Do anything really well in almost any sphere of life – run a business, run a marathon, run a country – and pretty soon people want to know your secret. What motivated you? Where did you get your inspiration and stamina? What were your guiding principles?
Her Majesty The Queen has rightly been globally praised for doing an outstanding job since she came to the throne at the age of 25. And for 70 years she's done her work as Queen, Head of the Commonwealth, and Supreme Governor of the Church of England with amazing diligence, great grace, astute intelligence, deep humility, and tremendous effectiveness.
Where does all that come from – the clarity of vision, the stamina, the steadfastness in duty and care? What has shaped and sustained this remarkable stateswoman? While we know very little about what she thinks about a whole host of issues, she has been extraordinarily clear about where her guiding principles come from – though the majority of her biographers have rarely paid serious attention to her words.
Her answer can be summed up in one word: Jesus.
It is, as she testifies, Jesus' teaching that has shaped her, Jesus' example that has inspired her, and Jesus' power that has enabled her to do the job God called her to do. We can see it in her actions. The fruit of the Spirit has been rich in her: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. And we hear it in her words. She has repeatedly communicated the reality of her own faith in Christ and the difference he has made to her life in a clear and winsome way, most notably in her Christmas addresses.
This essay doesn't reprise the key events of Her Majesty's reign – there's much on that in my book The Servant Queen and the King She Serves. Rather, it looks more deeply at the character of the Queen's faith: its biblical roots, and her understanding of Jesus and his priorities. And it explores how those have shaped her as a disciple, her vision for her role as sovereign, her vision for the nations and their citizens, and her vision for the Commonwealth.
The primary sources for these reflections are her Christmas addresses, precisely because she writes them herself, sometimes seeking suggestions from people close to her – her private secretary, or, in the past, Prince Philip. Of course, her broadcasts are not sermons or theological treatises. They are short (around 750 words), they cover a range of topics, and their starting point is Christmas, not Easter or Pentecost. Nevertheless, when combined these 'epistles to the nations' offer us a radical, attractive, and distinctively biblical vision for what it means to be a whole-life disciple of Jesus day by day in God's world.
Christ her compass
Almost every time the Queen speaks about her faith she relates it directly to Jesus. And she is effusive in her appreciation. He is 'the bedrock of my faith' (2014), 'an inspiration and an anchor in my life' (2014), and 'the compelling example' (1978). 'The teachings of Christ have served as my inner light' (2020).
The biblical resonances with these words are not hard to find. The God who is a rock (1 Samuel 2:2), 'this hope that we have as an anchor' (Hebrews 6:19), the Christ who we are to imitate (Ephesians 5:1-2), the Son who is the light of the world (John 1:4). But there is a certain originality in the language. 'Rock' may be a common metaphor for Christ, but 'bedrock' isn't. 'Anchor' in Hebrews refers to the good news as a whole but the Queen applies it to Jesus himself. Christ as our 'example' may be a well-worn concept, but the adjective 'compelling' suggests an intensity of personal engagement. Good teaching as a 'light' is a familiar idea (Psalm 119:105), but 'my inner light' points to an intimacy with Christ, to an experience of his indwelling, reminiscent of both of Christ's words 'You are in me, and I am in you' (John 14:20) and of the Spirit who is in Christ's followers (John 4:14) who guides and encourages (John 14:26). Jesus is no mere idea, not a remote figure in another dimension of reality but a person she relates to.
Furthermore, there is a richness of imagination in her writing. Here's the poetic picture she paints of Bethlehem in 1954: 'Life in such a place might have been uneventful. But the Light, kindled in Bethlehem and then streaming from the cottage window in Nazareth, has illumined the world for two thousand years. It is in the glow of that bright beam that I wish you all a blessed Christmas and a happy New Year!' The beam is 'bright' and the faith she commends is 'joyful' (2013).
She sees in Christ not only a teacher who 'revealed to us the truth in his teaching', but someone who 'lived by what he believed and gave us the strength to do the same.' His actions match his words and 'on the cross, he showed the supreme example of physical and moral courage' (1981). The occasion for the Queen's address may be Christmas, but the reason for celebrating Jesus' birth is the significance of his life and death. As she put it, 'That sacrifice was the dawn of Christianity, and this is why at Christmas time we are inspired by the example of Christ as we celebrate his birth' (1981).
Indeed, as the years have gone by, the Queen has focused more explicitly on how Christ offers hope. It is not just that he is the light of the world but that the light points to particular ways of living. In 1972, as the conflict in Northern Ireland continued to maim and kill, she spoke clearly about her own yearning and hope: 'Christ taught love and charity and that we should show humanity and compassion at all times and in all situations.'
She was under no illusion as to the scale of the challenges, challenges that she encouraged people to resolve by turning to God in prayer and to Christ for guidance. At the end of the address, recognising that resolving the conflict would take something beyond ourselves, she called on people not only to pray but to pray with her and look to Christ's wisdom:
'I ask you all to join me in praying that the hearts and minds of everyone in that troubled Province may be touched with the spirit of Christmas and the message of brotherhood, peace, and goodwill. May tolerance and understanding release the people from terror and put gladness in the place of fear. I leave with you the old message, "On earth peace; goodwill toward men". No one has ever offered a better formula and I hope that its simple truth may yet take hold of the imagination of all mankind.'
For Elizabeth, Christ's 'formula' works in the real world. Indeed, one of the things she admires about Christ's teaching is that it is practical. Faith in him should lead to works for him, works that have a particular selfless character.
Christ as servant lies at the heart of it all:
'This is the time of year when we remember that God sent his only son "to serve, not to be served". He restored love and service to the centre of our lives in the person of Jesus Christ.' (2012)
The Queen is quoting Jesus' words from Mark 10:45: 'For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.' Here the inclusion of 'love' in the sentence is telling. Her understanding of service is not limited to some dour, clenched-teeth sense of duty, but is rooted in compassion. Vitally, for her, service is not some leisure-time activity, not expressed only in volunteering to help out in a homeless shelter or take a meal to a neighbour, though she affirms all such activities. Rather, it is 'central'. It is the fountain from which all else flows. It is the very posture of her life, and it derives from her understanding not only of Jesus' own character but of his mission – Christ is seeking to form people who are selfless, other-oriented, servant-hearted – whatever their status, job, or role.
The concept of servant leadership has been much explored in management and leadership circles since 1970, when Robert Greenleaf began to popularise it. But it is rare indeed to see anyone who has lived it out as richly and consistently as the Queen, for so long. And rare, too, to find a public figure who so consciously models her leadership on Christ's pattern (Philippians 2:6-8).
For her, service and love are bound together. Service should lead to taking initiative to love one's neighbour, and neighbour-love should be shaped by selfless service rather than self-interest. And that has been the keynote of her reign. It is what she highlights in Christ, what she calls others to, and what she aspires to herself: 'I declare before you all that my whole life, whether it be long or short, shall be devoted to your service.' That's the promise she made to the nation and Commonwealth on her 21st birthday. Seventy-four years later she returned to that theme in her short Platinum Jubilee letter, opening her final paragraph with these words:
'And so, as I look forward to continuing to serve you with all my heart[...]'
And then she ended the letter with the most concise of self-descriptions:
'Your Servant, Elizabeth R.'
It is an example to any leader. And any follower.
This article is an excerpt from The Queen's Way by Mark Greene, published by LICC and Bible Society during the Platinum Jubilee to celebrate Elizabeth II's biblical discipleship. Read the full essay online and order paperback copies at licc.org.uk/queen