ANY conversation about the Queen’s faith inevitably turns first to the anointing at her coronation: the holiest part of the ceremony, concealed from all eyes but those of the Archbishop of Canterbury.
“I want to ask you all, whatever your religion may be, to pray for me on that day,” the Queen had urged the public in her first Christmas radio broadcast after the accession, “to pray that God may give me wisdom and strength to carry out the solemn promises I shall be making, and that I may faithfully serve him and you, all the days of my life.”
One of the Heralds at the Coronation, Dermot Morrah, is recorded as having felt a chill running through his body at the moment of crowning, and to have later written of the occasion: “The sense of spiritual exultation that radiated from her was almost tangible.”
AS THE royal, religious, and national-events commentator at Sky — and a herald and member of the Royal Company of Archers, the Queen’s Body Guard in Scotland — Alastair Bruce of Crionaich been a close observer of, and participant in, many state occasions. He also has the distinction of having been in conversation with the Queen for a BBC TV documentary, The Coronation, in 2017.
While not presuming to speculate on the Queen’s personal faith, he observes at the outset of our conversation: “At a time when many people, particularly in positions of world leadership, are hesitant to give a religious perspective, she never fails to do so. . .
“Prince Philip had his own very deep search and interest in faithfulness and the ways in which human beings have sought to find God. Undoubtedly he and the Queen had conversations about these subjects.
“For the Queen, travelling all over the world as she did as head of the Commonwealth, she met people of profound faith in every place that she landed. And she was able to respect and recognise all of that because she comprehended her own desire for her search for belief.”
In conversation with the Queen for the 2017 documentary, he says he witnessed “the strength that someone who has a private faith and doesn’t talk about it projects”.
And he suggests that the Queen’s preparations for the coronation — “in the face of what she was about to take as a sacrament”, and amid the sadness of her father’s early death — was “an inauguration of enormous profoundness” for her.
Major-General Bruce has studied the Coronation closely, and his knowledge is extensive. In 2017, he was able to ask the Queen many questions about the day. He reports that she told him: “For me, it’s different. I just had to get through it,” and reflected that [as an onlooker] she would have found it easier to remember her father’s coronation than her own.
He recalls a religious moment of his own: his confirmation, “rubbing my toe-caps into the back of my stockings and preparing to go up to the terrifyingly ancient bishop and having to kneel down”, and asks in wonder: “Can you imagine [what she was presented with], at the age of just 26?”
He has sometimes imagined a breakfast scene at Buckingham Palace during the Queen’s childhood — “looking at your father and mother, and maybe Churchill has come round. . . You just sense that your father, who has never been greatly robust but whom she clearly loved very deeply, is carrying the weight of Empire. I imagine those prayers of a child were for the fortitude being demonstrated by her parents.”
Now Governor of Edinburgh Castle, he has witnessed the Queen being brought news of soldiers injured or killed in battle, something that is customarily done immediately. “I think, because I have lost soldiers in battle, I find the simplicity of the gathering around the Cenotaph and the Queen’s determination to always be present, or to be represented, extremely moving,” he says.
“I imagine the Queen doesn’t set out thinking, ‘I am the mother of the nation.’ We project that on to her. But there must be a sense of anguish. We all know — she knows — that they fight for her as the embodiment of the nation. She must carry that as a bit of a burden. And where do you take that?
“I think again of that breakfast table where she sat with her parents. I think there is a profound recognition from a lofty and lonely leadership that there is something greater, and that makes it all bearable.”
THE word “humility” punctuates our conversation, Major-General Bruce reflects: “If you look at her in the footage of a grand service, she’s arriving — the trumpets sound out, and the grandeur of St Pauls Cathedral and Wren’s glorious apses and arches are all around you — but she remains herself. There’s not a change in her at all.”
His explanation is that “she knows she’s in the presence of something greater than herself, and that is projected in the way she handles all the splendour and grandeur that she has to embody — with the recognition that it is aimed at her but not about her.
“The last person who would want to be lauded is her: if you were to throw yourself into praising her, she would be uncomfortable. She is not one to have ever been remotely good at receiving, or is comfortable around, praise.
“She also knows that we project what we want to, and it’s not for her to choose what is projected upon her. That’s the nature of constitutional kingship. She’s not following some political agenda that we can either like or hate. She is just the ropes around the boxing ring. When the collisions of politics land against her, it is her job to just spring back into place and provide a canvas for the nation to move forward.”
THE Queen is in the unique position of being born in the Church of England and destined from childhood to be its Supreme Governor. In an address to leaders of the main faiths at Lambeth Palace in 2012, she described the concept of the Established Church as “occasionally misunderstood, and, I believe, commonly under-appreciated.
