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Queen Elizabeth, the language of Christianity, and the defence of faith

  • 15 September 2022
The passing of Queen Elizabeth last Thursday brought a great era in British, and Australian, History to an end. Queen for over seventy years, she was the nation incarnate, embodying its shared story and identity. Few of us met her, even fewer of us truly knew her. Yet millions loved her and let her into their hearts, projecting onto her their hopes and aspirations for a collective whole.

The Queen bore the burden of expectation gracefully, acting out her part dutifully throughout her long life. It is no surprise, therefore, that tributes to her have been warm and glowing. The curiosity, if any, has been the language in which eulogy has been couched: for the most part, a political one of ‘duty’ and ‘service’, not a spiritual one of ‘preferment’ or ‘covenant’.

This is as unfortunate, for Queen Elizabeth’s willingness to sublimate her person completely to the service of her peoples was predicated on the seriousness with which she understood her coronation oath. When the Archbishop of Canterbury, Geoffrey Fisher, anointed her with holy chrism she took it as an inviolable act.

The Queen’s life of overt public religion — which led her to become perhaps the twentieth century’s greatest Christian evangelist — was grounded in her conviction in the Gospels’ truth. And she interpreted Jesus’ story generously and ecumenically, broadening her role from the narrow Anglican identity of Supreme Governor of the Church of England to become an advocate by example for faiths of every kind.

Gradually, over time, she came to understand herself not merely as Defender of the Faith, a title Pope Leo X had conferred on Henry VIII before his infelicitous break with Rome, but as defender of religious liberty everywhere. King Charles has promised to take up her mantle in that regard — and a prime challenge of his reign will be to find the right way to do so. Somewhat incongruously, one of the first acts he had to perform as king was recitation of a sectarian oath to protect the Church of Scotland.

'Queen Elizabeth laid a wreath of marigolds and leaves at the commemorative monument and, by such gestures, showed a mastery of how to effect reconciliation without contravening her duty to stay clear of politics.'

The origins of this oath lay in the fears of Scottish Presbyterians at the time of the Act of Union of 1707 that their Church would be subsumed into an English one. Nevertheless, the spirit of such oaths,