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By the grace of God, Queen

Catherine Pepinster - The Tablet - Mon, Sep 19th 2022

 By the grace of God, Queen



“There is no longer rivalry between the Crown and the papacy ... we have moved on from the sixteenth century.”
Alamy Reuters/Jane Barlow

Elizabeth II, Queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and its overseas territories, and of 14 other sovereign nations, who has died aged 96, was the longest-serving and perhaps best-loved British monarch. Though she took her vow to uphold the Protestant religion seriously, she did more than anybody else to bridge the divide between Anglicans and Catholics in all her realms.

It was Henry VIII who was first given the title of Defender of the Faith by a grateful Pope for defending the Catholic Church’s teaching against the denunciations of Martin Luther. Despite his break from Rome, Henry clung on to it, and every English, and later British, monarch has since claimed it. From the start of her reign in 1952, when she succeeded her father, George VI, the coins that bore the head of Elizabeth II still referred to that title. Elizabeth DG, Reg, FD, they have said for 70 years: Elizabeth II, by the grace of God, Queen, Defender of the Faith. But perhaps no other monarch has ever been quite such a staunch defender of the Christian faith as Elizabeth II, who died on 8 September at the age of 96.

The daughter of Prince George, Duke of York and his wife, the former Elizabeth Bowes Lyon, Princess Elizabeth was born in 1926, and enjoyed an idyllic childhood in London and Windsor. In 1936, at the age of 10, her life dramatically changed when her uncle David succeeded his father, George V, taking the regnal name Edward VIII, and quickly made it known that he wished to marry the twice-divorced American, Wallis Simpson. Monarchs, since the time of Henry VIII’s daughter, Elizabeth I, not only held the title Defender of the Faith but were Supreme Governors of the Church of England. While Edward thought that it was possible for a monarch to have a clear dividing line between his personal life and his public one – a public one that would involve his consecration before God – the Church of England thought otherwise, and was confident that the British people took the same view.

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Cosmo Lang, agonised over whether he could administer the coronation oath given the circumstances, and Edward later blamed Lang and his views about Christian marriage for influencing others against him. Later, two days after Edward’s abdication – the government of the day had also been against the king’s marriage – Lang broadcast to the nation via the BBC. Edward had not been prepared to sacrifice personal happiness on the altar of public duty but Lang thought he should: “From God he received a high and sacred trust. Yet by his own will he has ... surrendered the trust.” The King had had “a craving for private happiness”, which he had sought “in a manner inconsistent with the Christian principles of marriage”.

Many people were appalled by Lang’s hard-line position and sacks of letters complained about his comments. But Queen Mary wrote to congratulate him on his view of her son’s behaviour. Within the royal family, antipathy to divorce was to last for many years.

For Edward’s brother, the Duke of York, his wife and their two daughters, the abdication changed their lives, as the new King, George VI, and his wife, Queen Elizabeth, took on considerable public duties. It also put their two daughters in the spotlight, especially Elizabeth, heir to the throne.

But there was constancy, in both the strong bond holding the family together – her father would call them “We four” – and in her Christian faith. Her parents and her grandfather had imbued her with a keen but simple faith, fortified by the Bible and the 1662 Book of Common Prayer. There was regular Sunday church attendance at Windsor, Sandringham and Balmoral while the young Princess Elizabeth was also schooled in the British constitution and her future responsibilities, including the role she would play in the Church of England.

When war broke out, the royal family, already promoted as an ideal stable family unit, were in the spotlight again, leading the nation against Nazism. King George’s radio broadcasts made it clear that he saw the war as a moral crusade against fascism and Princess Elizabeth was recruited to make motivating broadcasts to children.

In 1947, on a trip to South Africa with her parents and sister, Margaret, she celebrated her twenty-first birthday and broadcast a message to Britain and its remaining empire. In it, she pledged to commit herself to a life of duty and service to God and the people: “I declare before you all that my whole life, whether it be long or short, shall be devoted to your service and the service of our great imperial family to which we all belong. But I shall not have strength to carry out this resolution alone unless you join in it with me, as I now invite you to do: I know that your support will be unfailingly given. God help me to make good my vow and God bless all of you who are willing to share in it.”

