30 September 2022

Rowan Williams writes three articles on Queen Elizabeth II


Queen Elizabeth’s Anglican Faithfulness

 Guest Contributor  September 19, 2022  Church of England, Commentary

By Rowan Williams

Living Church

A great deal has by now been written about Queen Elizabeth, and ample tribute has been paid to her stature. It has been intriguing to see how commentators have tiptoed around the question of her personal faith: everyone who has given this more than a second’s thought recognizes that her Christian commitment was deeply part of her, but it has been obvious that, for many, this is something impenetrably strange, almost exotic.

And in a way you can see their problem. Her Anglican faith — like that of her father and grandfather — was redolent of a lost world in which weekly Matins, fervent but infrequent Communion, very private prayer, and unquestioning honesty and uprightness went together. John Betjeman’s poem on the death of King George V described his mourners as “Old men who never cheated, never doubted, / Communicated monthly”; something of this lived on in the queen. That deep, unshowy piety, nourished by the prayer book and the King James Bible, seems very remote in an Anglican world like ours. Even the most dedicated supporter of the prayer book will have grown up in a cultural climate where none of this could be taken for granted as it once had been.

But it would be a crass mistake to think that it produced an inflexible conservatism, let alone moralism. The depth of this subdued devotion seems to have allowed the queen — as it had allowed some of Betjeman’s “old men” — to adapt with stoical courage to new circumstances, to look with charity if not always approval at new styles of behavior, even to think new thoughts where necessary. The queen proved adaptable, self-critical, tolerant, and unfazed through a near-century of colossal upheaval. Her patent conviction that her role was a matter of divine vocation and that her anointing was a promise of grace and divine faithfulness allowed her to be strong enough to grow and change.

When she was awaiting her Coronation, Archbishop Geoffrey Fisher, for whom she retained much respect, prepared for her a book of daily prayers and meditations to guide her through the months. It was a book she used and continued to treasure. Some visitors to Windsor Castle would be shown the book, preserved along with other mementos of that period, and it was obvious that it had been formative — almost an equivalent for her of the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises.

These were the foundations for her thinking about her calling. And they helped her make what must have been a difficult discernment in her later years. As British society grew both more religiously plural and more secular, she responded not by watering down what she had to say in her annual Christmas broadcasts but by gently increasing the references to her faith and to the role of religious faith in general.

Reading through these Christmas texts, it is striking that, as her society ceased to take for granted the frame of reference that was hers, she recognized that part of her task was to remind us of it. Never triumphalist, never aggressive, she simply reiterated her own commitment, her acknowledgment of God’s grace, and her insistence on the need to remember what the Christmas festival was actually about.

Contrary to what some over-anxious and over-apologetic observers might have feared, this did not offend or alienate the faithful of other communities. It reassured them that the monarch understood how and why faith mattered. And that was partly because she was increasingly willing to take part in interfaith events (and was indeed criticized by some Christian rigorists for doing so). This might be at large public events like Commonwealth Day services.

But my strongest memory is of an event at Lambeth Palace, late in my time as archbishop, when we had organized a small exhibition of treasures from different faith traditions and invited the queen to come and view this, to meet a number of religious leaders, and to address the group. What she said in her address was a powerful statement of a genuinely theological rationale for the Church of England’s role in a religiously plural society.

If there is an “established” church, to which certain legal privileges are given, it is essential for it, in its collective imitation of Christ, to use whatever privilege, access, or resource it has to make sure that other communities are not excluded, to reinforce the voice of minorities in the public realm. If the Church of England was in some sense the “state church” (not the most helpful of terms), it must be a church willing to act for the good of the whole social community; and that meant being attentive and supportive to those whose voices might be muted or suppressed, those who did not feel that they had an entrée into public discussion.

In the United Kingdom, solidarity with Jewish and Muslim communities under different kinds of threat was an obvious imperative, but all faith groups would need the same faithful friendship. It was a vision the Church of England tried to flesh out in various local and national projects, including Near Neighbours, which looked to build local collaborative ventures by faith communities in support of the needy or marginalized. The queen gave her unambiguous backing to this vision.

So: a deeply traditional believer, whose adherence to the faith was beyond doubt (and who could privately, so they say, be a bit caustic about over-enthusiastic liturgical or theological reformers); but one whose depth of fidelity allowed her to discern, adjust, think ahead. Someone who had a clear sense of the church’s role in changing times, who did not confuse firmness of faith with loudness of utterance or hostility to strangers.

