The faithful Queen: Why the Church of England is lucky to have a believer at its head

Queen Elizabeth with the Dean at St Paul's Cathedral after a thanksgiving service to mark her Diamond Jubilee in central London June 5, 2012.Reuters

The Church of England, with all its manifest spirituality and fundamental good nature, is a very odd institution. It owes its existence to a bit of Tudor realpolitik, and remains so embedded in English civil society that disestablishment would be a legislative nightmare.

At its head is the Queen, the many-times-removed successor of Henry VIII in that role. He was recently named as Britain's worst ever monarch by a panel of historians; she, because of the near-faultless way in which she has navigated her role in a democratic society blown every which way by the winds of social change, has some claim to be regarded as the best.

We have all been lucky to have her. The Church of England, though, has been particularly fortunate. Previous monarchs have been murderers, adulterers, meddlers and fools. Their attitude to religion has sometimes been sincere enough, as long as it didn't inconvenience them too much.

In Queen Elizabeth, however, the Church has someone at its head for whom the Christian faith is not another layer of ceremony but a living reality.

In recent years she has worn her faith more openly, as we have seen in the Christmas broadcasts in which she speaks directly to the nation. Last year she said: "For me, the life of Jesus Christ, the prince of peace, whose birth we celebrate today, is an inspiration and an anchor in my life." In 2012 she said: "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."

The previous year she said: "God sent into the world a unique person – neither a philosopher nor a general...but a Saviour, with the power to forgive." Forgiveness, she said, " lies at the heart of the Christian faith. It can heal broken families, it can restore friendships and it can reconcile divided communities. It is in forgiveness that we feel the power of God's love."

Today, Queen Elizabeth passes Victoria's record as our longest-serving monarch. We should be glad of her example of loyal service, and glad that she is not ashamed of the gospel. What sort of spirituality her successors will bring to their role is open to question; Charles, who famously said that he would like to be a defender of faith rather than of "the faith", appears to have a rather more pick-and-mix approach to religion. 

Psalm 72, David's prayer for Solomon, is a prayer God's blessing on good monarchs and rulers everywhere. It is extravagantly oriental in asking for the gold of Sheba and tribute from Tarshish, and we are not likely to pray for our own dear Queen, "May the desert tribes bow before her, and her enemies lick the dust".

But: "May people ever pray for her, and bless her all day long."

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