Biographers of Queen Elizabeth II long assumed the speech was written by Sir Alan “Tommy” Lascelles, George VI’s private secretary. In fact it came from the pen of Dermot Morrah, a speechwriter for the King and a Catholic. One biographer, Ben Pimlott, who thought it had been written by Lascelles, commented on its “nun-like” sacred promise.

A year later, Princess Elizabeth married her distant cousin, Prince Philip of Greece. The pair were both descended from Queen Victoria, with Philip’s branch of the family linked to the thrones of Denmark and Greece. Philip had endured a nomadic lifestyle following his mother Alice’s breakdown and his parents’ separation, eventually landing in Britain, where he was taken in by relatives of his mother’s, including his uncles George Milford Haven and Louis “Dickie” Mountbatten, who encouraged his naval career.

The Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh at their wedding in 1947. (PA/Alamy.)

Philip and Elizabeth first met in 1937 at Dartmouth Naval College, where he was a cadet and she was on a tour with her parents. Ten years later, they were married in Westminster Abbey in one of the first glamorous society events since the end of the war. Most of European royalty was related to the couple and they turned out in droves in their moth-eaten furs for the wedding. “People who had been starving in garrets all over Europe reappeared,” Princess Margaret remarked.

Clothing was still rationed and the wedding dress, designed by Norman Hartnell and made of Chinese silk, cost £1,200 and 300 clothing coupons. The glamour, expense and pomp were reminders of the otherness of royalty, while the wedding service showed the couple just like any other. It was a balance Elizabeth tried to achieve throughout her reign.

The Church of England wedding was of huge significance: this was the marriage of a future Supreme Governor of that Church, and it was decided that Philip needed to convert from his Greek Orthodox faith to the Church of England in order to marry the heir to the throne. The marriage lasted 73 years until the death of Philip on 9 April 2021, and produced four children: Charles, who succeeds her as monarch, taking the regnal name Charles III; Anne, the Princess Royal; Andrew, Duke of York; and Edward, Earl of Wessex. There are also eight grandchildren, and, to date, 12 great-grandchildren.

Throughout their marriage, Prince Philip displayed a profound curiosity about religion, which encouraged him to learn more about other faiths. His wife, while possessing a more simple belief, was also a pragmatist. She inherited the throne amid post-war turmoil and migration and quickly learned more about the faiths that people in the far corners of her empire and Commonwealth practised. As the years of her reign wore on, more of them were to be based in Britain. Her broadmindedness about religion was apparent in 1952, after she had acceded to the throne on the death of her father. In the first Christmas message of her reign, she asked people, whatever their faith, to pray for her as she prepared for her coronation the following June.

That coronation was an expression, like the 1947 wedding of Elizabeth and Philip, of Britain’s post-war desire to celebrate and mark the start of a new era. Families across the nation bought their first television sets to watch the ancient ceremony live.

It was a moment when the new monarch vowed not just to uphold the laws and traditions of the country but also to uphold the Protestant religion. It was, essentially, a rejection of Catholicism – for so many years perceived at a threat to the very existence of the nation – and the Church of England was very much in charge of the ceremony. But a close look at the coronation service reveals it as still rooted in an ancient Catholic liturgy, with its closest relative being an ordination service. The key moments were not the pledging of fealty by peers or her crowning but the new monarch’s receiving of the Eucharist and the anointing – so sacred that cameras were banned.

The idea of sacrifice was woven through the coronation service. During the preparation, held early in the morning before the main ceremony, the items essential for anointing – the ampulla, filled with oil, and the special spoon for it – were placed on the altar – a place so long associated in ancient religions with sacrifice. The anointing – symbolising someone taking on holy office – was akin to a priestly ordination. Elizabeth was to commit herself – or sacrifice her entire life – to God and the people. The chalice and paten, also used in the coronation during the liturgy of the Eucharist, were also placed there hinting at the sacrifice Christ made, which is commemorated in the Communion service. And while the Queen wore magnificent robes of gold cloth for her crowning, she was divested of them for her anointing and instead wore just her simple white shift, reinforcing the sense that this young woman was in many ways a sacrificial lamb.

