents in her person the British state. Clearly this representative role is shared with those who hold office in government, perhaps particularly the Prime Minister; but it is, strictly speaking, Her Majesty who hosts state visits by Heads of State from other countries. The constitutional arrangement in Britain gives the Queen a very nuanced role in this representative dimension of her office, and a reflection on it brings us back to the congruence of person and office that we have seen in Elizabeth II.

Another aspect of the ontic structure of the state discussed by Edith Stein is the nature of the different human communities that can come together within the state, and the way in which the state is a distinctive kind of community characterised by sovereignty. This discussion is rooted in a technical understanding of different types of community developed in her earlier phenomenological studies (translated into English by the terms "crowd", "community", "association"). The individuals who belong to a state form a community with a certain common life current, this community having relations to other communities both within and subsidiary to the state concerned and within other states. Edith Stein's discussion of ethnicity in regard to the nature of the state, written in the context of the increasing influence of Nazi ideology in Germany, has an application in a quite different context in Britain today. She concludes that a state does not need a specific ethnic community to exist as a state properly so called and nor does an ethnic community require a particular form of state government of its own in order that it should live successfully within a state. What is required is that the civic organisation of the state permits ethnic communities that form part of the state to live according to their own cultural strength and life (their "personality", in Edith's technical use of that term). In the context of the Diamond Jubilee, Edith's discussion brings us back to considering Queen Elizabeth's relation to the ordinary people of Britain and the extent to which she is able, by way of the congruence of her office and person, to form among them a community that can be described as a state whilst respecting entirely the wide range of other communities (within the state) to which people also belong. It is the combined regard for the office and the person that is critical to understanding what Queen Elizabeth achieves for us in this regard.

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