Reflecting on the Faith of Queen Elizabeth II
There we were two interesting articles in the news this week about the faith and religion of Queen Elizabeth.
Damian Thompson wrote an interesting piece entitled: “Why Queen Elizabeth was a Presbyterian when she died”
He opened the article with the following words:
‘When the Queen died, she was actually a Presbyterian. That’s because she was in residence at Balmoral, and all British monarchs change their religious identity when they arrive in Scotland. They board the Royal Train at King’s Cross as Supreme Governor of the Church of England, responsible for appointing bishops whom it teaches are successors of the Apostles. By the time they arrive at Waverley they belong to a Church which has no bishops and whose only Supreme Governor is Jesus,’ ...[becoming] ‘ordinary member[s]’ of the Church of Scotland – which, as the Royal Family’s website explains, is the only religious status that the sovereign enjoys north of the border. ‘
The second article was written by Lord Chartres, who had been the Dean of the Chapels Royal and the former Bishop of London and who was according to Damian Thompson, closer to the Royal Family than any other Bishop during her 70 year reign.
He writes how the Queen’s life was anchored by her Christian faith. This is illustrated in her Christmas broadcast in December 2000: ‘For me the teachings of Christ and my own personal accountability before God provide a framework in which I try to lead my life.’ She also expressed on numerous occasions that her ‘inspiration and anchor’ was Jesus Christ.
According to Chartres the Queen’s faith was influenced and nourished early on by her mother, most particularly in praying and Bible-reading with her mother during the difficult war years. And the Queens mother’s faith was in turn influenced by Dean Matthews of St Paul’s Cathedral who had encouraged her in reading some books that were rather adventurous for that time. One particular author that made an impact on the Queen Mother was John Middleton Murray who in his book ‘Jesus, Man of Genius’ presents a very high view of Jesus as the most inspirational human being ever to have lived, rather than the more popular Christian view of Jesus as a Divine Visitor from elsewhere or as God himself in the flesh. He presents an image of the human Jesus of Nazareth, not just, as a teacher of Ultimate Wisdom, but as one to whom was added a depth of profound love and the power to live and die for his vision of things to come. And in his willingness to die for the sake of others, Murray wrote that perhaps there have been others as wise as Jesus, but none who have had his love, and therefore, none quite so wise as Jesus.
His was an inspiring interpretation of the Jesus of the Gospels, and one that would have resonated with many Unitarian views of Jesus that were for a long time held by many within this denomination. And it would seem to me that this inspiring view of Jesus of Nazareth, which the Queen would have heard of through her mother’s faith, seems, at least in part, to have rubbed off on the faith of Queen Elizabeth, because in her Christmas messages, she can be seen to refer to Jesus as ‘Jesus of Nazareth’, emphasizing his historical humanity rather than his existence as a supernatural or Divine being. This was further emphasized by the way she spoke more often of Jesus, more as an ideal and an example to follow and emulate, than as a Divine Saviour who rescues helpless sinners. Her statements about faith and the teachings of Jesus often seem to assume that God has placed enough goodness within each of us that we should at the very least be able to follow Jesus’ example even if in a faltering and imperfect way, although also acknowledging in 2011 that we sometimes need saving from ourselves—from our recklessness and our greed.
And so in her 2008 Christmas message the late Queen had said: ‘I hope that, like me, you will be comforted by the example of Jesus of Nazareth who, often in circumstances of great adversity, managed to live an outgoing, unselfish and sacrificial life … He makes it clear that genuine human happiness and satisfaction lie more in giving than receiving; more in serving than in being served.’
And in her 2014 Christmas address she stated that, Christ had been ‘a role model of reconciliation and forgiveness, he stretched out his hands in love, acceptance and healing. Christ’s example has taught me to seek to respect and value all people of whatever faith or none’.
It may well be my bias as a Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Minister, but in the words of some of our own NSPCI literature, it seems to me that Queen Elizabeth was often more interested in the religion of Jesus, than the religion about Jesus. In other words, she seemed to be more interested in loving one’s neighbour as oneself, letting ones yes be yes and one’s no be no, and in giving one’s life in loving service towards others than in claiming to hold the definitive or the correct theologically view. Hers it seems to me, was a simple, profound and practical faith, more interested in the spirit in which Jesus of Nazareth lived than in the creedal theology that can so easily and quickly divide.
And because of this, it seems she was free to rise above the theological divisions within her own realms. She could be the head of the Church of England while living in England, with all it’s diversity as well as it’s pomp and glory, and she could also be an ordinary member of the Kirk when attending Church at the Crathie Kirk near Balmoral Castle. Damian Thompson therefore writes that “So far as we can tell, Queen Elizabeth was not particularly interested in the theological differences between the Churches of England and Scotland.”
She also appeared to have had no problem with the introduction of women priests within the Church of England in 1994. Just two years after the first female ordinations, she appointed a women priest, the late Canon Marion Mingins, to be one of her 35 Chaplains authorised to take services and preach in the Royal Chapels.