There were moments during Elizabeth’s coronation that emphasised what was required of a British monarch. She prayed before the altar before the coronation began – making placing herself before God a priority. She turned and curtsied to all four sides of the abbey, indicating that, though Queen, she was to serve the people. She was handed a Bible on which she took her oath with the words: “Here is Wisdom. This is the Royal Law.” And Handel’s great anthem “Zadok the Priest” was sung, with its words from the Book of Kings, reminding everyone of the importance of the gift of wisdom for a monarch.

Later, the orb was placed in her right hand, a reminder, with its cross above the sphere, that the world is subject to Christ. The sceptres and baculus she held represented power and justice, equity and mercy. Step by step the young Queen had become a vehicle for the virtues of Christianity, and when at last the crowning took place, she stood not just as Christ’s servant but as a symbol of earthly power.

While Elizabeth II made her oath promising good government, justice and the law, tempered with mercy, there were three oaths that focused on the Church of England. One was that she would maintain the Protestant Reformed Religion to the utmost of her power; another to maintain and preserve “inviolably the settlement of the Church of England, and the doctrine, worship, discipline and government thereof, as by law established in England”, and finally preserving “unto the Bishops and Clergy of England, and to the Churches there committed to their charge, all such rights and privileges, as by law do or shall appertain to them or any of them”.

These oaths followed the Accession Council, held in February 1952, when she first became Queen and promised to uphold the Protestant religion in Scotland. This Scottish oath and her other religious vows were taken seriously by the Supreme Governor of the Church of England, as the Queen was styled, yet she did more than anybody else to bridge the divide between Anglicanism and Catholics. Due largely to her longevity, she met more popes – five – than any other monarch. Her travels took her on several occasions to Rome, where she met Pius XII in 1951, a year before her accession; John XXIII in 1961, John Paul II in 1980, and 2000; and Francis in 2014. She was the first British monarch to welcome a pope to the UK: first John Paul II in 1982 and then Benedict XVI in 2010.

Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip with Pope Francis at the Vatican in April 2014. (ALAMY/REALLYEASYSTAR, RICCARDO SQUILLANTINI.)

The trajectory of Elizabeth II’s relationship with the papacy can be seen in her dress. The audiences were always formal but, as the twentieth century gave way to the twenty-first, her appearance and protocols changed. During her first visits to Rome, she wore full-length black gowns, with a sash, insignia, tiara and full-length mantilla. The formality communicated how important a figure she was, but also acknowledged, with the mantilla, the religious stature of the Pope. The clothes also distinguished her from Catholic queens, who wore white in the presence of the Pope.

There was a different approach when she was on home turf. In 1982, when she welcomed John Paul II to Buckingham Palace, she wore a day dress in blue. Eighteen years later, meeting him in Rome, she was back in black, but again in a simple day dress. During the state visit of 2010, she greeted Benedict XVI in Edinburgh in a simple grey coat and hat, while purple served for Rome in 2014 to greet Pope Francis.

So the mood became more relaxed, more friendly and more personal. But the meetings had an important diplomatic purpose: this was the UK’s head of state meeting another, the Pope, and two religious leaders meeting, too. And those meetings, taking place after centuries of conflict between the country that broke away from the Vatican, served as signposts that relations were improving and significant barriers were being brought down.

The former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, said that it was Elizabeth that broke the duck. “Whatever was the case in 1535”, he said, referring to Henry VIII’s break with Rome, “there is no longer rivalry between the Crown and the papacy. Doing what she has done – head of state meeting head of state – shows that we really have moved on from the sixteenth century.”

While the Queen was open to rapprochement between the UK and the Vatican, she was also very careful about how it happened, and was well aware that some Protestants would be deeply suspicious of the British monarchy drawing closer to the papacy. So while she was happy to welcome John Paul II to Buckingham Palace in 1982, during a pastoral visit complicated by the Falklands War between the UK and the very Catholic Argentina that same year, she was wary of more engagement.

