In his sermon at the Platinum Jubilee Service of Thanksgiving at St. Paul’s Cathedral, London, Stephen Cottrell, the archbishop of York, stated, “What I see in Her Majesty the Queen is someone who has been able to serve our nation faithfully because of her faith in Jesus Christ. Perhaps there is no better way of celebrating her Platinum Jubilee than by doing the same ourselves.” Throughout the Platinum Jubilee celebrations, words such as faithful, dutiful, and loving have been used to describe the now 70-year reign of Britain’s longest-reigning monarch. These have been accompanied by both explicit and implicit calls to emulate her.
Queen Elizabeth II has remained dutiful to her vows and vocation. The love of the English people—and people all over the globe—is a testimony, however, to the larger work that she has been able to do over the course of her reign. To understand this, especially for those of us who live in nations with elected (and rotating) leaders, it must be understood that the Queen is not only dutiful, loyal, and faithful; she embodies these virtues (and many more) as the sovereign and the head of a commonwealth of nations.
This embodiment is made clear in the rituals of the monarchy, its role as the non-politicized head of state, supreme governor of the Church of England, and leader of the Commonwealth. To see this in action, look at the rituals at the heart of the coronation liturgy. Held in Westminster Abbey where nearly every English king and queen has been crowned for a thousand years in a service led by the senior-most clergy of the Church, the monarch is crowned as sovereign and robed in a ceremony that reflects a distinctly priestly role. In her coronation, the Queen was dressed at one point during the ceremony with what could easily be described as vestments. During these rituals, even the body of the monarch is anointed, using, it should be noted, the only piece of the Crown Jewels that predates the puritan regicides of the seventeenth century.
As the head of state, the Queen serves as the figurehead of the British people. Yet even as head of state she avoids politics and the controversies of political squabbles. This avoidance has become a mainstay of the Queen’s reign and a marker of an evolving monarchy in Britain, one that can be seen adapting to changing circumstances as far back as the development of a constitutional monarchy following the Glorious Revolution of 1688. But she does have political power. And constitutionally, she could use it. But she doesn’t. In this way, she has shown the power of restraint, a restraint focused on higher values than the rough and tumble of government minutiae. Instead, going back to the idea of embodiment, she has become something greater: continuity, duty, stability, tradition, faithfulness, compassion—values sometimes elusive in elected officials.
Queen Elizabeth has accomplished many things in her long reign (too many to comment on here). But the creation of a modern Commonwealth, her role as the head of a royal family that now stands for charitable works and non-partisanship aimed at the common good, and her resolute faith in Jesus Christ stand out as noteworthy.
On her twenty-first birthday, when she was Princess Elizabeth, the future queen made the now-famous vow to the nations that would comprise the Commonwealth: “I declare before you all that my whole life whether it be long or short shall be devoted to your service and the service of our great imperial family to which we all belong.” She gave this speech from Cape Town while on a tour of the Empire. That Empire would come to an end, but out of it—and to a great extent created by the Queen’s efforts—the Commonwealth of Nations was borne, now to include 54 nations and united to see the words of that young princess come to life:
If we all go forward together with an unwavering faith, a high courage, and a quiet heart, we shall be able to make of this ancient commonwealth, which we all love so dearly, an even grander thing—more free, more prosperous, more happy and a more powerful influence for good in the world—than it has been in the greatest days of our forefathers.
The royal family itself has also embodied this “powerful influence for good in the world.” It would be difficult to describe the charitable works of the various members of the royal family, particularly the “working royals.” Every member of the family has committed themselves to work for those less fortunate, to promote schools, hospitals, and centers dedicated to assisting those often on the margins of society. In this way they embody the best of a Christian monarchy. And in this way, they have also shown how the royal family itself has evolved for the better.
Prince Charles—overseeing the historic Duchy of Cornwell—has done extensive work to promote care for the environment, sustainable farming, the maintenance of traditional rural life, and (to his great credit) the value of beauty in art and architecture. The Queen—and her late husband the Duke of Edinburgh—instilled these values in their children and led “the firm” in these endeavors. It should be noted that this same charitable—and, honestly, loving—actions have been extended by the Queen to her family as they have struggled through unfortunate public controversies.
Finally, the Queen’s faith should be seen not as the least of her accomplishments but as her greatest. I’m relieved to hear of the faith of Charles and Camilla, and I hope that the succeeding generations can come to more overt expressions of faith. But the Queen has made her faith in Jesus Christ a central and unwavering facet of her reign. Her Christmas messages—while delivered to a multi-faith nation—have always pointed to a life-changing encounter with the Child of the manger. For Christmas 2021, the Queen spoke of missing Philip, the joy of seeing her grandchildren and great-grandchildren experience Christmas, but also, in the closing lines of her message, of how Christ makes new beginnings:
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.
It was the “new beginning” inaugurated in the Incarnation of Christ that continues to shine in Queen Elizabeth. In this way as both the supreme governor of the Church of England, the priestly monarch of the British people, and as a faithful disciple of Jesus, she embodies a role that points to the King of kings. And that is the key to her reign; she points to the best of human flourishing, of charity, duty, family, and to the One in whom her faith rests. To begin to understand the celebrations taking place all over the globe for a 96-year-old monarch, this is the place to start. She has embodied the best of us all. We do her, and those values, honor by emulating them ourselves.