“Its role is not to defend Anglicanism to the exclusion of other religions. . . Gently and assuredly, the Church of England has created an environment for other faith communities — and, indeed, people of no faith — to live freely.”
AS A former Bishop of Norwich, the diocese that embraces Sandringham, Bishop Graham James has been closer to the Queen than most. He reflects that her Christian faith was shaped in what now seems a very distant era in the Church of England, when the Book of Common Prayer was indeed common and the nation was relatively churchgoing “or thought it ought to be and felt guilty about not going.
“Its ordering of society places obligations and duties on the monarch at the top, which the Queen has always called service,” he says. “The world in which she lives in relation to her Christian faith is shaped within its parameters. That has provided the framework for her.”
And here is the word “humility” again: “an unforced humility which is, I think, a grace or a gift of the Spirit. Compared with Prince Philip, perhaps, whose faith was very speculative and who loved to argue about things, she has an old-fashioned English reserve in matters of religion. But because people don’t talk much about their personal faith, it doesn’t mean that it isn’t real: rather, that it is too deep for words.
“The Queen’s faith is simply there, shaping who she is. This Platinum Jubilee is extraordinary, because 70 years separate us from the Queen’s accession. The Coronation took place in what was a really different world. It was then a unifying event (and a sacramental one) in the life of the whole nation and beyond.”
IT IS only once every five years, at the inaugural service for the General Synod, that the Queen receives communion publicly, though she has done it occasionally on Commonwealth tours. At Christmas and Easter, the royal family receive communion early at a special service, before going to choral matins at 11 a.m.
Bishop James remembers the inauguration of the 1985-90 Synod. “We were told to avert our eyes from the Queen when she received communion on her own from the Archbishop,” he remembers. “It will not have been her instruction, but it was almost as if this moment was as intimate as the anointing under the canopy at the Coronation.”
There is something deeply intimate about receiving communion, he reflects. “The Prayer Book tradition in which the Queen grew up saw holy communion as something highly significant for which you prepare.” He recalls criticism of the parish-communion movement in its early days: it was suggested that people were “tripping too carelessly to communion, in too carefree a way”.
AlamyThe Queen meets members of the New Testament Assembly Project, to see Caribbean handicrafts and cooking at the church and community centre, in March 2005
Like Alistair Bruce, he has wondered whether the Queen’s devotional practices were shaped early. “There is no doubt that they have sustained her, and she sees no need to change what doesn’t need to be changed in relation to her faith. The rock of her Christian faith has probably become more significant as something which is unchanging in a world where so much of life is rushed.”
Observers have commented of the Queen’s Christmas broadcasts, that she has spoken more explicitly about her faith in recent years, as here, in 2021: “It is this simplicity of the Christmas story that makes it so universally appealing, simple happenings that formed the starting point of the life of Jesus — a man whose teachings have been handed down from generation to generation, and have been the bedrock of my faith. His birth marked a new beginning.”
“The understated way in which the Queen speaks of her faith is one with which nobody can find offence — it does explain why she is the sort of person she is. We admire her because we sense this is a person unspoiled by position, power, money. It is odd to say the Queen has a common touch, but she does understand people in a remarkable way. . .
“There’s a sort of expectation in society that she will continue to do the things that our society doesn’t much want to do, and we are grateful for it. She seems to have become more popular the more unfashionable the Christian faith has become and the more she speaks of it.”
What the Queen experiences as routine Church of England worship is quite similar to what it was before the days of liturgical reform, Bishop Graham suggests: a service of choral matins at Sandringham, including a sermon, is over in 45 minutes. “It is a different world to much rural religion,” he acknowledges. “Matins according to the Book of Common Prayer and a big choir in the middle of the countryside. . .”
In Norfolk, the Queen can be herself to a greater extent. When the Bishop of Norwich takes a service there, he or she stays at Sandringham for two nights, as do other diocesan bishops when invited. “I used to suggest to other bishops that they preach a short sermon: something you might do in any village parish church,” he says. “Like any congregation, the one at Sandringham wants to be engaged, in a thoughtful way, and without pretence.”
THE Sovereign takes her faith personally and constitutionally, says the scholar and historian David Baldwin, a former Serjeant of the Vestry of HM Chapels Royal. He has served on the staff of Lambeth Palace Library, as curator of Durham University Library, as a virger at St Paul’s Cathedral, and in the Armouries of the Tower of London.
That Church and State are still closely intertwined is evident domestically in national occasions such as the distribution of the Royal Maundy and the Remembrance events at the Cenotaph, where the Dean of the Chapels Royal conducts the service in the Queen’s presence. That is because of Agincourt, when the Chapels Royal accompanied the King on the battlefield to offer prayers and to pick up the dead.
Sovereigns have not all understood it quite as well as the present Queen, Mr Baldwin suggests. “It’s doing the job properly, which she does. Everything is Rolls-Royce.”
For there have been “strange inheritances based on misunderstanding”, as when Queen Victoria — who involved herself in Scottish society at all kinds of levels — believed herself to be a nominal member of the Church of Scotland, which she used to attend regularly. When the sovereign convenes the proceedings of the Church Assembly, he or she is there in a constitutional, not a governance, capacity, in perpetuity.
When it comes to the Royal Maundy service, Mr Baldwin reflects that, in instigating its journey around the realm, the Queen “started levelling up before anyone else did. Before that, it remained, by and large, in Westminster Abbey, which was understandable in its day. But she decided very early on that it would be a good idea to take the whole business to the people.
“That was a marvellous thing to do. The Chapel Royal accompanies the Sovereign, as they once did when they were eating their way around the realm, at Christmas, Epiphany, Trinity, the major feast days. . . It is an extraordinarily spiritual service. The whole thing is humility personified: the white vestments, the washing of the feet. That is the Queen all over — humility. That principle underlies everything.”
Mr Baldwin believes that, at the Cenotaph, the Queen is “the arch-symbol of what everybody feels and thinks. And the fact that she was engaged in activities during the Second World War means everything.”
THE Queen’s relations with other religious leaders have been warm, especially with Roman Catholics. She met Pope Pius XII in 1951, the year before her accession; had memorable audiences with Pope John XXIII at the Vatican in 1961, and Pope John Paul II in 2000, and met Pope Benedict XV at the Palace of Holyrood House in 2010.
“They talked then about the common Christian heritage,” Mr Baldwin says. “She was all for things being done jointly, in co-operation, across the Christian community, and the Roman Catholic Church was very much involved in achieving that with her.”
There are illustrations from the four corners of the earth, where the Queen has revived some meaningful part of Christian heritage. To mark the Diamond Jubilee, she reconfirmed the title — “Their Majesties Chappell” — engraved by her predecessors King William and Queen Mary on the communion silver that they gave to the venerable Chapel at the town of St George’s in Bermuda in 1688. (The chapel was built from the timbers of a British boat sunk in a storm in 1609, making it the oldest surviving continuously used Anglican foundation in the world.)
Mr Baldwin notes: “She reconfirmed this fascinating title that had been forgotten by means of an Intituling Document served there in her own hand by the Governor of Bermuda at the Chapel — together with a specially designed church maritime pennant to be flown from boats carrying the chaplain around the Somers Isles upon his duties.”
There was the new cathedral in Frobisher Bay, in the Arctic, which she opened in 2012; the “silver chain of friendship” renewed with the Mohawk, Christianised in the days of Charles II’s reign; and, most of all, perhaps, the Oji River Leper Settlement, in Nigeria, which she visited in 1956 — “quite fearless in cutting across all the anxieties and concerns”, Mr Baldwin says. “She went and did it, and it was the right and proper thing to do.”
He observes: “International relations is something the Queen is brilliant at. She doesn’t leave her Christianness at home, and she has done it constitutionally correctly, and with consent, with the knowledge of the churches present. It is done with deep knowledge and consent, and produces a marvellous result.”
AlamyThe Queen listens to an address by the Archbishop of York, Dr Donald Coggan, right, during a service at Westminster Abbey to inaugurate the new General Synod of the Church of England in November 1970. On the left is the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Michael Ramsey
He offers glimpse of the Queen’s faith, in the form of a communion set “Presented by the Chamber of Shipping of the United Kingdom to Queen Elizabeth II, 1964, for use aboard the Royal Yacht Britannia”, which had been launched in 1953.
The chalice comprised a small bowl atop a conical stem with a circular paten lid. There were two conical cruets and a hexagonal pyx — all designed not to fall over or slide when in use in rough seas. The set travelled with the Queen all over the world aboard the royal yacht and, on the yacht’s decommissioning in 1997, she redeployed the set for use in the domestic chapel in Kensington Palace.
There are domestic chapels — “far from grandiose oratories” — in each of the royal palaces. Most needed attention, and, in 2002, the Queen decided to fund their restoration. The first to be worked on was the interior of the chapel at Kensington Palace. Then came Buckingham Palace, where the chapel was relocated in 2002 from behind the Queen’s Picture Gallery — where it had been since the original chapel was bombed in the war — to the beautiful Stamp Room. At the Queen’s request, Prince Philip designed the pews for it.
The domestic chapel at the White Tower in the Tower of London was among those more recently revived, and is now used for regular public worship, together with the main chapel.
“That’s the Sovereign working to present opportunities so that people can once again have Divine Office,” Mr Baldwin observes. “It’s an underlay of the Sovereign in action in her own palaces, and what she’s doing. It appears at every level.”