The Daily Telegraph
Faith guides the King, as it did his mother
The late Queen’s Christian beliefs inspired her sense of vocation to serve the people throughout her reign
Tucked away in London’s Queen Square is a quatrain by Philip Larkin, inscribed in stone to mark Queen Elizabeth II’S Silver Jubilee in 1977:
In time when nothing stood
But worsened, or grew strange There was one constant good:
She did not change.
Forty-five years on, and as the world gathers for the Queen’s funeral, Larkin’s sentiment is shared by so many, from those in Westminster Abbey to we television viewers at home: for 70 years she was the one on whom we could always rely.
But in order to be that constant good, Queen Elizabeth, throughout her life, relied on the one who was her unchanging, constant good: God.
Hers was a Christian faith shaped by her parents, George VI and Queen Elizabeth, and especially by her grandfather, George V. Like him, she loved the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer, and that devotion will be apparent in the funeral service today, from its scripture readings to the litanies of the Church of England.
To many people, the Queen was the embodiment of duty: the constitutional monarch involved with affairs of state right up to her death at 96. But duty isn’t the half of it, however admirable it is. Elizabeth II felt far more than an obligation. She sensed a calling, even a vocation. It was evident before she became Queen, in the statement she made to mark her 21st birthday in 1947. She pledged her entire life, whether it be long or short, to the service of the people, and she finished her promise with a prayer: “God help me to make good my vow”.
The orb, placed beside the sceptre and the Imperial State Crown on the Queen’s coffin, is a reminder of her 1953 coronation, and is symbolic of what the Queen believed deeply. Topped with a cross, it is a representation of the entire world, including kings and queens, as Christ’s dominion. In Cecil Beaton’s coronation portrait, it seems part of her queenly grandeur, but for the Queen it was a reminder of her place: she was there to serve God, above all. Serving God was also at the heart of the most sacred part of the coronation – not the crowning, but the anointing with oil. Just as a priest is anointed during ordination, so the monarch is, symbolising Godgiven strength for the task ahead.
Queen Elizabeth was always trusting in that strength. In a foreword to The Servant Queen and the King She Serves, published to mark her 90th birthday, she said of God: “I have indeed seen His faithfulness.” But other than occasional interventions like that, or her Christmas Day broadcasts when she talked about following Christ’s teachings, her faith was understated.
There was no messianic zeal about it. Yet people, even those not necessarily religious, saw that she stood for something greater than herself. One member of the clergy who knew her suggested to me that, without proselytising, she pointed the way ahead to people, to something profound beyond themselves.
It was apparent from talking to people in the queue for the Queen’s lying-in-state that this faithful service was part of what they loved about her. The queue was like a pilgrimage to honour her life and what was its sure foundation. As one mourner put it: “She was a guiding light.”
There have been signs, too, that Britain is not as secular as we might assume: people crossing themselves, bowing and making other religious gestures before the coffin. This deep residual religious instinct emerged in the flowery shrines outside royal palaces this week. People have turned at this time to churches and cathedrals for comfort. The church-closing doomsayers should take note.
Last week, the King spoke to religious leaders of his commitment as sovereign to honour the many faiths of modern Britain, to respect secular ideals, too, and the role of the monarch in upholding the place of the Church of England. He is a committed Anglican Christian, he said, reassuring those who once questioned whether the new Supreme Governor of the Church is that devoted to it. “My Christian beliefs have love at their very heart”, he said.
It is this love, and the service that it inspires, that we celebrate today as we bid farewell to Elizabeth II.