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To build and to cherish

Lessons from Queen Elizabeth II on building institutional trust

Queen Elizabeth II in July 2021 Associated Press/Photo by Scott Heppell

To build and to cherish

During the opening credits of The Crown television series on Queen Elizabeth II, rivulets of molten gold gradually create the first contours of a crown. The sequence shows precious metals and gems as raw materials being formed into the Imperial State Crown of England. As the designer explains, the images are meant to convey the emblem’s “very heavy symbolic weight” on the monarch. That burden fell to Elizabeth as a very young woman, and the show portrays her life taking shape in and through the monarchy.

With the Queen’s passing, Britons are now reflecting on how her long, steady presence at the head of the institution of monarchy shaped their own lives. At a time when institutional steadiness is rare and trust is low, Queen Elizabeth’s seven-decade legacy reminds us of the importance of institutions and gives insights about restoring confidence in them.

Elizabeth disciplined her entire life to the service of a mission much larger than herself. She was devoted to that which endures, especially her Christian faith and the ideals she understood to be embodied in the monarchy. At the same time, she showed remarkable discernment in using the permanence of her position to help the British navigate change.

These qualities were evident from an early age. In a speech on her 21st birthday, Princess Elizabeth addressed her peers who had grown up in World War II, during “years of danger and glory” that summoned victorious mettle from the British people. She called on that same spirit to rise to the sober challenge of rebuilding after the war. Then she dedicated her “whole life” to the service of the British people and realms. That pledge, she noted, could be heard by them firsthand thanks to the innovations of radio and film.

A decade later, five years after her accession to the throne, the Queen’s 1957 Christmas message sounded similar themes. It was the first such address to be televised, and she remarked on the uneasiness with the pace of change that many felt at the time. Technology was not the problem, she assured her audience. The trouble was cynics who wanted to throw out timeless ideals—religion, morality, honesty, and self-restraint—as though they were obsolete. “It has always been easy to hate and destroy,” she said. “To build and to cherish is much more difficult.”

Institutions shape us individually, and they shape society by communicating ideals.

As the head of a constitutional monarchy, the young queen noted her authority was not like kings of old whose command was the law and who personally led forces onto the field of battle. “But I can do something else,” she assured her viewers that Christmas. “I can give you my heart and my devotion to these old islands and to all the peoples of our brotherhood of nations. I believe in our qualities and in our strength. I believe that together we can set an example to the world which will encourage upright people everywhere.” This would require “a special kind of courage” to vindicate the enduring character of what is right, true, and honest in the face of cynics and with confidence for the future. As an example of courage, the queen closed the broadcast with a quote from Valiant-for-Truth, an important character in John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress.

Institutions shape us individually, and they shape society by communicating ideals. The monarchy forged self-discipline, devotion, and discernment in Queen Elizabeth, and she used her role as head of that institution to commend these virtues for public life.

Family, religious congregations, schools, and workplaces are like “molds” for our lives, explains Yuval Levin, author of A Time to Build. Institutions like these teach us the relational roles and patterns of responsibility we need to pursue shared goals in community—just the kind of habits that seem so out of reach in our public life right now.

Trust in institutions ranging from churches to Congress has fallen over the last half century. Rather than molds of character, institutions have too often become “platforms for performance and prominence,” says Levin. If institutions are going to restore trust, they cannot simply be forums for the expressive individualism found in the broader culture. Levin argues that such institutions must show “not that they are continuous with the larger culture but that they are capable of addressing its deficiencies,” that is, by shaping character.

Queen Elizabeth II grasped the character-shaping significance of the British monarchy. The Crown conveys the weight of the queen’s responsibilities and the sense of burden she had for her role and her realm. Few people will face demands of such a magnitude. But all of us, particularly Christians, should reflect on the roles and responsibilities we have as a part of the institutions to which we have been called. Stewardship of these roles is essential, as the queen’s example shows, to build for the future while cherishing that which endures. Keep this in mind today as millions of people around the world watch the state funeral for Queen Elizabeth in Westminster Abbey. Every minute of that service will underline her lifelong commitment to the truth that institutions matter.

Jennifer Patterson

Jennifer Patterson is director of the Institute of Theology and Public Life at Reformed Theological Seminary (Washington, D.C.) and a senior fellow with the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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