One of the highlights of John Paul’s trip was an ecumenical service at Canterbury Cathedral, and the then-Archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Runcie, asked the Prince of Wales to attend. Prince Charles was as keen as Runcie on the plan, but there was more uncertainty about it at Buckingham Palace, with the Queen and her son’s private secretary engaged in discussion about what should or shouldn’t happen. Runcie wanted the Prince of Wales to be involved in some way in the service but Elizabeth took the view – and being Queen, she had the final say – that Charles should attend but not participate. In other words, be seen and not heard.

However, there was an outcry from some Protestants that the Prince of Wales was even in the cathedral for the service, with the Moderator of the Free Church of Scotland complaining that “the false and blasphemous claims of the papacy” were being given credence by Charles’ attendance.

This may well have confirmed to Queen Elizabeth that caution must remain the order of the day, and her caution was certainly evident once more when the Prince and Princess of Wales visited Rome three years later. Once more, both Prince Charles and Archbishop Runcie were keen for there to be a gesture of reconciliation and a suitable one would be the attendance of Charles and Diana at a service in St Peter’s Basilica. The headache once more would be the reaction of the more hard- line Protestants, while too little engagement might also not go down well. The solution, according to Runcie and the Prince of Wales, was for Charles and Diana to attend Mass in the Pope’s private chapel. Knowing this might also cause uproar in certain circles, they imposed a news blackout. Even the Queen was not told until two weeks before the Mass.

When she learned about it, she was deeply concerned, and sought the advice of the Canadian prime minister, Brian Mulroney, who was a Catholic, and happened to be visiting Britain at the time. Mulroney thought it wasn’t a problem but he could see Elizabeth was worried about anything that might undermine the monarch’s integrity as Supreme Governor of the Church of England. That concern and caution became the order of the day and the Mass was called off, much to the Vatican’s irritation.

This caution was also evident in how rarely the Queen attended Catholic services herself, although she did visit Westminster Cathedral in 1995 for a service of vespers marking the centenary since construction of the cathedral had begun. The choice of vespers suggested that she remained concerned that the attendance of the Supreme Governor, or her heir, at the celebration of a Catholic Mass would be too much for certain Protestants to bear.

There seems to be only one occasion when she did attend a Catholic Eucharistic service, and it wasn’t in Britain. In 1993, she set tradition and her usual caution aside to honour a friend when she went to Brussels for the Requiem of King Baudouin of the Belgians, sitting with Prince Philip and among other royalty in the Cathedral of St Michael and St Gudula. But there was no question of Elizabeth II receiving Communion during the Mass: that was a step too far.

There was, above all, huge mutual respect between the Queen and the papacy. For Rome, she represented not just a head of state, or a leader of Anglicanism, but a person of deep personal faith. As one Vatican official once said to me, she was held in such high regard in Rome that they considered her “the last Christian monarch”.

Her regard for Roman Catholicism was also shaped by her fondness for particular leaders of its English church. She developed a strong bond with Basil Hume, taking to calling him “my cardinal”. In 1999, during the last weeks of his life, she honoured him with the Order of Merit, the highest personal honour of a sovereign. His successor as Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, was also popular with the Queen and her husband, and was asked to preach at Sandringham. Many clerics dreaded the Sandringham visits, as they knew that the Duke of Edinburgh would take them to task about their sermons. But Murphy-O’Connor cheerfully tolerated Prince Philip’s frequent denunciations of Catholic teaching on birth control over breakfast, lunch and dinner.

It was Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor who also played a key role in Queen Elizabeth’s final meeting of her reign with a pope. In 2013, the cardinal was instrumental in Rome in encouraging voting cardinals to elect Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Buenos Aires as pope – the pair had got to know one another when they were made cardinals at the same consistory in 2001. After the conclave chose Bergoglio, he asked Murphy-O’Connor to convey his warmest greetings to the Queen. The message helped set the diplomatic wheels in motion and a year later, in 2014, Elizabeth and her husband flew to Rome for a day which included lunch with the Italian president and an afternoon with the Pope. It was a significant endorsement of British diplomatic relations with the Holy See in the centenary year of their re-establishment, post-Reformation.

