Queen Elizabeth just celebrated her 90th birthday. In the global public eye since becoming the royal heir in 1936 upon her uncle’s infamous abdication, she is the world’s longest reigning celebrity. Who alive today can recall a time before her? Last year she became Britain’s longest serving monarch, outpacing her ancestors Victoria and George III. She’s the world’s second longest serving head of state, after only Thailand’s King, who came to power in 1946, six years before her.
Winston Churchill, who had observed that even as an infant she carried a sense of authority, was prime minister when Elizabeth became queen. Twelve prime ministers have served her (Harold Wilson twice), and as a princess she knew three other prime ministers. Has anyone else known 15 prime ministers? She’s known every American president since Herbert Hoover, except FDR (her parents left her at home during their 1939 visit) and LBJ (her pregnancy precluded attending JFK’s funeral and LBJ let Ike represent him at Churchill’s funeral). She’s known almost every major world leader of the last 70 years except Stalin and Mao (for which she’s likely grateful). There’s almost no notable of the second half of the 20th century she has not met.
Elizabeth took power when Britain’s global empire was folding. But she presides over a still formidable power that is the world’s fifth largest economy. With her parents she endured WWII, in which she served as an army driver and mechanic. Her first public radio address was at age 14 in 1940: “We are trying to do all we can to help our gallant sailors, soldiers and airmen, and we are trying, too, to bear our share of the danger and sadness of war. We know, every one of us, that in the end all will be well.” She has been reassuring her nation for nearly 80 years, through wars, turmoil and crises.
Like her parents, who hosted the exiled European monarchs who escaped Nazi occupation, Elizabeth has represented the continuity, stability, democracy and rule of law characteristic of her nation but all too rare in the world. Having survived WWII and the Cold War, during which Britain became a nuclear power, she is not likely intimidated by the world’s current struggles.
Elizabeth has ruled free of personal scandal. She speaks in public little and keeps her own counsel. Her union of nearly 70 years to Prince Phillip, who just turned a robust 95, is a model of marital perseverance. She weathered the less stable domestic lives of her children with aplomb. They are postmoderns but she is stalwartly Victorian, dutiful, and uncomplaining. Whatever personal angst has privately plagued her, she has largely withheld from the public in favor of dignity and mystery. She has, to all appearances, worked amicably with all her prime ministers from opposing parties, except for rumors of tensions with Margaret Thatcher, the one prime minister, except for Churchill, who was more iconic than the Queen herself.
Always taking seriously her role as head of the Church of England, Elizabeth is regular at worship, works closely with clergy, has low church and even evangelical sympathies, has maintained relations across decades with Billy Graham, and is almost certainly deeply devout without publicly articulating pieties beyond her annual Christmas address.
Some of Elizabeth’s supreme moments, starting with her extraordinary coronation at age 25 in Westminster Abby, the first ever to be televised (at her own insistence over Churchill’s objection) have occurred in churches, at countless commemorations, weddings and funerals intrinsic to the royal family and to British public life. She is an envoy of fath in an evermore secular Britain.
Elizabeth is also for the world a final great understated but unapologetic representative of Christendom, whose pageantry both ceremonial and moral have undergird her long, honorable life. She connects the world to over a millennium of British nationhood, monarchy and Christian faith, subordinating her own personality to all three, like any worthy monarch should. Even after 90 years, we don’t know her intimately well, which is one of her gifts.
So thank you Queen Elizabeth, a good and faithful servant, whom hopefully God will grant many more active years ahead.