Hers was therefore a practical, down to earth, and a generous faith that was able to transcend the theological divisions of many Christians as well as in extending a hand of friendship to people of other faiths and no faith at all. As Lord Chartres points out, she was an assiduous visitor to temples, gurdwaras, mosques and synagogues. She also met all five popes who came and went during her 70 year reign, appearing to have genuinely warm and friendly relations with Pope John Paul II whom she hosted on numerous occasions. And as part of her Silver Jubilee in 1977, she even visited the Westminster Roman Catholic Cathedral, becoming the first British Monarch to visit a Roman Catholic cathedral since the Reformation.”
But although she had a generous faith that always extended a hand of friendship to people of other faiths, seeking to find the shared common ground that could unite instead of divide, she was still rooted in the simplicity of her own faith.
And rooted within her own faith she clearly had her own personal preferences. Lord Chartres writes that she was tolerant of different flavours of Anglican churchmanship not discriminating between high church or low church. But he adds that it was clear that what she really liked was short church. But more than that she also had a firm personal preference for a particular style of worship, which Damian Thompson describes as sombre, scriptural and unmistakably Protestant, albeit of a moderate variety.
Getting back to her own Christian faith in the simple teachings and example of Jesus, from her Christmas messages, it is clear that one of her favourite passages was Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan that so profoundly captured a favourite theme in her Christmas messages namely Christ’s call to a life of loving service to others.
In 1985 she said the story ‘reminds us of our duty to our neighbour. We should try to follow Christ's clear instruction at the end of that story: "Go and do thou likewise".’
In 1989 her reference to the story she said:
‘It's not very difficult to apply that story to our own times and to work out that our neighbours are those of our friends, or complete strangers, who need a helping hand.’ And in that same speech she asks the question whether the word ‘neighbour’ might indeed apply beyond our own borders to the hungry children of Ethiopia (as was the case in 1989) and even to other living species threatened by spoiled rivers. She clearly had an ecological consciousness way ahead of her time.
I end with a beautiful quote from her 2013 Christmas message which expresses something of the breadth and generosity of her faith:
‘For Christians, as for all people of faith, reflection, meditation and prayer help us to renew ourselves in God’s love, as we strive daily to become better people. The Christmas message shows us that this love is for everyone. There is no one beyond its reach.’ Amen.
Queen Elizabeth II - A Reflection
The past week or so has seen an out pouring of collective love and grief for Queen Elizabeth II.
It is a sign of a truly remarkable life that Queen Elizabeth’s passing drew tributes from the most unlikely places, even from Vladimir Putin. Even people who would not describe themselves as monarchists paid their tributes such as the journalist Brendan O’Neil in the Spectator Magazine who suggested that she represented something incredibly important, emboding values that he suggests are at risk of extinction. He wrote: She represented history in an era of anti-historical hysteria, forbearance in a time of narcissism, and public service in an era of self-worship and self-regard.
It was also moving to read that the city of Paris from a country whose relations with Britain have perhaps not been at their best in recent years, would turn off the lights of the Eiffel Tower for a whole night in her honour, reportedly bringing tears to many eyes in France. And to hear of President Macron’s moving tribute to the her.
Today, in the light of state funeral that will be taking place tomorrow, I thought it might be appropriate for us to reflect briefly on her life and what wisdom her life might offer to us all in this time of national grief.
The first thing the life of Queen Elizabeth II reveals is the power of Presence… simply showing up and being present for others and with others.
In my early years of ministry I remember having a conversation with a senior minister in our District. His words have lived with me down the years. He said to me, “Brian, always remember that 90% of ministry is about simply showing up and being present.” In other words only 10% depends on what you do or say. Simply showing up and being present with others in their joys and in their sorrows and bringing a sense of God’s presence to the ordinariness of people’s lives.
In our pastoral training as ministers, particularly at times of grief and sorrow, we were taught of what is sometimes called a ministry of presence, because in times of grief and sorrow words very quickly begin to feel inadequate and shallow. Often being with a person in their time of difficulty, grief and sorrow is far more important than any clever words that can be spoken.
It would seem to me that Queen Elizabeth lived a ministry of Presence to the people of the United Kingdom, and indeed to many people around the world. Her quiet, calm presence brought re-assurance to many, in the midst of the nation's joys and sorrows, triumphs and struggles. Hers was a soft, quiet and a gentle Presence that was in the end more important than any words she was able to speak.
Her job in a sense was simply to show up. How easy it sounds, and yet how difficult it is. To show up at moments of national celebration. To show up at times of national tragedy… come rain or shine, to simply show up. It is the power of presence. The power of being with people, but not in a dominating or overbearing way. Just a quiet, solid background presence. And that I believe brings us to the second reflection on her life.
And so, secondly, I believe in Queen Elizabeth II we see the Power of Quiet. In a world that has become more and more dominated by of extroversions in recent decades, the Queen showed the power of quietness. Although she was clearly sociable, the Queen was clearly something of an introvert, and instead of this being an obstacle or an impediment to her, she used it as a strength, revealing the power of quietness.
The Queen’s popularity and the high esteem that many people held her in is perhaps most remarkable because she was a person who very seldom if ever expressed her opinion publicly. I guess her role as monarch in a constitutional monarchy made it difficult for her to express a public opinion. I have often wondered how difficult that must have been for her, to sometimes see her own government taking positions on many things in her name, that she may not have personally agreed with, and yet to hold back and not say what she thought. This was not just the power of quietness, but also the power of restraint.