As is typical of such diplomatic encounters there was an exchange of gifts, with the Queen opting for a very pragmatic one. She offered the Pope a hamper of produce from her estates, including jams made from fruit from her gardens and eggs from her hens, as well as Balmoral whisky. Pope Francis opted for a rather curious gift of an orb made from lapis lazuli for her new great-grandson, Prince George. The Queen, deadpan, said: “He will be thrilled with that – when he’s a little older.”

The connections with Roman Catholicism grew not only through her regard for popes and English cardinals but also through her own family, with the conversions in 1994 of the Duchess of Kent and, in 2001, of her son, Lord Nicholas Windsor. Elizabeth’s cousin, Prince Michael of Kent, lost his right to the succession when he married a Catholic, Marie-Christine von Reibnitz, in 1978. In 2010, when Queen Elizabeth met Pope Benedict XVI at the start of his visit to the UK, she asked that Lord Nicholas Windsor be introduced to him.

The regard in which she held the Pope was evident in her decision to ask Prince Philip to meet Benedict at Edinburgh Airport when he arrived from Rome on 16 September 2010. During her welcome, she thanked him for the warm hospitality with which her own family members had been welcomed on visits to Rome. There was also more serious commentary, with both Queen and Pope referring to Northern Ireland. “In this country”, she said, “we deeply appreciate the involvement of the Holy See in the dramatic improvement in the situation in Northern Ireland.”

Both were aware of how tense relations had sometimes been in Northern Ireland between the Catholic Church and the British state, of which Queen Elizabeth was head. And there was also lingering tension in the south, too, with some remaining suspicious of Britain and its monarchy, dating back to the days before Irish independence, and resentment among some about its continuing presence in the north. In 2011, Elizabeth and Philip visited the Republic of Ireland at the invitation of its president, Mary McAleese – the first visit of a reigning British monarch since Ireland became an independent nation, and 100 years since the last monarchical visit, before  independence, undertaken by the Queen’s grandfather, George V. Her speech at the state dinner in Dublin Castle, where she spoke of reconciliation and “things we wish had been done differently or not at all”, was greeted across the Irish political spectrum and in both the Protestant and Catholic communities with near universal praise.

Some four years later, another major change came in relations between Queen Elizabeth and Catholics. It was not until 2015, when the Succession to the Crown Act 2013 came into force, that the ban was lifted on royal family members married to Catholics being in the line of succession. Prince Michael was then reinstated, and is now fifty-first in line to the throne. The ban on the monarch being a Roman Catholic, however, remains in place.

Other family members caused her religious difficulties. Just as the desire of Edward VIII to marry a divorcee rocked the royal family, so did her sister Margaret’s wish, shortly after the 1953 coronation, to marry the divorced Group Captain Peter Townsend. The Queen, as both monarch and Supreme Governor of the Church of England, consulted her own staff, the Church, and the government of the day, led by Winston Churchill and later Anthony Eden. The advice was unanimous: as Supreme Governor, she could not be seen to condone divorce through agreeing to her sister marrying Townsend.

In 1955, The Times – very much the Establishment paper at that time – published a leader written by the editor, Sir William Haley, stating that a key role of the monarchy was being a model family, and that “if one of the Family’s members become a cause for division, then the salt will lose its savour”.

“The Princess will be entering into a union which vast numbers of her sister’s people, all sincerely anxious for her lifelong happiness, cannot in conscience regard as a marriage.”

It added to the pressure on Elizabeth and her sister, who issued a statement five days after the Times leader, saying she had decided not to marry Group Captain Townsend. She said of her decision: “Mindful of the Church’s teaching that Christian marriage is indissoluble, and conscious of my duty to the Commonwealth, I have resolved to put these considerations before any others.”

