These are perhaps the most famous gates in the world — certainly among the most photographed.
We gathered outside, a vast crowd of us, forming a neat line — as British people still do when in traditional mode — talking, taking photographs, fussing about.
This is a Buckingham Palace garden party, one of the great events of London’s summer. We are going to tea with the queen. An engraved card had arrived some weeks before to summon us, and now today we are here with an enormous number of people from across Britain — people from voluntary groups who need to be thanked and rewarded, people who sit on official committees, people who hold minor positions in public life at the local level, people who represent different lobby groups and religions, people who have retired from various public offices — plus diplomats from every different sort of foreign embassy. And we are all in our best clothes, and we are all going to have tea.
What happens at such an event? Hundreds of people — ladies in vast hats, people in Army, Royal Navy, or Royal Air Force uniform, mayors and mayoresses wearing their chains of office, people in Islamic dress, the occasional Scotsman in a kilt — crunch across the gravel beyond those famous gates, pass through one of the large arches into an inner courtyard, and then through the palace itself to the magnificent garden beyond.
And it is magnificent. Lawns stretch down to a large lake; in one direction there is a great rose garden, with paths to wooded areas and further lawns dotted with shrubs and flower beds in another. Today, the main lawns are host to several substantial marquees where large tea urns are ready on tables spread with white damask and huge floral displays of heavily scented lilies. Military bands are taking turns playing. A detachment of Yeomen of the Guard marches across.
At a Buckingham Palace garden party, you see the Britain that others imagine when they talk about us. We are formally dressed — in some cases looking superb, in others simply terrible as fat bulges out from spaghetti straps, or unsuitable hats are clamped precariously on messy hair. There are young men in uniform — rarely seen on our streets, as they have been banned from wearing it in public since the IRA bombs of the 1970s. People are introduced to one another; the mood is friendly, but restrained. Everyone comments on the weather.
The band stops. People rise. An elderly couple walks with brisk pace and upright carriage out from the palace and stops at the front of the terrace with split-second timing. As they come to a halt, the band strikes up the National Anthem. Everything stands stock still. As the notes fade away, there is applause. This is why we are here. For a moment, childhood memories of Christmas broadcasts, pictures in the press, national events shared on TV, all coalesce. Here we are: I am at Buckingham Palace, and this is the queen in front of me.
Can all this last? London is not a city of garden parties and tea urns. Drunken young people totter about our shopping centers on Friday and Saturday nights, shrieking at one another, vomiting, fighting. The structures of family life are cracked and wobbling: Over half of all births are now out of wedlock, and divorce is on an epic scale. Over five million of our relations and friends are missing, aborted before birth. Same-sex unions are celebrated with "gay weddings."
Can we go on dressing up and pretending everything is still functioning normally? As we stood on the lawn, chatting to various friends, I suddenly had a fleeting thought: "Is this like the summer of 1914? Is doom on the way?"
I don’t mean war, nor even an extension of Islamic terrorism. I was thinking of a different sort of doom — connected with the demise of our culture, and what will happen to Christians within it.
The morning of the tea, I’d been summoned from bed by the telephone: a call from the BBC wanting a debate on a news program. The Church of England Synod had voted to create women bishops. They wanted a Roman Catholic comment, and I was happy to oblige.
The disintegration of the Church of England is fairly far advanced: There is theological muddle and some extraordinarily clichéd ranting that poses for genuine debate. Numbers attending services have dropped dramatically in recent years and are still dropping. Even here at a Buckingham Palace garden party, the Church of England news was an undercurrent — it had dominated the headlines for the past two days, even edging out reports of the government’s plummeting popularity, the G8 summit, and London’s latest street stabbings.
Of course, it isn’t female bishops who are essentially the issue in the Church of England, and everyone knows it. Somehow, it is an icon of so much more: the debate over homosexuality, the whole question of authority, the nature of God, the nature of the Church He founded.
And the sad reality is that, in speaking up for the traditional Christian teachings on a whole range of things — sex, marriage, male/female relationships, the sanctity of a child in the womb — Catholics, and other Christians who still want to identify with traditional beliefs and messages, have to go against the general tide, the general mood of current Western culture, the attitude prevalent in the mainstream mass media and in universities.
During the next years, as the social problems of our country continue — and they certainly will, because of the anti-life and anti-marriage structures, backed by unjust laws and propaganda pushed at the young — Catholics and all those who support the old traditional Christian teachings will face a tough time. We may find ourselves in a situation where we aren’t on the guest list for garden parties anymore. We may find ourselves sensing an affinity with the Catholic heroes of the past and praying fervently that we might have something of their courage and devotion.
If this happens, and we are excluded from future tea parties — at which Anglican bishopettes exchange pleasantries in a sunlit garden while adherents of our ancient faith languish elsewhere — it will somehow be important that one thing is noted and passed down into history. It’s this: Just as the martyrs of long ago, Sts. John Fisher and Thomas More and Edmund Campion, were not the traitors they were announced to be, nor will the loyal Catholics of any future Britain be. The Faith we hold is the one that fostered Western culture, and called into existence the things we have all long cherished and known to be important, right down to the concept of a Christian monarchy, anointed in a Christian ceremony that emphasized a covenant of mutual duties under the reign of Christ Himself symbolized by the Cross on the Crown and on the orb in the monarch’s hand.
For the sincere Catholic, patriotism is a duty of love and no mere formality. It is linked to the Fourth Commandment about honoring father and mother. For Catholics in Britain, patriotism is a joy when it means applauding, with genuine affection, a much-loved monarch at a garden party. It is no less real when it affirms those basic moral truths and principles that are the foundation of any thriving society, but which sometimes — as now — happen to be unfashionable.
And it remains unswerving, knowing that, in honoring God first — as Thomas More reminded us — we remain, whether recognized as such or not, the monarch’s good servants, too.
Joanna Bogle is an author and broadcaster living in London.