Queen Elizabeth II clearly communicated her faith in her annual Christmas speech. But will King Charles? And will it give us any further insight into how he sees his role as Defender of the Faith?
For many people across the UK, and throughout the world, Christmas is going to be different this year. For the first time in half a century, the Christmas message broadcast annually from Buckingham Palace will not be from Queen Elizabeth II.
From her first Christmas message in 1952, when she reminded listeners that the holiday is “kept in honour of the Child born at Bethlehem nearly two thousand years ago” to her last in 2021, when she called Jesus’ teachings “the bedrock of my faith”, she reflected on both her personal faith and the role of Christianity in the UK.
All indications are that he has no intention of decentring Anglicanism in his personal expressions of faith, or his interpretation of his role
In 1997, as she looked back on a year which saw both the tragic death of Princess Diana and the celebration of her own golden wedding anniversary, she noted that both events were marked in Westminster Abbey, which she said stands “at the Christian heart of this United Kingdom”.
And in 2000, she reflected on “the true Millennium anniversary” of the birth of Christ, saying: “For me the teachings of Christ and my own personal accountability before God provide a framework in which I try to lead my life.”
As the UK observes a series of ‘firsts’ from the new monarch, one of the most widely and closely watched will be King Charles III’s first Christmas speech. And one of the many questions being asked about how King Charles will differ from his mother is around the question of faith.
Defender of the Faith
By default, the reigning monarch is the Supreme Governor of the Church of England and Defender of the Faith. Although the latter title may seem to suggest the defence of Christianity against other faiths, the term actually has its roots in Reformation-era divisions between different denominations of Christians.
Other faiths were not even part of the consideration.
The title was originally given to the monarch by the Pope. It was granted to King Henry VIII by Pope Leo X after Henry opposed the reforms of Martin Luther, but was later withdrawn by Pope Paul III when Henry broke with the papacy to establish the Church of England.
However, the English parliament quickly claimed the title for its own use, naming the monarch as defender of the Anglican faith (especially against Catholicism).
In the intervening centuries, both ecumenism (the building of better relations between divided Christian groups) and pluralism (the increased societal presence and acceptance of diverse faiths and those of no faith) have progressed considerably. The monarch continues to be named ‘Defender of the Faith’. But understandings of the nature of this ‘defence’ have shifted.
A new definition?
In 1994, Charles famously mused that he “personally would rather see it [his future role] as Defender of Faith, not the Faith”. Much speculation followed - and still continues - as to whether he would seek a change to the title or interpret it in a new, more pluralist way.
But perhaps some of this speculation loses sight of two important things:
First, Charles later expanded upon this remark in what was publicised as a ‘clarification’, saying in a 2015 interview: “It’s always seemed to me that while at the same time being Defender of the Faith you can also be protector of faiths”. He insisted his concern was not a title change, but “the inclusion of other people’s faiths and their freedom to worship in this country”.
The title may suggest the defence of Christianity against other faiths, but it has its roots in Reformation-era divisions between different denominations
Second, as Charles also noted in the same interview, this inclusive interpretation of the monarch’s role was not a break from the late Queen’s own expressed view.
In a 2012 address to an interfaith gathering she said: “The concept of our established Church is occasionally misunderstood and, I believe, commonly under-appreciated. Its role is not to defend Anglicanism to the exclusion of other religions. Instead, the Church has a duty to protect the free practice of all faiths in this country.”
However tempting it may be to muse – either in sentimental memories of the late Queen’s Christmas messages of the past, or anticipation of the King’s Christmas message of 2022 – on how Charles will interpret and inhabit the relationship between the monarchy and faith, it is difficult to imagine he will say anything particularly novel or radical.
And while this will be of great comfort to some, it will be a severe disappointment to others.
All indications are that he shares both his mother’s more contemporary interpretation of ‘Supreme Governor and Defender of the Faith’ as embracing pluralism and promoting interfaith understanding, and that he has no intention of decentring Anglicanism either in his personal expressions of faith, or his interpretation of his role.
But more interesting than the content of his first Christmas message – both to those who support and those who question the role of ‘Defender of the Faith’ - will be observing how King Charles chooses to inhabit this role in the coming year, and years to come.
How, exactly, will King Charles defend the faith he professes to follow?