This commitment to duty and to Church teaching was already waning in Britain, with the popular tabloids of the day urging the princess to wed the RAF officer. As marriage breakdown became more common in Britain, so people once opposed to divorce became more tolerant. By the 1980s and 1990s, break-down also impacted the royal family, with the troubled marriages and divorces of Elizabeth’s own children causing her anxiety, expressed in her comment that 1992 had been an annus horribilis. That year, the marriage of the Duke and Duchess of York had come to an end while the divorced Princess Anne had found a way round Anglican remarriage problems for royals by marrying her second husband, Captain Timothy Laurence, near Balmoral, in the Church of Scotland’s Crathie Kirk, a ceremony that the Queen attended. The Church of Scotland would allow divorcees to remarry, and the Queen was not its Supreme Governor.

The most problematic failed marriage was that of her son and heir, Prince Charles, Prince of Wales, and Princess Diana, who separated that year. They eventually divorced four years later. Although the Prince of Wales became a widower a year later, following the death of Diana in 1997 in a car crash in Paris, it was many years before the Queen was ready to accept his remarriage to Camilla Parker- Bowles.

There seemed to be a softening in her attitude, though, after the death in 2002 of Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, who had remained implacably opposed to divorce throughout her life. That same year, the Church of England’s rules on remarriages of divorcees changed, allowing them in exceptional circumstances. Eventually the Prince married Mrs Parker-Bowles in 2005, but rather than a full-blown church ceremony, it was a registry office one with a church blessing in St George’s Chapel in Windsor. The Queen’s presence at the blessing was a marked indication that attitudes, not only in the country, but also at the highest levels, had softened towards divorce.

The Queen’s attitude to Mrs Parker-Bowles had also been, like so many of the monarch’s decisions, in part driven by practical and pragmatic considerations. Faced with her son and heir’s determination to keep Mrs Parker-Bowles in his life, the Queen commented that Camilla was clearly not going to go away and so the situation was better regularised.

Grudging acceptance later turned to respect and affection, and in February 2022, in her statement marking the Platinum Jubilee of her accession, she expressed her desire that Camilla in time become her son’s Queen Consort, after pointing out how vital it had been for her to have the support of Prince Philip, and for her father to have relied on her mother, Queen Elizabeth. Her statement mentioned Camilla’s loyal service – service having been one of the Queen’s watchwords throughout her reign.

For most people, the connections between the Queen and religion were most apparent, not in her family’s travails but in her Christmas Day messages. Started by George V on the wireless and continued by George VI, the monarch’s Christmas message has remained a TV highlight of the festive season. It was also a landmark in the Royal Household, where it was known as the QXB (Queen’s Christmas Broadcast) and great care was made with its content, which was entirely down to her and her advisers, and did not involve government input at all.

Apart from a plea for people’s prayers made in her first broadcast at Christmas 1952, eight months after her accession and six months before her coronation, and the early messages with more Christian content, the broadcasts became more of an account of the Queen’s year, with details of family milestones and trips abroad. All that changed in the later years of her life. The turning point came in 2000, following the celebrations of the Millennium on New Year’s Eve, 1999, when she joined the prime minister, Tony Blair, and other members of the government to sing “Auld Lang Syne” in the Millennium Dome.

A year later, she used her Christmas Day message to point out to viewers and listeners that the Millennium was really about the 2000th anniversary of the birth of Christ, whose teachings, she said, “provide a framework in which I tried to lead my life”. The postbag of approval was enormous, and after that, the Queen’s Christmas message was always avowedly Christian and personal.

In 2021, in what was to be her last Christmas broadcast, she spoke at length of the loss of her husband, to whom she referred as “my beloved Philip”. There was also reference to the next generations taking over from her and the Duke of Edinburgh. As well as this hope for continuity, the Christian message of hope was also evident in the now traditional reference to her own beliefs: “It is this simplicity of the Christmas story that makes it so universally appealing, simple happenings that formed the starting point of the life of Jesus – a man whose teachings have been handed down from generation to generation, and have been the bedrock of my faith.”

