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.
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