Queen Elizabeth II, 90 years old this year, belongs to what Americans sometimes call the “greatest generation”: those who were young adults during World War II.
In Britain, these are the men and women who, when young, counted themselves privileged to be alive, to be serving in the armed forces or in vital industries, and belonging to a nation with a profound sense of purpose.
The queen married a serving naval officer in a war-battered London, and a few years later, she inherited the throne of Britain and an empire on the edge of enormous change.
The 1960s swept away the post-war 1950s in a whirlwind of pop, pot and the pill. By the 1970s, the last vestiges of the British Empire were gone — and by the 80s, it was not even remembered. Today, we live in a world where even the era of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan is history.
In her 90th year, Queen Elizabeth II rules a nation where, among newborn boys, the annual most popular name is Mohammed. She is nominally head of a Church of England that has effectively jettisoned much Christian moral teaching, especially on marriage, family life and the duty of regular Sunday worship.
Amid societal change, she is, for many of her subjects — and not only them — a figure of stability, a fixed point in a random and muddled landscape.
Her own religious beliefs are known to the extent that she increasingly emphasizes her commitment to the Christian faith in her annual Christmas broadcast. Traditionally simply a message emphasizing neighborliness and goodwill, it has become something rather more personal in recent years.
In 2015, she reminded Britain that “it is true that the world has had to confront moments of darkness this year, but the Gospel of John contains a verse of great hope, often read at Christmas carol services: ‘The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.’”
Her style, inevitably slightly bland and with more than a hint of a 1940s Sunday school about it, conveys a message that is obviously perfectly genuine: “For Joseph and Mary, the circumstances of Jesus birth — in a stable — were far from ideal, but worse was to come, as the family was forced to flee the country. It’s no surprise that such a human story still captures our imagination and continues to inspire all of us, who are Christians, the world over. Despite being displaced and persecuted throughout his short life, Christ’s unchanging message was not one of revenge or violence, but simply that we should love one another. Although it is not an easy message to follow, we shouldn’t be discouraged. Rather, it inspires us to try harder: to be thankful for the people who bring love and happiness into our own lives and to look for ways of spreading that love to others.”
Stalwart Amid Crisis
The queen has been criticized by some Christians for signing the 1967 Abortion Act; others recognize that, given the constitutional arrangements, this was no personal decision, but simply the action of a sovereign acting as something of a cypher. The same applies to the recent act establishing same-sex “marriage.” The large-scale killing of unborn infants in Britain, a tragedy in its own right, has helped in the breakdown of family life, along with whole-scale sexualization of the young, assisted by immoral forms of sex education, the distribution of contraceptive drugs to children and the worldwide explosion in Internet pornography.
As is well known, the queen’s own family life has seen three of her children divorced, amid great publicity and scandal. Her own faithfulness in marriage — along with regular church attendance and a general dignity of bearing — mark her as unusual among many of her countrymen and women. Standards of life and behavior once deemed wholesome and honorable are today often denounced as bleak or old-fashioned: TV coverage of the queen attending a country church service at Sandringham is vaguely reassuring. Perhaps it was a pity that she attended the ceremonies of both Prince Charles’ and Princess Anne’s second marriages: The Church of England and the Church of Scotland have both effectively caved to the idea that marriage does not bind for life.
The 90th birthday celebrations for her April 21 milestone will include many of the usual trimmings: street parties, charity events and a thanksgiving service at St. Paul’s Cathedral. Many British people identify landmarks in their own lives with something royal: Becoming a “Queen’s Guide,” after gaining various badges for service, first aid, outdoor pursuits, etc., as a teenager meant a lot to me, as did receiving my Duke of Edinburgh’s “Gold Award.” “Getting your DofE” is still a major part of life for today’s British youth, and it involves them putting in hours of service, visiting the elderly and housebound and helping with community projects at home and abroad.
At Queen Elizabeth’s silver, golden and diamond jubilees, I was involved with street parties; and on each occasion, we made a glorious noise when I called for the traditional three hearty cheers: “Let’s make them loud enough so they can hear them in Buckingham Palace!” — some 12-15 miles away, so rather unlikely, but we gave of our best.
Catholics honor the queen: We pray for her, recognize the tensions in her life and witness, admire her loyalty and spirit of service and are grateful for all of her years of sacrificial service in public duties. There will be thanksgiving prayers in Catholic churches and public messages of gratitude to her from our bishops.
The queen represents stability, a constitutional structure that has served us well, and a sense of unity with our past and with our Christian heritage.
As Pope Benedict XVI noted in an important speech at Westminster during his 2010 state visit, Britain’s “particular vision of the respective rights and duties of the state and the individual, and of the separation of powers, remains an inspiration to many across the globe.”
We must pray that it all continues to flourish. For her own contribution to that flourishing, I echo gratefully the words of our national anthem: “God save the queen.”
Joanna Bogle writes