As religious belief declined in Britain, hers remained, so that by the last years of her reign, the majority of her subjects’ exposure to Christianity on Christmas Day came not through a church service but through the Queen’s words. Her Christmas messages were not exclusive, however, and in recent years often included a reference to other faiths. Her message of Christmas 2000, for example, included the comment that: “Of course religion can be divisive but the Bible, Koran, and the sacred texts of the Jews and Hindus, Buddhists and Sikhs, are all sources of divine inspiration and practical guidance passed down the generations.”

In many ways, Elizabeth was ahead of her time in her wish to connect with people of other faiths. Her request that people of all faiths pray for her before her coronation – made in her 1952 Christmas message – was highly progressive. Her reign saw increasing engagement with other faiths, both in the Commonwealth and in Britain, as migration, often from those Commonwealth nations, increased its diversity. This engagement was most clearly seen in the services held every year in March on Commonwealth Day – a reinvention of the old Empire Day.

The services had been held in Westminster Abbey until 1965, when leaders of Commonwealth countries asked the Queen if the event could become a multi-faith service. While the Queen was willing, the then Dean of Westminster, Eric Abbott, was unwilling to experiment and the service was moved to the Guildhall in the City of London. But the Queen was not happy with the arrangement, and, while she knew the Church Assembly, the predecessor of the Church of England’s General Synod, agreed with Abbott in its concern about a Christian space being used for non-Christian worship, she was firm in her wish to have the service restored to the abbey. It has remained there ever since.

There were other services that recognised the place of other faiths, including that of thanksgiving in 2006 to mark her eightieth birthday and those in 2012 and 2022 to mark her Diamond and Platinum jubilees, all held in St Paul’s Cathedral. Faith leaders were invited to the events and prayers were sometimes included.

This interfaith interest was shared with her son, Charles, the Prince of Wales, and her husband, the Duke of Edinburgh. Although both of them had an intellectual curiosity about them, the Queen’s approach appeared to be more practical: she recognised that her country had changed and if she was to be queen for all her subjects she had to understand them and keep them on board. People’s faiths mattered to her in that they were important to individuals but they also didn’t matter in that they were not a hurdle to overcome.

This attitude was also evident in the approach she took to Catholics. In 1998, Lord Camoys, from one of the oldest recusant families in England, was appointed Lord Chamberlain, the senior officer of the Royal Household who oversees those who support and advise the sovereign. Lord Camoys, who served until 2000, was the first Catholic to hold the post since the Reformation. The appointment took him by surprise, but not the Queen. “She doesn’t distinguish in that way,” he said. “As far as she is concerned, British Catholics are as much her subjects as anyone else.”

This pragmatic view led the Queen in her Diamond Jubilee year of 2012 to make one of the most significant speeches of her reign, although at the time it seemed to pass under the radar of many commentators. It was the first event of her Jubilee year and the faith leaders who gathered for the reception at Lambeth Palace, London home of the Archbishop of Canterbury, must have thought it would be a celebratory reception. But after the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh had mingled with guests and made small talk, she spoke about the Church of England, the Church of which she was Supreme Governor.

That Church has been created by Henry VIII and developed by his children, Edward VI and Elizabeth I, to be separate from Rome, to focus on the Bible at its core, the sacraments ordained by Christ and worship as set out in the Book of Common Prayer. But the Queen told the assembled Bahá’í, Buddhist, Hindu, Jain, Jewish, Muslim, Sikh and Zoroastrian representatives that its raison d’être was far greater than that.

“Its role”, she said, “is not to defend Anglicanism to the exclusion of other religions. Instead, the Church has a duty to protect the free practice of all faiths in this country.” And she went on: “Gently and assuredly, the Church of England has created an environment for other faith communities and indeed people of no faith to live freely. Woven into the fabric of this country, the Church has helped to build a better society – more and more in active co-operation for the common good with those of other faiths.”

The speech had been worked on for some months, with the Archbishop of Canterbury consulted. It indicated how much the Queen wished to be a unifying figure – someone who brought people together and would use the Church of which she was Supreme Governor to do so, but it went further than that. She was rethinking the Anglican settlement. In his comments before the Queen made her speech at Lambeth that day, Rowan Williams summed up one of her greatest achievements as Queen: “You have been able to show so effectively that being religious is not eccentric or abnormal in terms of the kind of society we claim to be.”

