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Platinum Jubilee: Wider still and wider

27 May 2022

The Queen’s reign has coincided with significant ecumenical and interfaith developments, says Christopher Hill


Pope Francis greets the Queen in his private study in the Vatican on 3 April 2014

Pope Francis greets the Queen in his private study in the Vatican on 3 April 2014

AS WE celebrate the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee, there will be much discussion of the large changes which have taken place over the past 70 years. In the Church of England and beyond, there will be much shaking of heads at the shrinking of the proportion of the population of England who regularly, or even occasionally, practise their religion by receiving communion or engaging in public worship.

In the early part of Queen Elizabeth II’s reign, there was actually significant numerical growth in the number of communicants. This was the 1950s, and the apogee of the Parish Communion Movement. My own vocation owes much to this. But now there is a nervous and often pessimistic reiteration of mission slogans.

In other ways, notably in relation to ecumenism and interfaith relations, there is a much more positive story to be told, even though ecumenism is now labelled as “boring”.

Think back to, if you are old enough — or look at the occasional repeats of — the Coronation service. The iconic picture is Queen Elizabeth, just after her anointing, vesting, and coronation by Archbishop Geoffrey Fisher. She sits upon the throne, flanked by other bishops, including Michael Ramsey.

Although there was representation from other Churches, only the Church of Scotland had special representation, no doubt because of its constitutional position. Other invitations came under the category of “Religious Bodies”, and were neither robed nor in a visible procession. They included the Free Churches and Anglican bishops from Ireland, Wales, and Scotland, as well as the wider Anglican Communion. Orthodox were also included, but also (oddly) Christian Scientists.

Here also came the Chief Rabbi, but no other faiths. No Roman Catholics were included, although the Foreign Office had invited three Vatican diplomats, none of whom were able to accept, as RCs were then forbidden to worship in other churches, not least at the eucharist at the heart of the Coronation rite. (Contrast the later Benedictine vespers in the Abbey, in 1976, when Basil Hume became Archbishop of Westminster, and of the ecumenical evening prayer on the visit of Pope Benedict in 2010).

Of course, there were RC and Free Church peers and Members of Parliament present at the Coronation — most notably the Duke of Norfolk, who was, in fact, master of ceremonies, and had no compunction in ordering even Archbishop Geoffrey Fisher around. But he was there because he was Hereditary Earl Marshal and Chief Butler of England, not because he was a Roman Catholic.

European royalty also included RC and Lutheran heads of state. Other heads of state from the Commonwealth and wider world included Muslims, as well as adherents of other faiths. But, again, they were present by reason of their constitutional status rather than their beliefs.

CONTRAST this today, with the normality of visible ecumenical and wider interfaith representation at national services in Westminster Abbey and St Paul’s, as well as in all cathedrals at diocesan or county levels.

At the memorial service for the late Duke of Edinburgh, in March (News, 1 April), the wider Churches were represented in procession: Church of Scotland, Methodist, Roman Catholic, Greek, Coptic and Syrian Orthodox, and Pentecostal. Other faiths were also represented in a procession: the Buddhist, Bahai, Sikh, Sunni and Shia Muslim, Hindu, and Zororastian faiths, as well as Reformed, Liberal, and Orthodox Judaism.

The change is dramatic. Most cathedrals also have ecumenical canons or their equivalent, and regularly invite other faith representatives to be involved in community celebrations.

AlamyThe Queen and Prince Philip walk in the grounds of Holyroodhouse in Edinburgh with Pope Benedict on 16 September 2010

This is especially important in areas where there are larger concentrations of communities of other faiths. Bishops quite routinely meet not only their ecumenical counterparts, but also interfaith leaders. In Stoke-on-Trent, just over 20 years ago, the National Front instigated a racist march through one of the “Five Towns” with a high proportion of Muslim families.

Almost overnight, it was possible to arrange an ecumenical, interfaith, and community meeting at one of the mosques to show both solidarity and as a calming exercise. Alongside this, there was a very discreet police presence, as well as the elected Mayor. We all knew and trusted one another.

In Guildford, one of the cathedral canons was both lead chaplain to the University of Surrey and interfaith chaplain, as an interfaith chaplaincy was being established. (That chaplain is now the newly installed Bishop of Southampton.)

Bishops and clergy regularly visit mosques, gurdwaras, and temples, and help to facilitate local-authority communal projects, because “people of faith” understand each other. Muslims and children of other faiths attend Church of England schools, which are sensitive to questions of faith. Such examples are replicated in different ways throughout England and the wider UK. They are very significant developments.

Christians have moved from competition, through co-existence and co-operation, towards communion. People of all faiths are learning to trust one another, and to pray and work alongside one another without fear of betrayal or blasphemy. I remember calling on the Woking mosque some years ago, after the Kashmir earthquake; many of the members of the mosque had relatives in the affected area.

