The Queen’s 70-year reign has been marked by her spiritual leadership and engagement with faith groups across the spectrum of belief.
With the encouragement and support of Prince Philip, her years on the throne have been “a golden era of interfaith dialogue” and her personal commitment to the Christian faith has been clear to everyone.
In a Religion Media Centre online briefing to mark the Platinum Jubilee, journalists, authors and royal watchers assessed the centrality of faith in her reign.
Catherine Pepinster, author of Defenders of the Faith, explained how the Queen’s private faith is intertwined with her public constitutional role. Her Christmas messages revealed her personal commitment, to the extent that she could be regarded as “the defender of Christianity”.
Her public role as defender of the faith is, at its heart, sacred, explained Ian Bradley, emeritus professor at the University of St Andrews, a meaning symbolised by anointing at the coronation, an idea explored in his book God Save the Queen: The Spiritual Heart of the Monarchy .
“There’s a sense that, like a priest, the monarch is set apart, consecrated,” he said. “The Queen herself has a huge sense of this. She sees herself as having been anointed, having been called apart. It’s part of her very strong faith inculcated in her partly by her father, George VI, who had a very strong, clear, simple faith.”
The Queen vowed at her coronation to “maintain in the United Kingdom the Protestant Reformed Religion established by law” and to “maintain and preserve inviolably the settlement of the Church of England, and the doctrine, worship, discipline, and government thereof, as by law established in England”.
Her constitutional role is also supreme governor of the Church of England, but as Catherine Pepinster explained, this did not amount to day-to-day governance but a role where she consults with the Archbishop of Canterbury and opens the five-year terms of the church’s governing body, the General Synod, but leaves the running of the church to the bishops. In her reign the Queen has seen seven archbishops of Canterbury, seven Popes and 15 prime ministers, from Winston Churchill, born in 1874, to Boris Johnson, born in 1964.
Stephen Bates, former royal and religion editor at The Guardian, observed that the leaders had grown “pretty appreciative of the fact that this is a person with huge experience”.
He agreed that the Queen’s engagement with religion was not just a constitutional obligation but an engagement of faith: “I think it is central to her worldview and her very sense of duty,” he said.
Her commitment was clear, Professor Bradley said. “Naturally, it’s something that she is, to some extent, reticent about and keeps to herself. She’s not a demonstrative person. But I think anyone who does encounter her, as I’ve had the privilege of doing so, is extremely aware of the depth of her faith, and also her knowledge of the church.”
He said two recent images stood out. One was of her sitting alone at the funeral of Prince Philip, her husband of 72 years, symbolising her sense of duty and setting an example to the nation in obeying the Covid restrictions. And the other was when she walked into Westminster Abbey to her husband’s memorial service, on the arm of Prince Andrew. Professor Bradley took this as “an extraordinarily significant spiritual gesture”, an act of supreme grace showing forgiveness, that recalled the story of the prodigal son.
Catherine Pepinster said the obvious character of the Queen’s faith had mainly allowed her to stand apart from the drama, the soap opera, of the younger royals.
“I think she is seen as somebody who represents a certain stability for this country, a certain continuity, values. Even those who might not share her particular and quite intense faith can recognise that she stands for something, that she represents this country.”
Professor Bradley said he often discussed religion with Prince Philip and also with the Queen. He understood that her life of duty was modelled on the life of Jesus, the “servant king”.
“To some extent she sees herself in that servant, sacrificial role. This idea of servanthood, of sacrificing yourself for the good of the nation, of involving yourself in good works, in philanthropy, in charity, this has been fundamental to the understanding of the British monarchy and the way it’s been presented by the courtiers “.
He said the Queen did not invent this role. The monarchy’s move towards philanthropy began in the Victorian era, as documented in Royal Bounty: The Making of a Welfare Monarchy by Frank Prochaska, who said this monarchy saved itself through reinvention.
However, this may mean problems after her death, since Prince Charles hopes to reduce the size and expense of the royal family, Catherine Pepinster explained.
Stephen Bates said it could mean there were not enough royals to do the work and the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge would be “spinning like tops” trying to keep up.
Rabbi Jonathan Romain, the Queen’s “local rabbi” from Maidenhead synagogue, pointed out that the philanthropic work and close contact with the people has had another effect.
On the one hand she remains distant and regal, while on the other she is like a grandmother and people identify with her when they read of problems she’s had with her children, adultery, divorce or business dealings.
But he wondered what difference it had made to the country. “Her glorious example of faith hasn’t actually encouraged people to be faithful,” Rabbi Romain said. “She hasn’t been able to halt the decline of the Church of England in terms of numbers. So it’s a curious thing, because I think everyone would say that she is much admired and is a really good example of a person of faith. But an influence in terms of the faith of the country is different.”
Catherine Pepinster said the Queen had used her faith as a way of unifying the country. In 2012 in a speech at Lambeth Palace to mark her diamond jubilee, she had argued that the Anglican church had a duty to protect the free practice of all other faiths in Britain.
“She was providing it with a particular role in the 21st century in a country, which is clearly much more diverse than it was at the beginning of her reign. And she was acknowledging the importance of those other faiths,” she said.
For Rabbi Romain, one of the big religious stories of the past 70 years has been the flourishing of interfaith harmony. In the first year of her reign, the Queen became patron of the Council of Christians and Jews, and he noted how her Christmas messages had increasingly referred to multifaith Britain.
“From a long Christian perspective, her reign has really been a golden era of interfaith dialogue. And she’s given that her endorsement and encouragement”.
He said it was not just harmony between faiths, but also within faiths and it was important not to underestimate the influence of the Queen in creating harmony: “Whether it’s Sunnis and Shias or, for instance, Jews and Muslims who are at odds in the Middle East, unfortunately. Actually, we get on very well, because we’ve imbibed this culture of tolerance and understanding and dialogue, and that really has come from the top.”
Professor Bradley agreed, thinking that historians may come to say that the UK had ridden the culture wars and issues coming out of Islam better than certain other countries, for example, France, because of the role of the monarchy.
“If you look at the countries that have monarchies in Europe, they tend to be, broadly speaking, politically the most stable — the Scandinavians, the Netherlands. Certainly in Britain, I think you could say that the influence of the monarchy is has been on the whole towards stability. I think in terms of potential flashpoints of religion and culture clashing, possibly the monarchy has had some influence.”
That influence will continue under Charles, who has confirmed he will hold the title defender of the faith, despite floating the idea in 1994 that it should be simply defender of faith. But there was no doubt in Catherine Pepinster’s mind that the title would be all-encompassing.
Professor Bradley ended by saying that he had been involved in some of the discussion in preparation for Charles’s coronation. While the Church of England would central as ever, there was general acceptance that it should be extended, with a gathering in Westminster Hall that would involve other faiths and representatives of the community.
He also understood there would almost certainly be what we had in mediaeval times, a showing of the monarchy around the nations of the United Kingdom, with ceremonies replicating the coronation in Edinburgh, Belfast, Cardiff and probably also in the north of England.
Asked to sum up the Queen’s influence, Rabbi Romain said: “She’s always sending out greetings cards to people on the 100th birthday. I very much hope she’ll send herself one. There’s a Jewish tradition of whenever there’s a special event, you say ‘May you live to 120.’ And who knows she might even get there”.
View the briefing on our YouTube channel below: