Queen Elizabeth II Lived an Exemplary Life of Faithful Service
COMMENTARY: In an age in which Christian promise-keeping went into steep decline, the Queen’s life was marked by two great promises, magnificently kept.
My British colleague Edward Pentin posted here “A Tribute to My Queen.” She was my queen, too. For 70 years, Her Late Majesty reigned as Queen of Canada, almost half of Canada’s entire life as a dominion.
For the Great Jubilee of the Year 2000, Queen Elizabeth II made a visit to St. John Paul II at the Vatican. I framed a delightful photograph of that visit and had it on my desk in my room at the Pontifical North American College. (I still have it in the rectory.)
Almost all my fellow seminarians were Americans, and thus some teasing ensued about the photo of the Queen on my desk. That was rather easily shut down with a simple question: Where is the photo of your head of state with the Holy Father?
Of course, there were none in the entire cavernous building. The visage of President Bill Clinton, with or without the Pope, was desired by no one.
Therein lies the genius of the Westminster parliamentary system of constitutional monarchy: The head of state is not head of government and by constitutional convention only acts on the advice of the prime minister. That means that the personification of the state is insulated from politics, a principle deeply understood and lived faithfully by Queen Elizabeth. No one knew what she thought; she simply was the sovereign who served. That is a lesson desperately needed today, namely, that the state ought to have common identity and a common good before being divided by political disagreements.
The photo on my desk was about more than honoring the crown in Canada. It was an homage to the Queen herself and her conformity to all that she represented:
- The stability of a constitutional order that has evolved and adapted, largely avoiding widespread violent conflict;
- The wisdom of the hereditary principle, acknowledging that many important things are inherited from our ancestors, rather than fashioned by ourselves and subject to our consent; and
- The inclusion of Christian discipleship in the governing ethos of the nation.
This last became a growing theme of the Queen in the last quarter-century, as she included more explicit professions of her faith in Christ Jesus in her annual Christmas broadcasts. Pope Francis indicated as much in his message to King Charles III on the day of his mother’s death:
“I willingly join all who mourn her loss in praying for the late Queen’s eternal rest, and in paying tribute to her life of unstinting service to the good of the Nation and the Commonwealth, her example of devotion to duty, her steadfast witness of faith in Jesus Christ and her firm hope in his promises.”
The Christian life begins with promises — the promises first made freely by God in his covenants. A response to those promises is invited, but not forced. That response begins with the promises made in baptism and solemnly renewed each year at Easter. Other promises follow — most commonly those of holy matrimony — as fidelity is the test of whether they are kept.
In an age in which promise-keeping went into steep decline — baptismal promises, marriage vows, priestly oaths — the Queen’s life was marked by two great promises, magnificently kept.
The first was made on her 21st birthday 75 years ago in a 1947 broadcast from Cape Town, South Africa. King Charles quoted it in his first video message after his accession. The young Princess Elizabeth said this in a global radio broadcast:
“There is a motto which has been borne by many of my ancestors — a noble motto, ‘I serve.’ Those words were an inspiration to many bygone heirs to the Throne when they made their knightly dedication as they came to manhood. I cannot do quite as they did.
“But through the inventions of science I can do what was not possible for any of them. I can make my solemn act of dedication with a whole Empire listening. I should like to make that dedication now. It is very simple.
“I declare before you all that my whole life, whether it be long or short, shall be devoted to your service and the service of our great imperial family to which we all belong.
“But I shall not have strength to carry out this resolution alone unless you join in it with me, as I now invite you to do: I know that your support will be unfailingly given. God help me to make good my vow, and God bless all of you who are willing to share in it.”
Her life was very long, indeed; and within five years of that broadcast she was unexpectedly Queen. For 75 years she kept her 21st-birthday promise. She served.
Six years after Cape Town, Elizabeth was crowned Queen. Thus came her second great promise, the sacred oaths of her coronation. While the exact nature of coronation is ambiguous — some in the Anglican tradition consider it a sacrament; others do not — there is no doubt that the Queen regarded it as a certain guarantee of God’s grace; in her case, a “grace of state” that assisted her to discharge faithfully her state duties and church duties. God certainly helped her to “make good my vow.”
Keeping the coronation oaths was central to her determination never to flag in her duties and, above all, never to abdicate, as did her uncle, Edward VIII.
While Elizabeth was my Queen, she was not my pastor. She was “Defender of the Faith and Supreme Governor of the Church of England.” The former title was given to Henry VIII when the English crown was still Catholic. It is older than the Church of England. As supreme governor, the Queen was obligated to “maintain and preserve inviolably the settlement of the Church of England and the doctrine worship, discipline, and government thereof.”
That was rather difficult to do during her long tenure, as the Anglican Communion set about dismantling its doctrine, worship and discipline. Nevertheless, the Queen expressed her personal faith in Jesus Christ and defended the role of faith in public life. She was open to other faiths and built solid bridges of esteem and affection with her Catholic subjects.
“Queen Elizabeth’s was a life well lived; a promise with destiny kept,” said King Charles. Indeed, she kept her promises and thus shaped the destiny of her family, her kingdom and her realms. As one of world’s most public Christians, her promises made and promises kept made her a witness to fidelity and service in an age lacking in both.
May Her Late Majesty rest in peace.
And may God save the King.