09 June 2022, The Tablet

Why Queen Elizabeth II is a 'missionary' for Christianity

Catherine Pepinster’s new book looks at the Queen's personal faith and also her public role as the supreme governor of the Church of England.

Why Queen Elizabeth II is a 'missionary' for Christianity

Queen Elizabeth II, pictured meeting Pope Francis at the Vatican in 2014.
CNS photo/Vatican Media via Reuters

The Queen’s faith has been a “consistent” feature of her reign and since 2000 she has increasingly spoken about it, making her something of “a missionary” for Christianity, the former editor of The Tablet, Catherine Pepinster has said.

Speaking at a special Tablet webinar on the eve of the celebration of her Majesty's Platinum Jubilee about her new book, Defenders of the Faith: The British Monarchy, Religion and the Next Coronation, Pepinster said that it was when she was researching a previous book, The Keys and the Kingdom: The British and the Papacy from John Paul II to Francis, she realised what a significant figure Elizabeth II was in terms of religion in Britain.

Her new book looks at the Queen's personal faith and also her public role as the supreme governor of the Church of England, with a special focus on the coronation and the future of the monarchy.

The author and commentator stressed that while the Queen is Defender of the Faith, she was also a defender of other faiths in a religiously diverse Britain.

Recalling how Prince Charles in 1994 said in an interview that he would like to be known as defender of faith, Catherine Pepinster said: “There were headlines everywhere about what Charles was saying, but his mother had quietly been getting on with defending other faiths and had shown great interest and tolerance of them.

“Even in 1952, when she gave her first Christmas message of her reign, between her accession in February 1952, and her coronation in June 1953, in that Christmas broadcast she asked people to pray for her as she prepared for her coronation. And she asked the people of different faiths to pray for her. So you could say she was she was quite progressive and advanced in her thinking.”

She suspected that the Queen’s appreciation for the diversity of faiths came from her role within the Commonwealth.

Catherine Pepinster also suggested that one of the most significant moments of Queen Elizabeth’s reign came in 2012 when the country was marking her diamond jubilee. The Queen gave a speech at Lambeth Palace that year in which she said Anglicanism has a duty to protect the free practice of all other faiths in this country. She said the Queen was “effectively rethinking” the Church of England’s role for the 21st century.

She described the Queen’s personal faith as “quite a straightforward Christian faith” which had been influenced by her parents, her grandfather and others like the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Geoffrey Fisher, whose book of prayers to help the Queen with her spiritual preparation for her coronation was amongst the monarch’s most prized possessions.

Speaking about the relationship between the British Monarchy and the Catholic Church, the former editor of the Tablet recalled a Vatican official describing the Queen as “the last Christian monarch”.

Today there is “a friendliness” between the Catholic Church and the Monarchy and between the papacy and the Queen, which considering all the historical tensions since Henry VIII first broke from Rome, she said, was “quite remarkable”. Most of that change and warmth had come during the Queen’s reign.

Asked if she thought there was still some residual anti-Catholic prejudice in the British Establishment, Pepinster said that “given the levels to which Catholics have risen in public life, a great deal of that prejudice is gone”. However, she noted that the monarch cannot be a Catholic. “I don't know if that will change. If it did change, then you might have to have a whole unscrambling of the relationship with between the monarch and the Church of England.”

On the issue of the relationship of the monarchy and the Church of England and possible disestablishment, the author and commentator said there were certain people who wanted to see reform, namely for Britain to become a republic and for disestablishment.

“I don't feel that there is an appetite that is so huge for republicanism in this country, that it is going to happen very soon. But the Church of England is somewhat different because even within the Church of England, there are people who call for disestablishment. I think republicanism is highly unlikely, but disestablishment is more likely, though I'm not convinced it's coming around the corner that soon either.”

At the end of Catherine Pepinster’s book, she suggests that the watchword for Prince Charles’ reign would be “stewardship”, which is a biblical idea.

She said the final chapter of her book was titled, “Twilight” because, she added: “I think we are in twilight now with this queen – she is 96.”

She warned that the transition to a new monarch would be “quite a psychological blow to people”.

Asked what a future coronation ceremony might look like, Catherine Pepinster said the very sacred nature of it might surprise people. At the heart of the ceremony was a “deeply sacramental” anointing which always included the monarch receiving Holy Communion.

However, she suggested that the tenor of the ceremony would change because it's going to be a very different person. “Elizabeth the Second was crowned in her mid-20s. This young woman goes to the coronation dressed in these extraordinary robes. But when she is anointed, those robes are removed and she’s there in just a simple white shift. It seems very sacrificial, and her youth plays into that. I don't think it will have quite that same feeling when it's an elderly man.”

She also suggested that the next coronation will be “a testing moment” for the Church of England as it will be “very much on display” and that would “inevitably lead to conversations about should it be the established church and what role does it play” in view of its declining attendances.

“Another thing that will be very interesting with this next coronation is that it comes when the United Kingdom is not as united as it once was. And so you'll have the Church of England crowning this monarch of the United Kingdom. And I think there may well be some debate over that.”


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