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‘Vicarious churchgoer for the nation’

09 September 2022

Graham James pays tribute to the Queen’s steady faith in an age of change


Queen Elizabeth II leaves St Peter and St Paul’s in West Newton, on the Sandringham estate in Norfolk in February 2013

Queen Elizabeth II leaves St Peter and St Paul’s in West Newton, on the Sandringham estate in Norfolk in February 2013

THE death of Queen Elizabeth II was scarcely unexpected, given her age, and yet the significance of her passing may take a long time to evaluate, not least for the Church of England.

It is four hundred years since the death of the only other Queen Elizabeth in these islands. Despite the distance in time, there are some parallels. When Elizabeth I died in 1603, she had reigned for just over 44 years, then longer than the average lifespan. Most people had no memory of another monarch. Since Elizabeth never formally nominated a successor, a dynastic struggle and even bloodshed might have resulted.

As it was, the succession of James VI of Scotland was skilfully overseen, thanks largely to Sir Robert Cecil, the Queen’s influential Secretary. The genuine sorrow and grief of her people may have also quietened the body politic. Everyone was said to have found it strange to speak the name of “king” and to pray for their “king” in public worship.

There was no disruption, however, in the Church of England. Elizabeth I’s judicious settlement of the Church had established its character, one that held in many ways through to the accession of Queen Elizabeth II.

No one expected dynastic rivalries after the death of our late Queen, but Elizabeth II’s recommendation in early 2022 that the Duchess of Cornwall should become Queen Consort did prevent any unseemly controversy. As in 1603, only a small minority of the population now possess a memory of any other monarch. To sing “God save the King” will have a strange novelty. Genuine and heartfelt grief will find expression across the nation and Commonwealth.

Unlike her predecessor, however, Elizabeth II has reigned in an age marked by a seismic reduction in deference. There is now no possibility that the next coronation will include the hereditary peerage doing homage to the new monarch, a symbol of how different things were in 1953. The Church of England at the time was part of a society based on social hierarchies. The bishops sat in a House of Lords which contained only hereditary peers, and, like the bishops, they were all male. Queen Elizabeth II presided over a very male Establishment, just as Elizabeth I had done.

The Church of England seemed surprisingly secure in the early 1950s. Churchgoing even increased a little during that decade. At the coronation, the Church of England was a unifying force in the life of the nation. When Geoffrey Fisher retired as Archbishop of Canterbury in 1961, he said that he left the Church of England “in good heart”, and no one laughed.

Yet, within a few years, the emergence of a youth culture that challenged social and moral norms, reflected in a wave of satire on television and in the press, together with the promotion of what was called “the permissive society”, left the Church of England, as well as the rest of society, gasping.

Liturgical revision and synodical government were never likely to make up lost ground or excite fresh interest in the C of E. Succeeding decades in the Queen’s reign may not have been quite as radical as the 1960s, but the Queen was the one reassuringly stable public figure during a period of rapid change. It is astonishing that, at the time of her death, one third of the population claimed to have spoken to her or seen her in person. “I need to be seen to be believed,” she said, when commenting on the bright colours that she wore in the latter decades of her reign.

SHE was not only believed in, but honoured. The esteem in which our late Queen has been held by her own people, and around the world, too, has been astonishing. It was achieved by a strong sense of calling and personal discipline, an instinctive understanding of what seemed right and appropriate, and shaped by a Christian faith grounded in the disciplines and practices of the Church of England, settled largely by her predecessor four centuries ago.

The Queen came from the last generation in which the Book of Common Prayer was interwoven with the life of the Church of England and the nation. She never wavered in her affection not merely for the language of the Book of Common Prayer, but for the vision of a society ordered under God which it represented.

It was not that she was unconscious that she lived in changing times; nor was she unaware that what shaped her world-view no longer carried much traction for others. But it was never evident to her that anyone had found a satisfactory replacement.

She had no desire to turn her devotion to the Book of Common Prayer into a cause. It simply represented who she was and how she saw the world: ordered by a benevolent and just God, who had given himself in his entirety to his people through his Son Jesus Christ, and who called his followers to serve him through the service of others.