The imam led me into Friday prayers, and, at his invitation, I gave an ecumenical message on behalf of all the Christian churches. He then invited me to pray, which, of course, I did, as a Christian bishop. From that day, all the taxi drivers in Woking knew who I was, and that the Christian churches were alongside them in that disaster.

Structures and organisations are never popular, but bodies such as the older British Council of Churches, and now the Churches Together groupings, at national and county level, continue to be real instruments for the implementation of our common baptism. Other group activities include regular meetings between Anglican and Roman Catholic bishops at national and more local levels, often residentially, as well as bishops and Methodist district chairs or superintendents, as the Church of England and the Methodist Church try (somewhat hesitantly, granted past failures) to explore the implications of the Anglican-Methodist Covenant.

LOOKING back at ecumenical developments over the past 70 years also, of course, reveals failure: great advances in theology and openness there have been, but little by way of achieved visible unity, with the notable exception of the United Reformed Church.

In the 1950s, there were important talks with the Church of Scotland. The (secular) Scottish popular press campaigned against the alleged imposition of (English) bishops upon the Kirk. In the 1960s and 1970s, the Anglican-Methodist Union Scheme twice failed, in the Convocations and in the new General Synod; and then the Covenant proposals with the wider Free Churches.

AlamyThe Queen with Pope John Paul II at Buckingham Palace in 1982

High hopes in the 1970s and ’80s, after the work of the first Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission and Pope John Paul II’s historic visit to Canterbury Cathedral, became much diluted as Anglicans moved to the ordination of women, and the RC Church seemed (to Anglicans and many Roman Catholics) to be uncertain about the achievements of the Second Vatican Council.

Yet things had changed. Of Anglican-RC relations, The Times opined, in 1982, that the way back had been closed: factors in this included full diplomatic recognition of the Holy See and Cardinal Basil Hume’s receiving the Order of Merit. That remains true of the whole of ecumenical and interfaith developments. Essentially, church leaders know each other as friends. Interfaith leaders, too, are sisters and brothers.

All this the Queen has seen and approved (literally, in the case of the canons on ecumenical relations and eucharistic hospitality), and, in her speeches at the quinquennial inauguration of the General Synod, her commendation of interfaith communities, and her annual Christmas broadcasts to the nation. All have regularly contained expressions of her own faith and support for those of other faiths.

Visits by Archbishops to Rome also began in this period: the breakthrough first visit (“private”, and no photographs) of Archbishop Geoffrey Fisher to Pope John XXIII in 1960, then the historic visit of Fisher’s successor, Michael Ramsey, in 1966, when the official dialogue was inaugurated. The Evangelical Donald Coggan followed. Robert Runcie met the Pope not only in Rome and Canterbury, but also in Ghana and in India. Since then, every Archbishop of Canterbury has made regular visits, and they have become normal.

The Queen, too, has met popes a number of times. Compare the first occasions, in black with a veil, rather than the white of a Roman Catholic queen, to the 2014 meeting with Pope Francis, at which she is in a pale lilac coat and cream gloves.

IN ONE area, things have not changed. The Queen’s own faith includes the deepest commitment to the Church of England. Her Majesty does not express this in the piety and overt religious language fashionable in some of our growing churches. But anyone who has been present in Westminster Abbey when the Queen ascends to the altar rail to receive holy communion will have observed her reverence and the sincerity of her faith.

Also experienced by the diocesan bishops, “her bishops”, is the affirmation given by the Queen when they begin their diocesan ministry, as they make their personal homage and pledge obedience. (This is done in the somewhat anti-papal language of an oath, which goes back to the Glorious Revolution rather than the Reformation.)

An intimate conversation follows, ranging from the bishop’s new house, their family, their diocese, current affairs, or special interests. Present with the Queen and the bishop are only the Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice, who administers the oath, and the Clerk of the Closet, who presents the new diocesan. In my time as Clerk, I presented 28 new bishops to make their homage. On each occasion, it was clear that the Queen was conscientiously concerned for both the well-being of the bishop and of their diocese. That has not changed.

What has changed is that this concern now embraces both the other Christian Churches and other faith communities. The implications for the meaning of those letters “F. D.” (Fidei Defensor, Defender of the Faith) on coins of the realm must be an enlargement of its meaning which has already actually taken place.

Prince Charles’s interpretation of F. D. as defender of faiths has been criticised for being vague. But, historically, that title had, in any case, radically changed. Given to Henry VIII by Pope Leo X in 1521 for the King’s defence of the seven sacraments — in all probability actually drafted by the martyred Bishop John Fisher of Rochester, whom Henry later had beheaded — the title was retained by his successors, who reinterpreted it as Supreme Governors of a Church that expressed its position in the Prayer Book, the Ordinal, and the Thirty-Nine Articles.

Whatever the meaning of F. D., the fact is that the Queen has herself enlarged its meaning to embrace the other Christian Churches, and to show respect for all communities of faith.

The Rt Revd Christopher Hill is a former Bishop of Guildford and Clerk of the Closet.
He is grateful to Westminster Abbey for confirming some details in the article

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