Source: National Catholic Reporter
Queen Elizabeth II, who died Sept. 8 at the age of 96, was the longest-serving monarch of the United Kingdom. As a constitutional queen, she had no political power, though a significant role in the political framework of the nation, and she also had a major constitutional role regarding religion, given that Britain — or at least part of it — has an established church.
That religious role was one that other monarchs have had since the time of the English Reformation, when England broke away from the Roman Catholic Church. But what Elizabeth also had, and for which she was deeply respected, was a profound personal Christian faith — a faith she publicly articulated more frequently as she got older.
In 2022, to mark her Platinum Jubilee — she succeeded her father, King George VI, in February 1952 — she was awarded the Canterbury Cross, a special award of the Church of England, for those who have given it exceptional service. Her role as monarch and as supreme governor of the Church of England made it somewhat inevitable that she gave exceptional service — nobody else but the monarch could have given it.
But it was clear from the citation, written by the archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, that he and fellow Anglicans were celebrating not only 70 years of her constitutional role regarding the church, but they were recognizing the importance of her personal faith.
He wrote: “Throughout her reign, Her Majesty has duly upheld both the Christian religion and the Church of England in her roles as Defender of the Faith and Supreme Governor of the Church of England. Whether in the formality of opening sessions of General Synod or the more intimate context of her personal addresses to the nation and Commonwealth at Christmas, Her Majesty has made manifest her own deep faith and its relevance to all that she undertakes.”
In his citation for the queen’s Canterbury Cross, Welby commented on how “her subtle understanding of the changing position of the Established Church in England has sustained and encouraged laity and clergy alike.”
This understanding was most apparent in 2012, the year of her Diamond Jubilee, when she told faith leaders at an event in Lambeth Palace that the Church of England’s role “is not to defend Anglicanism to the exclusion of other religions” but that it “has a duty to protect the free practice of all faiths in this country.” At the time, it seemed to go mostly unnoticed, but it was a quiet rewriting about what the Church of England stood for.
Her Christian faith, one of her spiritual advisers told me, was the scaffolding of her life. Though she was supreme governor of the Church of England, it was Christianity, he said, rather than the Church of England, that was most important to her and she endeavored to lead the nation in being more tolerant of other denominations.
Elizabeth II was instrumental in improving relations between the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church, making many visits to the Vatican to visit different popes and hosting both John Paul II in 1982 and Benedict XVI in 2010 on visits to Britain. No other British monarch, even before the Reformation, had ever done so and the papal visits to Britain and her personal welcome were a remarkable turnaround for a monarchy that once broke so spectacularly from Rome.
The regard for the queen was not just a question of respect for a head of state or for the titular head of a church; it was for her own personal faith. Mindful, though, of her coronation vow to uphold the Protestant religion, she never attended a Roman Catholic Mass, bar the 1993 requiem for her friend King Baudouin of the Belgians.