Is Queen Elizabeth II the true Christian leader of our country? An odd question for a Catholic to ask, you might think, but consider the feebleness of senior bishops – Anglican and Catholic – during the 60 years of her reign. She has been served by great prime ministers, but no great Archbishop of Canterbury.
The Queen’s last few Christmas broadcasts demonstrate the intensity of her faith. She reminds Christians that the feast marks “the birth of Our Saviour”, the “Prince of Peace” who is “our source of light and life in both good times and bad”. In old age she has underlined this message more heavily than she once did – not in an obtrusive way that would cause offence to non-Christians, but boldly enough to make some of us sit up from our post-lunch slumber and think: “She really believes what she says”.
When she does so, she speaks as directly to Catholics as to Protestants. We papists may have been taught to reject the notion of a monarch as Supreme Governor of a national Church – but the concept of a Christian monarch is as old as Constantine.
Since the Queen ascended to the throne, churchgoing in Britain has more than halved; the Churches as institutions have suffered far greater damage than the monarchy. Indeed, this country’s overtly Christian royal ceremonies have held off the moment that the faith in Britain becomes as residual and meaningless as it has in parts of Europe.
The anxiety for Christians is that this effect depends on the personal convictions of Elizabeth II, who is not only more pious than her children but has also taken her religious duties more seriously than many of her predecessors. If the British monarchy of the future recasts itself as a mere guarantor of religious liberty – as Prince Charles seems to envisage – then the secularisation of public life will be complete.
That’s a miserable prospect, in my opinion, but not one we should dwell on today. For 60 years, the Queen has defended not “faith” in the abstract but the revelations of Christianity. That she has done so in such an unassuming and gentle manner makes her witness no less powerful.