Queen Elizabeth’s was a quiet faith that governed her life. For most of the time, people were aware of her as a person who was effectively a religious leader while knowing little of her own personal beliefs. But one annual service articulated how much the personal and the public role were intertwined.

More than any other monarch, she maintained the tradition of the Maundy Thursday services throughout her reign – services which recalled Christ washing the feet of his disciples before his Passion. The ancient ceremony of Royal Maundy gift-giving dated back to the Middle Ages. It was revived by King George V and was also marked by George VI. But it was Elizabeth II who became the most assiduous distributor of the special Maundy money, given by the monarch to local people honoured for their service. She took the tradition around Britain to different cathedrals and it was the only occasion in the year when the recipients of an award did not travel to meet the Queen, but she travelled to them.

This year, the Queen could not participate and the Prince of Wales attended in her place, maintaining the service as one of the most important expressions of the Queen’s public role as both monarch and head of the Church of England and her personal faith.

One of the readings always given was the account of the Last Judgement, from Matthew 25:34-40, when people are challenged as to how they have treated others, whether hungry, thirsty, a stranger, or a prisoner. It finishes with the words: “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” Always sung is Handel’s “Zadok the Priest” – the same music that was sung at the Queen’s coronation and a reminder of the vows committing herself to God and her people.

Her sense of service and commitment to the people was also evident during the Covid pandemic when, like the rest of the nation, she endured lockdown and separation from most of her family. One of the most poignant images of her reign came at the funeral of the Duke of Edinburgh in April 2021, when she sat, masked and alone. It spoke of someone whose experience of losing a loved one during the pandemic was the same as everyone else’s, however grand her position or her titles, and it spoke of her belief in duty.

Just how much her faith meant to Elizabeth II was revealed in a small book published to mark her ninetieth birthday in 2016. In a highly unusual move, she wrote the Foreword to the Bible Society publication, The Servant Queen and the King she serves, about her faith.

She described how she remained “very grate- ful” to God “for his steadfast love”. “I have indeed seen his faithfulness,” she wrote.

This absolute trust in God was nurtured through the Queen’s prayer life and sustained by regular church attendance, although not regular Communion. For most of her life, she received the Eucharist very infrequently, mostly at Christmas and Easter, and preferred to do so in the most private of settings, such as her chapel at Windsor. While she would engage in regular conversations with her Archbishops of Canterbury, they would tend to be about general Church matters rather than the state of her soul, although she did sometimes speak to them about matters such as the marriage problems of her children.

But it was her Deans of Windsor to whom she turned for more pastoral guidance, contrary to the tale peddled by Netflix’s The Crown, which suggested that she bared her soul to the American evangelist Billy Graham. Graham certainly preached before the Queen but the idea that he became some sort of spiritual guru is wide of the mark. However, it is true that she shared a love of the Bible with Graham and a profound belief in the importance of prayer. David Conner, her last Dean of Windsor, told a BBC tribute programme that prayer was vital for the Queen and she was surprised it did not matter to some people.

The extent to which the Queen relied on her faith was eloquently expressed just five weeks before her death when she sent a message to the Lambeth Conference, the gathering of the bishops of the Anglican Communion. Much of it was what you would expect from the Supreme Governor of the Church of England. But she went much further, using it, as she did her Christmas messages, as a moment for personal testimony. “Throughout my life”, she said, “the message and teachings of Christ have been my guide.”

Her continuing service and duty was also evident when she repeated in her Platinum Jubilee statement on her Accession Day anniversary in 2022 her vow to serve God and her people. She signed it simply: Your Servant, Elizabeth.

Queen Elizabeth II, born 21 April 1926, London. Died 8 September 2022, Balmoral Castle, Aberdeenshire.

Catherine Pepinster is a former editor of The Tablet, and the author of Defenders of the Faith:
The British Monarchy, Religion and the Next Coronation, published by Hodder and Stoughton.


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