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Soon the longest to reign over us

by
04 September 2015

The Queen’s faith is deep, but her successors face a different situation, says Stephen Bates

AP

Looking to heaven: the Queen at St Paul’s, Frankfurt, on a visit to Germany in June this year

Looking to heaven: the Queen at St Paul’s, Frankfurt, on a visit to Germany in June this year

QUEEN ELIZABETH II, who is in line to become the longest-reigning British monarch next Wednesday, when she passes the previous record of Queen Victoria’s 63 years and 216 days, is the most religiously devout sovereign in the country’s modern history. As the Bishop of London, the Rt Revd Richard Chartres, who is perhaps the cleric closest to the royals, told me: “Of course, the Queen is a very serious Christian. She talks more and more about God now.

“There is absolutely no doubt that she means what she says, and she is deeply serious about her coronation oath about upholding the Protestant faith.”

Bishop Chartres says that the Queen’s motto is “Not Low Church, not High Church, but Short Church” — brisk sermons. In fact, she is following the dictates of her predecessors. George V’s private secretary Lord Stamfordham would advise preachers to limit themselves to 14 minutes: “If you preach for less, the King may say you are too lazy to prepare a sermon; if you preach for more, [he] may say that the man did not know when to stop.”

 

ANYONE who has been invited to preach before the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh at Crathie Church, near Balmoral, or at Sandringham, knows how unnerving it is to look up and see the royal couple staring earnestly in his or her direction from a few feet away — often with Prince Philip taking notes so that he can interrogate the preacher over lunch afterwards: a conversation that may continue in correspondence for weeks afterwards.

The Sunday lunch must be a daunting occasion for those sermonisers who have indulged in sloppy or trite thoughts. About forgiveness, Prince Philip may ask, beadily: Does that extend to someone like Mugabe? The royal couple are extremely serious about their faith; know their Bible well; and can recite at length from the Book of Common Prayer. The Queen keeps abreast of church matters both south and north of the border, and is well aware of the nuances of internecine debates.

Some attribute the increasingly explicit Christian emphasis in the Queen’s annual Christmas broadcast since 2000 to Prince Philip’s encouragement to her to express her personal faith more openly on the one occasion in the year when she addresses the nation unmediated by others (Features, 21 December 2012).

She clearly feels the need to remind an increasingly secular country about the festival’s meaning. Recent broadcasts read almost like mini sermons — and they are in contrast to most of the Christmas messages of previous sovereigns. Strikingly, George V, who broadcast the first such message, live from Sandringham in 1932, scarcely mentioned God at all.

The Queen’s grandfather’s faith was blessedly simple: the Bible was “a wonderful book, but there are some very queer things in it.” When, using a new hymn-book, he was unable to find his favourite hymns — “Abide with me” and “The day thou gavest” — he is said to have exclaimed: “I’ll have all the bloody books burned. I’m not Defender of the Faith for nothing!”

 

THE Church of England has lived congenially and flexibly with such Defenders of the Faith ever since it parted from Rome — and figures such as Henry VIII, Charles II, George IV, and Edward VIII were scarcely paragons of virtue. Of the last-named, the Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin, said wonderingly that he had “no spiritual sense . . . no religious sense . . . simply no moral struggle.”

While disestablishment of the Church of England is certainly off the agenda for the foreseeable future — much too legislatively time-consuming and complicated — certain things will inevitably change with the next reign.

The royal declaration and coronation oath have already been simplified and purged of much aggressive anti-Catholicism (“I cannot bear to hear the violent abuse of the Catholic religion, which is so painful and cruel to the many good and innocent Roman Catholics,” Queen Victoria said); but, in 1953, the Queen was still required to declare that she was a faithful Protestant and would secure the Protestant succession.

 

BRITISH society has altered a great deal since then, not least in becoming a multi-faith nation. Prince Charles clarified earlier this year that he wants to be a “Defender of Faiths”, promoting religious harmony, though he will remain an Anglican. Bishop Chartres, who is likely to have been consulted, suggests that a return to the oath taken by King Edgar at Bath in 975 — written for him by St Dunstan — may, with revisions, be appropriate.

Edgar is supposed to have said: “In the name of the Holy Trinity, I promise three things to the Christian people subject to me. Firstly, that God’s Church and all the Christian people of my dominions will be held in true peace. Secondly, I forbid robbery and all unlawful deeds by all ranks of men.

“Thirdly, I promise and command justice and mercy in all judgements, in order that the gracious and merciful Lord, who liveth and reigneth, may thereby forgive us all through his everlasting mercy.”

It has the merits of brevity and simplicity; and, if the ostentatiously Christian references were removed to make the oath more inclusive in a multicultural society, it might just work.

Another alternative being touted is to have a variety of accession services, such as a coronation at Westminster, a multi-faith service at York or Edinburgh, and maybe the anointing of William as Prince of Wales at Caernarfon. This appears to be Charles’s current wish, but, while it might satisfy lovers of spectacle, repeated ceremonial may well seem ostentatious at a time of austerity.

One anachronism may, however, have been laid to rest for at least 20 years: the 1701 Act of Settlement’s bar on Roman Catholic spouses. If Prince George’s heart is one day set on a good RC girl — or, indeed, boy — the 300-year-old legislation would be rapidly set aside by Parliament.

 

Stephen Bates is a former religious affairs correspondent for The Guardian.

His book Royalty Inc. is published by Aurum Press this week.

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