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Platinum Jubilee: Queen’s firm push to interfaith freedom

27 May 2022

Changes to the Commonwealth Day service reflect a personal commitment to a multi-faith society, says Catherine Pepinster


The Queen with Lord Williams, then Archbishop of Canterbury, at the multifaith reception at Lambeth Palace to mark the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee in February 2012

The Queen with Lord Williams, then Archbishop of Canterbury, at the multifaith reception at Lambeth Palace to mark the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee in Febr...

MOST notable among the church services that reflect the changing approach and personal interest in interfaith are the Commonwealth Day services, held each year at Westminster Abbey. Commonwealth Day itself is a reinvention in post-colonial times of Empire Day, created at the start of the 20th century to encourage a sense of collective identity and imperial responsibility among young citizens.

The name was changed to Commonwealth Day in 1958, and, in 1963 and 1964, Commonwealth Day services were held for the first time in Westminster Abbey. When the leaders of Commonwealth countries asked in 1965 for the service to be a multi-faith occasion, reflecting the other faiths of their nations, the Dean, Eric Abbott, was unwilling to experiment, and the service was transferred to the secular space of the City of London Guildhall.

The Church Assembly, predecessor of the Church of England’s General Synod, had also expressed its unease about a Christian space being used for an interfaith gathering. But the Abbey, as a Royal Peculiar, was not under ecclesiastical jurisdiction, and the Dean answers to the monarch.

Elizabeth II, well aware of this and frustrated by the Guildhall event, asked Abbott to let the service be restored to the Abbey. He agreed, on condition that it was called an observance rather than a service. It was a moment when the Queen led and the Anglican Primacy later followed.

Indeed, it could be argued that she led the way even earlier on interfaith, with her 1952 Christmas broadcast, when she asked people in Britain, her Commonwealth, and the last outposts of the British Empire to remember her at the forthcoming coronation, and “whatever your religion may be, to pray for me on that day”.

The Commonwealth Day event at the Abbey has since been a firm fixture in its calendar, and interfaith gatherings at other churches have also grown in importance. But it is the Abbey’s Commonwealth service that is the most significant and indeed vivid expression of Anglican commitment to such dialogue.


IN MARCH 2001, the historian Roy Strong, who had been appointed high bailiff of the Abbey, described seeing “a group of Zulus singing and dancing their way round the abbey. They really used the space and, at the very end, returned to burst out of the West Door to give the public something to think about.”

The Queen’s personal interest in dialogue was also evident in her 2002 address to both Houses of Parliament, given to mark the Golden Jubilee of her accession, when she commented that “the consolidation of our richly multicultural and multifaith society — a major development since 1952 — is being achieved remarkably peacefully and with much good will.”

Four years later, in 2006, the service of thanksgiving to mark her 80th birthday, held in St Paul’s Cathedral, included a procession with world-faith representatives, and prayers delivered by High Commissioners from Pakistan, Nigeria, New Guinea, and Barbados.

That same year, Canon John Hall was appointed Dean of Westminster, and, for the next 13 years, was closely involved in the Commonwealth Day services held there. Over the years, prayers from other traditions were included in the services, “and the Queen was actively happy about that,” he recalled; but, at the same time, it also became a more outwardly liturgical, Anglican service.

“At one time we had just cassocks, but then we introduced copes,” he said. There were to be no half-measures with this encounter between the Established Church and other faiths, in other words. It was the equivalent of getting out the best china for the guests coming to tea.


ELIZABETH II has used visual spectacle and liturgy, then, to express her interest in interfaith dialogue on many occasions. But her most articulate, theological expression of this interest came in 2012, at a reception at Lambeth Palace to mark her Diamond Jubilee.

It was the first event of her jubilee year, and those who gathered there must have thought, as it began, that it would be much like any other event that year: the Queen and her husband made small talk with the guests. But what she had to say, before representatives of various Christian denominations and the Baha’i, Buddhist, Hindu, Jain, Jewish, Muslim, Sikh, and Zoroastrian faiths, rewrote what the Church of England existed for.

Historically, the part played by the Church of England was to provide the English with a Christian Church, one that was separate from Rome and had at its core the Bible, the sacraments ordained by Jesus, and a way of life and worship set out in the Book of Common Prayer.

But that day, its Supreme Governor declared: “Its role is not to defend Anglicanism to the exclusion of other religions. Instead, the Church has a duty to protect the free practice of all faiths in this country.”

And she went on: “Gently and assuredly, the Church of England has created an environment for other faith communities, and indeed people of no faith, to live freely. Woven into the fabric of this country, the Church has helped to build a better society — more and more in active co-operation for the common good with those of other faiths.”

The speech had been some time in the making, according to Lord Williams, who was Archbishop of Canterbury at the time.

It had gone to and fro between Buckingham Palace and Lambeth Palace, he recalled, while the original idea “mysteriously emerged between the two palaces, as these things do”.

The speech was part of a rethinking, he believes, of what the monarchy is about: “She has always thought of her role as a vocation, and at that time the royal family’s standing was shifting. It was becoming more of a convening, unifying role, and about keeping the community together. So, the ideas in this speech chimed deeply with her thoughts about her role.”

While others may have found challenges in the way in which Britain had changed in the latter half of the 20th century and the early years of the 21st, Lord Williams believes that the Queen’s familiarity with the different cultures and religions of the Commonwealth means that she is more at ease with these changes than others are. “The experience with the Commonwealth helped her not to panic about diversity,” he said.

Yet her speech was not just about her observations; it was, in effect, the Supreme Governor of the Church of England rethinking the Anglican settlement, and the function of the Established Church changing so that it does not close the door on anybody.


This is an edited extract from Defenders of the Faith: The British monarchy, religion and the next coronation by Catherine Pepinster, published by Hodder & Stoughton at £25 (Church Times Bookshop £20); 978-1-399-800006-8. Review here

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