Queen Elizabeth II deep, abiding faith in Christianity isn’t a secret. Yet, commentators spend more time dissecting her fashion tastes than they do about her religious beliefs. Indeed, Christmas is one of the few times it is discussed, largely because she is talking more openly about what she calls the “anchor of my life.”
I know just how much I rely on my faith to guide me through the good times and the bad. Each day is a new beginning. I know that the only way to live my life is to try to do what is right, to take the long view, to give of my best in all that the day brings, and to put my trust in God…I draw strength from the message of hope in the Christian Gospel. (Christmas message, 2002)
In 1990, she did something unusual for a sovereign who has never uttered a political thought, who has never given an interview: she wrote the foreword for a small book published by the Bible Union about her Christian faith for her 90th birthday titled The Servant Queen and the King She Serves. In her note, she mentioned the pace of change in lifetime—the tragedies, wars, and suffering as well as the triumphs, achievements and technological advances. As the book noted, “Many commentators have noted the depth of her trust in God but few have explored it.”
QUEEN ELIZABETH’S ANGLICAN FAITH
She grew up Anglican, being part of the most famous Church of England family in the world. Upon inheriting the throne from her father, she also inherited his title as Defender of the Faith, a role every monarch has held since Henry VIII broke with the Catholic Church. She was crowned in a religious ceremony, her 1953 coronation, in which she took an oath to God to become his servant:
Archbishop: Will you solemnly promise and swear to govern the Peoples of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the Union of South Africa, Pakistan, and Ceylon, and of your Possessions and the other Territories to any of them belonging or pertaining, according to their respective laws and customs?
Queen: I solemnly promise so to do.
Archbishop: Will you to your power cause Law and Justice, in Mercy, to be executed in all your judgments?
Queen: I will.
Archbishop: Will you to the utmost of your power maintain the Laws of God and the true profession of the Gospel? Will you to the utmost of your power maintain in the United Kingdom the Protestant Reformed Religion established by law? Will you maintain and preserve inviolably the settlement of the Church of England, and the doctrine, worship, discipline, and government thereof, as by law established in England? And will you preserve unto the Bishops and Clergy of England, and to the Churches there committed to their charge, all such rights and privileges, as by law do or shall appertain to them or any of them?
Queen: All this I promise to do.
For Elizabeth II, the Church of England 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.” In that 2012 speech, she went on to say, that “The Church of England has created an environment for other faith communities and indeed people of no faith to life freely.”
QUEEN ELIZABETH, THE SERVANT QUEEN
As The Servant Queen stated, “The Queen is a woman who has looked in two directions for almost her entire life—upwards toward God, and outwards towards her people.” She talks about service, and duty often. In 1980, she mentioned meeting people, “who, all in their own ways, are making a real contribution to their community. I come across examples of unselfish service in all walks of life and in many unexpected places…The very act of living a decent and upright life is in itself a positive factor in maintaining civilized standards.”
In an era of increasing secularization, the Queen is talking more openly about her faith. In an analysis of her Christmas messages, the Guardian newspaper discovered that, starting in 2000, she was more overtly talking about her faith. One Vatican official told the London paper that she is the “last Christian monarch.” Perhaps it’s because she’s been sovereign for so long, starting when religion was an integral part of culture and society. Yet, for her, religious faith is very personal. She never takes Holy Communion in public, preferring to take it several times a year in private, including once at a service early on Christmas day, before the main church service at the church on her Sandringham Estate in England.
QUEEN ELIZABETH AND BILLY GRAHAM
The second season of The Crown on Netflix explores her faith in depth during an episode in which Billy Graham is spreading the Gospel to an eager British public. In the drama, the Queen asks to meet him several times and he preached the sermon to the royal family at Windsor Castle and Sandringham. While The Crown‘s scenes may be fictional, the brash American evangelical and private, reserved monarch did hit it off. “No one in Britain has been more cordial toward us than Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II,” Billy Graham wrote in his autobiography, Just As I Am, as written on his website. “Almost every occasion I have been with her has been in a warm, informal setting, such as a luncheon or dinner, either alone or with a few family members or other close friends.” He goes on to explain:
On one occasion when I was in Great Britain, the Queen was preparing her annual Christmas address to be broadcast on television around the world. To illustrate a point, she wanted to toss a stone into a pond to show how the ripples went out farther and farther. She asked me to come and listen to her practice the speech by the pond and give my impressions, which I did.
I always found her very interested in the Bible and its message. After preaching at Windsor one Sunday, I was sitting next to the Queen at lunch. I told her I had been undecided until the last minute about my choice of sermon and had almost preached on the healing of the crippled man in John 5. Her eyes sparkled and she bubbled over with enthusiasm, as she could do on occasion. “I wish you had!” she exclaimed. “That is my favorite story.”
And, with the Queen, her faith extends from her public life to her private one. As The Servant Queen notes, she may be the most famous woman in the world, yet “she’s almost never late for anything or anyone, regardless of their rank.” That is a mark of disrespect. One of the few times she was late was to an Opening of Parliament—she’d left her reading glasses at home.
It isn’t just Christmas messages when she references her religious faith. In 1992, in the aftermath of her children’s marital scandals and breakdowns, she gave her famous “Annus Horribilis” speech in which she stated that it was “not a year on which I shall look back with undiluted pleasure.” In the middle of that major speech, she thanked all those who had prayed for her, Prince Philip and her entire family, saying those friends “whose prayers—fervent, I hope, but not too frequent—have sustained me through all these years, are friends indeed.”
For commentators struggling to explain a devout monarch to audiences who rarely set foot inside religious buildings, perhaps the best explanation of her convictions belongs to Her Majesty. In the foreward of that Bible Union book on her Christian faith, she quoted the poem used by her father, King George VI, in his 1939 Christmas broadcast, just after the start of the Second World War:
I said to the man who stood at the Gate of the Year
“Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.”
And he replied, “Go out into the darkness, and put your hand into the hand of God.
That shall be to you better than light, and safer than a known way.”