Although the coronation in 1953 was televised, the anointing of the monarch at the heart of the service was hidden both from the cameras and even from the congregation, taking place under a shielding canopy. While a belief in the divine right of kings was by then archaic, the idea of a sacramental anointing in which God gave strength and grace to the monarch to serve the people was credible. The Queen’s watchword was service rather than duty, although she epitomised duty, too, in an age disinclined to admire such a virtue.

DUTY and discipline on their own do not usually create the lightness of touch, let alone the keen sense of humour, which the Queen possessed. Her public speeches and statements may not have been laced with jokes (although her Christmas messages did contain wry asides and gentle irony). In private, however, many found that she sparkled with life and humour, and possessed a very keen nonsense meter. She was a good mimic, too.

Her mother was said to turn every event into a party. The Queen did not do that, but she was fully present on every occasion in her astonishingly full diary, and was an acute observer of both the high achievements and ridiculous follies of the human condition. There can have been few people less self-deluded and more secure in themselves than our late monarch.

She may have been nervous about her capacities at the time of her accession, but she was a quick learner. In the Duke of Edinburgh, she found a husband who had no reserve in speaking his mind, but was always firmly not just by her side but on her side. That gave her strength.

Elizabeth II was not always universally admired. The attack on her in 1957 by John Grigg (then Lord Altrincham, before he could renounce his title) when he commented that she sounded like “a priggish schoolgirl”, and that both she and her advisers were out of touch, did seem to strike a chord. Was it an accident that, a few months later, the Queen’s Christmas message was televised for the first time? It was broadcast live from Sandringham, and the Queen later commented that the prospect of it meant Christmas lunch was not very relaxing.

The following year, debutantes were received by the Queen for the last time. The monarchy began to move with the times and became responsive to public sentiment.

Much later, when Diana, Princess of Wales, died, the Royal Family was criticised for being initially deaf to the rampant emotions swirling among the populace. It would have been remarkable if they had got it exactly right, given the personal and public tensions involved. But the walkabouts outside the palace gates to see the massive collections of flowers, as well as the Queen’s address to the nation on the Friday evening before the funeral, recalibrated the royal response.

YET there was one way in which the Queen did not adjust to the changing culture around her. She did not cease to go to church, week in and week out. More than that, in her Christmas messages she spoke of her Christian faith with greater emphasis, as adherence to Christianity in British society weakened dramatically.

At the beginning of her Golden Jubilee celebrations, she even ventured to describe the Church of England as a hospitable Church that sought to ensure a place for all religious traditions in a multifaith society. Certainly, the established Church of England has helped to set a tone of toleration in England which secular France has not managed with its religious minorities.

This was one area in which the people of the UK did not seem to want their monarch to be like them. When I observed the huge crowds at Sandringham watching the Queen go to church, it was clear that they did not expect that she might have a lie-in that Sunday. The Queen seemed to do a lot of vicarious churchgoing for the nation.

Perhaps, though, there was a wistfulness in all this. Many people struck me as wistful for the ordered society under God in which the Queen continued to believe. She represented Church and State in harmony and unity. It was unforced. This was why she was such a reassuring figure. In this regard, Elizabeth II is likely to be irreplaceable, because she was so fully a person of her own era, shaped by the values of her early decades. As the Church of England metamorphosises into a denomination desperately seeking to win converts to its brand, even the sort of Church of England in which the Queen believed is disappearing.

Our new King belongs to the age group where the old C of E still has some traction. His perspective on Church and State is not far removed from that of his mother. His devotion to the Book of Common Prayer is, however, bound to feel more like a cause than hers. He will continue the tradition of a churchgoing monarch whose Christian faith is serious, open, and hospitable. Perhaps he will serve as a monarch of transition, including the way in which he embodies Church and State. A hereditary monarch who is Supreme Governor of the Church of England seems an unlikely unifying figure in the nation’s life in the coming decades. But the capacity of the monarchy — and the Church of England, too — to reshape themselves must not be underestimated. God may not have done with either yet.

The Rt Revd Graham James is a former Bishop of Norwich.

He is interviewed on this week’s edition of the Church Times Podcast

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