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Defenders of the Faith: The British monarchy, religion and the next generation by Catherine Pepinster

27 May 2022

Richard Chartres reads a conspectus of the monarchy and religion

IN THE spate of books occasioned by the Platinum Jubilee, Defenders of the Faith by Catherine Pepinster focuses on the connection between monarchy and religion and speculates on the form of the next coronation.

The author has previously published a book on contemporary relations between the British and the Papacy. She is a distinguished Roman Catholic commentator often to be heard on Radio 4’s Thought for the Day.

After a helpful first chapter summarising the spiritual ideal of kingship in the Old and New Testaments, there is the familiar story of how, in 1521, Pope Leo X awarded the young King Henry VIII the title of Fidei Defensor, Defender of the Faith. It was recognition for Henry’s book In Defence of the Seven Sacraments, which denounced the teachings of Martin Luther. A subsequent pope deprived Henry of the title, but it was restored to the King by Parliament in 1544. “F.D.” appears on our coins and remains to this day a part of the formal style of the British Monarch.

We are given a brief survey, through a Catholic prism, of the monarchy and religion before the present reign. It is the Queen’s religion and that of Prince Charles which forms the heart of the book.

The treatment, however, of the reign of James II does not help us to understand why the Bill of Rights in 1689 so explicitly barred the throne to a Roman Catholic monarch. Pepinster says that “the evidence shows that he [James] was keen to find a way to religious toleration. The English were not prepared for it.” I question whether this is the whole story.

The ease with which an avowedly Protestant rebellion led by the Duke of Monmouth was snuffed out in 1685 underlines the widespread support for James and his government at the beginning of the king’s reign. The parliamentary elections in March 1685 revealed that the vast majority of the political nation was willing to accept a Roman Catholic king as long as he was content to rule within the parameters of the established constitution in Church and State. Why, then, barely three years later, was it possible for another invader to land a substantial army in the West Country and provoke James’s flight?

Modern scholarship — notably Steve Pincus in his outstanding 2009 book 1688: The first modern revolution — pays James the tribute of recognising his radical ambition to remodel the state after French absolutist lines, complete with a centralising bureaucracy and a professional standing army. Within the restricted compass of a review, it is impossible to provide the details that are available in a number of recent studies, but it is very important to recognise that we are not dealing with any simple Catholic v. Protestant drama. One of the severest critics of the policies of both James and his mentor, Louis XIV, was Pope Innocent XI. Neither of the modernising monarchs had any intention of submitting to papal control of the Church in their domains.

The RC Church since Vatican II has changed so profoundly that the fears of 1689 appear exaggerated, and the prohibitions imposed then, grossly disproportionate.

The most valuable part of Defenders of the Faith shows how Queen Elizabeth II has responded to the vastly changed ecumenical and interfaith picture since the Second World War. It also gives a helpful picture, largely in his own words, of the seriousness with which Prince Charles has engaged with a variety of religious themes and traditions.

After commenting on the impact of the Coronation of 1953, Pepinster traces the way in which Elizabeth II’s articulation of Christian ideals has developed and been tested by the messy realities of family and national life. In the Queen’s Christmas broadcasts, she has been increasingly explicit about her faith. She has eschewed theological speculation, but, in a down-to-earth way, she has affirmed her loyalty to Jesus Christ as a model for the servant-kingship that she has sought to embody.

Firmly rooted in the Church of England, she has helped to redefine the part that it plays. In a speech at Lambeth Palace as part of the Diamond Jubilee celebrations in 2012, she said, “The Church has a duty to protect the free practice of all faiths in this country.” She went on to say that “gently and assuredly the Church of England has created an environment for other faith communities and indeed people of no faith to live freely.” It is a point of view that is expressed in the annual Commonwealth Day observances in Westminster Abbey.

Such a definition of the Church would have seemed strange in most previous reigns, but it is true, as Jonathan Sacks, the previous Chief Rabbi, was fond of pointing out, that a non-oppressive Anglican establishment serves to keep the public square open to voices of faith, while not being dominated by them. It is unlikely that any other religious body could inherit such a position, and possible that a total divorce between Church and State represented by a secularised monarchy would result in a shift to the French position in which “faith” as such is relegated to the margins of public life.

It is undeniable, however, that any future Defenders of the Faith will reign over a country vastly different from Churchill’s Britain in 1953. Pepinster explores some of the implications for a future coronation and reflects on the lessons to be drawn from other cultures, notably the rituals surrounding the inauguration of a new Japanese Emperor.

It is clear that some changes are inevitable. The prominent role of the hereditary aristocracy in the Queen’s own coronation is unsustainable in present circumstances. It may be that there is a place for reviving the tradition discontinued after the disastrous and very expensive fiasco of George IV’s coronation, in which a great reception in Westminster Hall followed the service in the Abbey. This would give the government of the day an opportunity to develop the traditional “recognition” of the new monarch to embrace the diversity of modern Britain.

No one would envy those who are even now considering these matters, but they will be grateful for the insights contained in this book as they look ahead. Meanwhile, “Long may she reign over us.”

The Rt Revd Lord Chartres is a former Bishop of London.

Read an extract from the book here

Defenders of the Faith: The British monarchy, religion and the next generation
Catherine Pepinster
Hodder & Stoughton £25
Church Times Bookshop £20

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