Very few of us could say we know what she truly thought on many issues both large and small, and perhaps that was part of her power: That she was not partisan. That she was queen and monarch for all her citizens, no matter who they were. And yet in her quiet ministry of presence to the nation, she outlived and outlasted almost everyone, quietly representing a more enduring reality than the up’s and downs of daily life and the chances and changes of everyday political reality.
The Power of Presence. The Power of Quietness. And thirdly, the Power of Humility. Despite being the Queen of the United Kingdom, and the head of state of a number of other countries around the world, as well as the head of the Commonwealth, she gave the impression of being remarkably humble, with a remarkable ability to put ordinary people at ease in her presence.
There are so many who have written of their brief encounters with the Queen, that have revealed something of her humility. I came across the story of Lynda Sterling from Manchester who met the Queen as a 15-year-old in 1998 when Her Majesty and Prince Philip opened a new building at Grey Coat Hospital school for girls in London.
She said: “I was a little nervous. I was in the science lab, we were showing experiments and we had to talk to the Queen about what we were doing. “I had to say the words, ‘white precipitate’. But I couldn’t get ‘precipitate’ out and kept saying, ‘white… white...’ and stumbling. The Queen jumped in and said, ‘White something.’ I said yes and caught her eye. It made us both giggle.”
Then there is the story of how the queen gate crashed the retirement party for one of her favourite bodyguards. Richard griffin shared how when he was retiring, the Queen invited him to have his retirement party in the state department and that he could invite 200 people. He shared that when he turned up with his family on the night, one of his colleagues said, ‘There’s a little old lady coming to your party tonight’, to which he replied, ‘What little old lady?’ ‘The Queen’ came the reply. He obviously had not felt himself worthy enough of inviting the Queen to attend his retirement party, and she, clearly had not thought of herself as being above the occasion, especially when she had at some point heard that she had not been invited. She reveals the power of humility, the power of not being easily offended. Indeed, it is perhaps the fact that she did not take herself overly seriously that made her so loved by so many. As she herself is quoted as saying: Let us not take ourselves too seriously. None of us has a monopoly on wisdom.
Her humility and not taking herself too seriously perhaps most epitomised in her famous tea and marmalade sandwiches with Paddington Bear just a few months ago during her Platinum Jubilee.
Lastly, the Queen showed the power of symbolic action. Her role as Monarch put restrictions on her ability to express her opinion verbally, but it did not prevent her from expressing herself through the power of symbolic action. And she did so on a number of important occasions such as opening her a speech at Dublin Castle in 2011 in Irish Gaelic, and the following year shaking the hand of Martin McGuinness as symbolic gestures of her commitment to reconciliation after the years of violence, alienation and trouble that so divided the people of this island, and which had not left her and her family untouched.
One might also think of the symbolic gesture of giving seeds from her garden to Naina Yeltsin during her 1994 visit of Russia at a very difficult time of transition in Russia when many were doing all in their power to thwart the reforms. The seeds were for Naina Yeltsin more than just a gift of friendship, but also perhaps symbols of hope for the future, hope for a changed and transformed Russia that in many ways still needs to bear it’s full fruit in time.
In reflecting on these 4 aspects of the Queens life they are not without religious significance for us as Christians. Indeed, Jesus himself reveals throughout the Gospels the power of simply being present with others in the midst of their joys and sorrows, triumphs and struggles. Jesus reveals the power that can often come from quietness and silence as he bends down in silence before answering those who wished to stone the women caught in adultery. Jesus reveals the power of humility as he associates with many who other’s thought were beneath him, whether it was taking time out to be with the little children and their mothers, laying his hands of blessing on them, or spending time eating meals with the outcasts and sinners of his day. Paul sums up the power of Jesus humility in the statement: Though he was rich, yet for our sakes he became poor. And lastly Jesus reveals the power of symbolic action as he rides into Jerusalem not on a strong and powerful war-horse, but rather on a donkey, or as he takes bread and wine and shares them with his friends saying, This is my body, this is my blood. Do this in remembrance of me.
There is so much else that could be said in reflecting on Queen Elizabeth’s life…
The power of humour and being able to laugh with others, and even chuckle at oneself; The power of keeping routines, like journaling at the end of every day, or attending church every Sunday to draw strength from a Power higher than herself; or the power of taking time out with little breaks during the day to enjoy the simple pleasure of a cup of earl grey tea and something sweet, or the power of living a life of purpose and service, living not just for herself and her own glory, but also for the well-being of others and especially the weak and vulnerable in her support for so many charities. I can imagine that Queen Elizabeth might well have said that hers like all of us, was not a perfect life, without it’s mistakes, but it is certainly true that she took the cards that life had dealt out to her, and with them she sought to play her best hand.
As she is laid to rest tomorrow in the state funeral, we do indeed pray that she may rest deeply in God’s peace, and that she might hear the words spoken to her: Well done, good and faithful servant, come and enjoy your masters happiness.
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