The Queen’s Diamond Jubilee this year has generated a slightly morbid undercurrent among the joy of celebrations that has something to do with a quantitative assessment of her reign. It’s not just that 60 years on the throne inevitably (and somewhat discourteously) draw attention to age and mortality. It’s also that the previous British record-holder for length of reign was Queen Victoria, at 63 years and seven months. Barring an unspeakably untimely intervention by the Grim Reaper, our Queen looks set to pass that monarchical milestone.
But while that statistic occupies the minds of record-book compilers, there is a qualitative regal precedent which is far more apt. Her namesake, Elizabeth I, produced an English religious settlement of quite profound diplomatic artistry, which gave us the Church of England, and which she held together throughout the turbulent years of her reign (a mere 44 years).
What Elizabeth I recognised, and what Elizabeth II has learned, is that the Church has a role in social and political cohesion in the nation that reaches well beyond its religious adherents. In the first Elizabethan age, it was the Church in England – for the second, it has been the Church of England. But for both it has been a powerful tool of national unity.
The first Elizabeth produced a Protestant religious settlement that healed the religious persecution of the reigns of her sibling and her father, a peaceful co-existence founded with Rome. For the second, it has been the means through which the competing influences of multiculturism and secularism have been harmonised in the British constitution. That, at least, has been our Queen’s aspiration; whether it turns out to be a durable legacy remains to be seen.
The Church of England has been her rock, inheriting the title Supreme Governor from that original Elizabeth and Defender of the Faith from the father before her, Henry VIII. It was entirely Elizabethan for today’s Queen to attend the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Lambeth Palace earlier this year to say: ‘The concept of our established Church is occasionally misunderstood and, I believe, commonly underappreciated’, going on to remark that it had ‘created an environment for other faith communities and indeed people of no faith to live freely’. That is precisely how it had found its genesis in the 16th century.
It is this cultural role of the Church for its non-members, for all the Queen’s subjects, which gives it such stature in the life of the nation – ‘woven into the fabric of our nation’ as she put it – and which makes her so committed to it. It’s easy to underestimate how much the Queen likes the Church of England. She attends services when she’s on her breaks at Sandringham not out of a sense of duty – though her reign has been characterised by a self-sacrificial servant ministry – but because she wants to.
As she put it in her Lambeth speech: ‘If we take seriously the way our constitution works, the United Kingdom is a society where we might expect people to grasp the importance of symbols and traditions, not as a sign of mere conservatism or nostalgia but as a sign of what holds us together.’
In this version of our national faith, the Church exists, as Archbishop William Temple is said to have put it, for the benefit of its non-members. The Queen, as a believer, chimes with those atheist Britons who hold that they do not themselves want nor need anything to do with the Church, but they are glad it’s there. Hers is both a pragmatic and a pluralist approach to religion.
The threats to this elegant neo-Elizabethan settlement come, as ever, from a variety of sources. One is the development of an aggressive form of secularism, which the Muslim politician Baroness Warsi identified in an address on the day before the Queen’s in February. This strain of secularisation bears little resemblance to the secularism of the post-Enlightenment, which sought an equality in freedom of conscience and expression for all.
It is personified by Dr Evan Harris, the Liberal Democrat MP who lost his Oxford seat at the last election substantially because local church members drew voters’ attention to Dr Harris’ ulterior motives on a variety of issues from abortion to euthanasia. For him, a campaign to repeal 1701’s Act of Settlement is less about anachronistic oppression of Roman Catholics than about unravelling the constitution in favour of a prescriptive secular republic, devoid of religion. On the one hand, therefore, a Defender of Faith for whom a national faith supports all people, of any faith and none; on the other, secular absolutism.
Another threat to the stability of this unwritten constitution, forged over 1,000 years and championed by the Queen, is closer to home. Her home, to be precise. The Prince of Wales has made it clear, most recently in 2008, that when he accedes to the throne, he intends to drop the definite article and become simply Defender of Faith.
This is to take little account of the current monarch’s cohesive role in the British constitution, through an established Church of England. Instead of a national faith which accommodates all faiths and none, ‘Defender of Faith’ would now be taking sides – it’s people-of-faith versus the rest. It also converts the defence of a faith which tolerates all into one that now tolerates all faiths, even presumably the loonier of tunes.
It may be that Prince Charles is a child of his times, unduly influenced by the zeitgeist of the postmodern age, for which there is no higher calling than to multiculturalism. That is understandable given the context of the world in which he grew up and was educated. But his mother, equally, is of a tradition that upholds a particular status for Christianity in our society precisely because it recognises, through the doctrine of imago dei, or image of God, that every one of us is valued.
The Monarch’s ancient title articulates that principle – symbolically, yes, but as she said herself the worth of such symbols is measured in a whole lot more than conservatism or nostalgia.
The six decades during which she has straddled the roles both of head of state and of Supreme Governor of the Church of England have witnessed such societal change that it is almost as if her detractors are waiting patiently for her to leave the stage, before redeveloping the constitution over which the Queen presides. The elephant in the state room is disestablishment of the Church.
In the context of House of Lords reform, it’s often said that the Lords Spiritual – the 26 bishops with seats by right in the upper chamber – must go. But those who see it only as an outdated component of a deferential past miss the bigger picture. Remove the bishops from the Lords and you’re unpicking the threads of an ancient tapestry that bears our image.
Reform of our institutions is a constant and there is no progress without change. But the monarchy is not just a relic of our past; it tells us who we are, not just what we were. And the Queen, more than anybody in her Diamond Jubilee year, knows that we should be careful what we wish for.