Queen performs miracle in a train

After her usual holiday at Sandringham in Norfolk, the Queen took the train from Kings Lynn back home to Buckingham Palace.

Though slightly more expensively turned out, she didn’t look unlike any other elderly passenger – needing a little help with her bag and someone to assist her getting in and out at the platform. She sat in an ordinary carriage next to a couple from Brancaster who were going to London to see their grandchildren.

When she takes public transport, the Queen is at one level doing a very normal thing. But because she does it, it is – of course – astonishing. Because she could easily afford to go by helicopter, because she is the woman who was crowned in Westminster Abbey, Queen of Great Britain, Ireland and the British Dominions beyond the sea, defender of the realm and of the faith.


Now she’s on the train in the seat next to me

What touches us, even if we don’t usually spell it out, is that she is both the sovereign and a passenger at the same time, both extraordinary and normal.

Hierarchy is a deeply painful aspect of human society. There are good reasons why wholesale equality isn’t practical, but the longing for understanding and sympathy by the powerful towards the less powerful runs deep. That’s why it is deeply moving – and plain reassuring – if we see someone who could fly by helicopter take the train. It bodes well for the world.

The idea that someone very privileged might freely opt to mix with everyone else is at the heart of one of the most powerful fables in the history of humanity. Christianity tells us that the Son of God was born an ordinary human being, in the unremarkable village of Bethlehem and worked as a lowly tradesman for most of his life. He was in the carriage with all of us. That’s what true gods know to do. They don’t wall themselves off.


He could have had a palace instead

For Christians, the story of Jesus’s ordinary life is deeply reassuring and poignant. A powerful, distant entity communed with us, shared our experiences, knew what it was like to be just another person struggling to get by.

But there’s a moral there for everyone. We all live in world that is officially egalitarian and meritocratic. Yet we are endlessly exposed to massive differences in wealth, power, status and fame. We’re fascinated by the lives of top people. Yet we are troubled too. Do they understand? Do they know what it’s like? Any hints that they do are deeply significant.

When the queen takes the train, she is bridging the world of history, grandeur, money and power – and the world of everyday life. The cynical (or just ambitious) voice might at this point say that there should only be average, normal, egalitarian things. But as this is unlikely to happen any time soon, what we desperately need is people at the top who properly understand their responsibilities towards the many. The Queen knows this, and that’s why she is rarely more appreciated than when she takes her place in a second class carriage of a provincial English train.