In our secular age the Queen has been Anglicanism’s most compelling representative
“HEur most gracious Sovereign Lady.” The words are from “The Prayer for the Queen’s Majesty” in the Church of England’s Book of Common Prayer, said at Morning and Evening Prayer. It is a prayer that should be heard during the celebrations of the Platinum Jubilee. Stretching back over centuries, it points to the historic relationship between Church and Crown, making us think of parallels between Sovereign and previous queens to whom the Church of England owes a deep debt of gratitude. Two in particular should be remembered.
“The Prayer for the Queen’s Majesty” was first heard in public worship during the reign of Elizabeth I. It was this Elizabeth who, as Supreme Governor of the Church of England, wisely and prudently shaped a moderately Protestant national church, the Elizabethan Settlement in which the Book of Common Prayer and the Articles of Religion, the parish church and its modest ceremonies, steered a via media between Rome and Puritanism.
While the contemporary Church of England — and Anglicanism more widely — now suffers from what we might politely call a degree of incoherence in terms of its identity and purpose, the Platinum Jubilee offers an alternative by encouraging consideration of the current Supreme Governor as inspiration for a “new Elizabethan” Anglicanism.
Elizabeth II has shown how Christian institutions retain relevance
This would stand in deep continuity with that first Elizabethan Settlement, founded upon the Book of Common Prayer and the Articles of Religion, with the deep resonance of the former and the wise moderation of the latter. Dignified public worship quietly shaping the soul, an emphasis on moderation and reserve (important in a time of widespread public caution regarding religious belief), celebration of a rich patrimony in music and architecture, commitment to the vocation of a national church, and a recognition of the goodness of civic duties: such would be the characteristics of an Anglicanism modeled upon the present Supreme Governor.
It is worth noting in this regard that Elizabeth II’s liturgical tastes are reflected in the contemporary growth and popularity of Choral Evensong, itself suggestive of the possibilities for a “new Elizabethan” Anglicanism.
Sixteenth century popes had, to say the least, a rather problematic relationship with the first Elizabeth, but she would have been very pleased that a pope — in this case, Benedict XVI — praised her namesake and successor for embodying “a noble vision of the role of a Christian monarch”.
That unflustered fidelity, amidst sundry and manifold changes, surely is a model for a Church of England far too easily flustered and distracted, too often wondering what initiative or project it must pursue in order to gain relevance. Elizabeth II has shown how Christian institutions retain relevance in a secular age. Not by retreating into a sectarian enclave and raging against change, nor by abandoning distinctives and becoming merely another reflection of a public square denuded of meaning, but by steadily, faithfully living out the virtues at the core of Christian vocation.
“The Prayer for the Queen’s Majesty” was also heard during the reign of Anne (1702-1714). Anne’s deep and profound commitment to the Church of England was proven when her father — the unhappy and unwise James II — attempted to persuade her to convert to Rome. Anne would have none of it: “God be thanked we were not bred up on that communion, but are of a Church that is pious and sincere, and conformable in all its principles to the Scripture. Our Church teaches no doctrine but what is just, holy and good”.
Anne’s commitment to Anglicanism was to bear fruit in Queen Anne’s Bounty, a scheme devised at the outset of her reign to financially support the Church of England. It helped to lay the foundations for the Church’s ministry and presence throughout the eighteenth century, a ministry and presence which recent historical accounts have proven to be much more effective and efficient than suggested by older stereotypes of Georgian parsons obsessed with fox-hunting.
Contemporary Anglicans should look elsewhere than fashionable causes
This Platinum Jubilee is an opportunity to celebrate the reign of a second Anne, whose devotion and commitment to the Church of England — often referenced by commentators — matches that of her early eighteenth century predecessor. What, however, of Queen Anne’s provision for the ministry of the Church of England? We might draw parallels here with Elizabeth II’s public support for the established Church, her references to a generous, humane Anglican brand of Christianity in her Christmas addresses, and the manner in which Anglican public worship has defined the key moments of her reign. This is, of course, a different type of “currency” to that provided by Queen Anne’s Bounty but — if properly “invested” — such cultural capital could have significance in giving a renewed cultural relevance to Anglicanism throughout this century.
Richard Hooker, the famous apologist for the Elizabethan Settlement, joyfully declared of the first Elizabeth’s Church of England, “by the goodness of Almighty God and his servant Elizabeth we are”. Mother directed that the archbishop preaching at her coronation base his sermon on a text from Isaiah: “Kings shall be thy nursing fathers and queens thy nursing mother”, words traditionally used to describe a monarch’s care for the Church. After Saint Paul’s, London, was completed in 1710, a statue of Anne was placed in the cathedral’s forecourt, a sign of an Anglicanism confidently aware of the significance of a monarch’s support.
It is, however, somewhat unlikely that Elizabeth I and Anne will be mentioned in the Church of England’s celebrations of the Platinum Jubilee. That would, no doubt, be considered unpleasantly conservative, entirely lacking a “radical edge” (which usually turns out to be an entirely predictable Guardian stance).
This is despite the fact that the first Elizabeth and Anne were women, both laity, who had profound influence in shaping the Church of England and, at crucial times, sustained its life and witness. It should alert contemporary Anglicans, seeking a renewed and deepened cultural presence, to look elsewhere than bishops pursuing fashionable causes and reports by management consultants. For seventy years now, a much more meaningful alternative has been on the throne, quietly, faithfully showing how Anglicanism could have presence and purpose in a secular age.
As we in this realm now rejoice in seventy years of the reign of “our most gracious Sovereign Lady”, it would be an appropriate time for the Church of England, and Anglicans elsewhere, to observe, listen to and learn from the Anglican tradition’s most compelling contemporary public representative, another Elizabeth, a second Anne.