The queen and the role of a Christian monarch
Brad Littlejohn | As the “defender of the faith,” Elizabeth serves as an inspiration to other political leaders
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At the beginning of this month, the people of Great Britain, together with millions more throughout the British Commonwealth, celebrated Queen Elizabeth II’s Platinum Jubilee, the commemoration of an astonishing seven decades on the throne. The queen has long since surpassed Queen Victoria (1837–1901) as the longest-reigning British monarch and seems likely to ultimately pass Louis XIV, the great “Sun King” of France (1643–1715) as the longest-reigning monarch in European history. As a queen who has seen 15 prime ministers come and go, the first of them Winston Churchill, Elizabeth may seem to some like a relic from a bygone time. In many ways, she hearkens back to an era in which heads of state were viewed as representatives of Christ.
Americans are apt to look with bemusement at the constitutional monarchies that have prevailed throughout much of Europe for the past two centuries: Why have a monarch if the prime minister has all the power? The queen’s power may be almost entirely symbolic. Still, the symbol is powerful for those with eyes to see. The monarchy symbolizes the divine dimension of politics, just as the prime minister or head of government expresses the human dimension, the agency of the people. In this older view, powerfully explored in Season 1 of Peter Morgan’s serial drama of Queen Elizabeth’s reign, The Crown, political authority is not simply the creature of the people. It is not something that we free and equal individuals come together to create for our common benefit, bestowing it upon some officeholder to fill a political role for us until we decide to replace him. No, the monarchy is a manifestation, a delegation of God’s authority, a sacred trust ultimately accountable to Him.
This understanding of the crown as a sacred vocation was vividly expressed in Queen Elizabeth’s 1953 coronation ceremony, which even then seemed something of a bewildering medieval holdover in a rapidly modernizing world. Perhaps most striking was Queen Elizabeth’s oath as “defender of the faith.” The archbishop asked, “Will you to the utmost of your power maintain the laws of God and the true profession of the gospel? Will you to the utmost of your power maintain in the United Kingdom the Protestant Reformed religion established by law?” The queen responded, “All this I promise to do,” and then, kneeling before the great altar in Westminster Abbey with her right hand upon the Bible, “The things which I have here before promised, I will perform and keep. So help me God.”
In the decades since, it has become increasingly implausible, even ludicrous, for any public figure in the Western world, much less an unelected monarch, to dare to “maintain the laws of God and the true profession of the gospel.” And Queen Elizabeth has accepted the pluralistic character of modern political life, even as she has seen herself as retaining a particular responsibility to uphold and protect the Church of England. Indeed, it is partly due to such royal support that the Anglican Church of England has liberalized more slowly than its U.S. counterpart, the Episcopal Church, and is still legally prohibited from performing same-sex marriages.
Still, the queen has made use of what opportunities she does have to profess and proclaim her personal faith in Jesus Christ, notably in her annual Christmas broadcasts, a royal tradition that goes back to 1932. Bucking the trend of modern political leaders who offer meaningless homages to the “joy of the holiday season,” Queen Elizabeth has consistently invoked the name of Jesus Christ and the words of Scripture in these addresses.
During the coronavirus pandemic in 2020, for example, she declared, “The Bible tells how a star appeared in the sky, its light guiding the shepherds and wise men to the scene of Jesus’s birth. Let the light of Christmas—the spirit of selflessness, love, and above all hope—guide us in the times ahead.” And in 2012, the year of her Diamond Jubilee, she said, “This is the time of year when we remember that God sent His only Son ‘to serve, not to be served.’ He restored love and service to the center of our lives in the person of Jesus Christ.” And then, invoking the words of the great hymn, “In the Bleak Midwinter,” she called on her hearers to give their hearts to Christ in grateful response to His self-giving.
Such exhortations may seem unthinkable in America, with its emphasis on strict separation of church and state. But that is only because of our amnesia. It used to be common enough for U.S. presidents to be similarly explicit about the divine source of national blessings and of their vocation. Perhaps the example of Queen Elizabeth can offer fresh inspiration for aspiring Christian statesmen in our land during this time of growing cultural darkness.
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