Queen Elizabeth was an incalculably important person for British society, without doubt. But she also, without ever advertising it, helped to model for her church a particular kind of Anglican faithfulness, confident without arrogance and generous to the entire community she and that church sought to serve. We owe her a very great debt for this, as for so much.

The Rt. Rev. Rowan Williams has served as the 104th Archbishop of Canterbury (2002-12) and 35th Master of Magdalene College, Cambridge (2013-20).

In one of the inevitable rounds of media interviews in the days following Queen Elizabeth’s death last week, one journalist asked a key question. “The Queen was anointed at the coronation, wasn’t she? Did this make a difference to how she saw her role?”

The image of the anointed monarch is one that pervades Scripture, giving us the title—“Christ”—by which we acknowledge our Savior. For the literary and historically-minded, it is an image that also haunts Shakespeare’s dramas and the starkest debates and conflicts of British political history. It has been used to mystify and exalt monarchy in ways that most of us would now find uncomfortable at best.

But if we step back a little from the history and think a moment longer about the theology of anointing, we might understand better what the journalist’s question was driving at. Anointing—in baptism or ordination—signifies that someone is being given a new place in the community of God’s people. It is not a job description, nor is it a blank check for power and privilege. It creates a relationship, with God and with the community of faith, and promises grace to make that relationship live and thrive.

The coronation service has this much in common with ordination: It singles out someone to occupy a position whose point is to manifest something about the whole community’s life—and to do so first by just being there, holding the ideals and aspirations of the community (and also carrying its projections). It is the rationale of the theological tradition that tells us that priesthood is not about an individual’s successful or meritorious performance but about fidelity to a position, for the sake of the community’s peace and well-being. It does not exempt priests from censure and judgement where needed, nor does it confer on them an unchallengeable right to win every argument. That is not the point. They are there so that we can gather around something other than our preferences and anxieties and prejudices; around a gift of “kinship” in which we can stand together before God.

And this is what the royal anointing means at its most important level—a gift of the Holy Spirit to hold a fragile human person in faithfulness to this place where community can gather for restoration and renewal. There is no doubt at all that this was exactly what Queen Elizabeth believed about her role. It was a vocation for which she had been blessed and graced, and the anointing was at the heart of it. Sometimes at Windsor Castle she would show visitors her small book of daily devotions from the weeks leading up to the coronation itself—prayers and meditations that had been written for her by the then archbishop of Canterbury. It was obvious that these meditations had sunk in deeply, and that she still shaped her life according to what was laid out there.

People wondered why she did not abdicate as she became a little more frail (though her physical health remained extraordinarily robust until the very last months). But she never saw her role as something she could lay down. In this, she echoed Pope John Paul II, disregarding the pressure of advancing age and vulnerability because the position was not one in which what mattered was success, performance, public glamor. But what she did do was plan very carefully for the transition to her successor, sharing out responsibilities, shifting expectations, gently preparing the nation as much as she could for her departure.

It was typical of her striking lack of egotism. When I held the role of archbishop of Canterbury, I had to meet a large number of political leaders across the world; I can truthfully say that not one impressed me in the same way the queen did. Not one had the same degree of attentiveness, unpompous clarity of mind and response, lack of prickly or defensive reactions. She could be abrupt, she could be caustic; she had a powerful sense of the absurd and a real impatience with clichés and flannel. Yet her profound kindness was always in evidence, and her dry and deflating humor was a great gift in keeping matters in perspective.

I watched with admiration as she—year by year—became just that bit more explicit in her public addresses (especially at Christmas) about her Christian faith; never obtrusively or aggressively, but in a way that made it absolutely clear that she knew whence she derived her vision and her strength. At the same time, her engagement with other faiths was surprisingly strong and positive, and I would hear imams, rabbis, and swamis alike sing praises for her empathy and shrewdness. Like her husband, she would listen attentively to sermons and be ready to discuss and challenge afterward. It was a very particular privilege to give her Holy Communion on the occasions when she visited the Church of England’s General Synod.

A servant of God, without doubt; a generous, courageous, patient, and prayerful person. And not least, someone whose living-out of her role kept alive the question of how increasingly secular societies find any kind of durable unity in the absence of the great common symbols of grace, in the absence of that “canopy” that offers us an identity larger than our own tribe and interest group and holds us in a kinship we haven’t had to invent for ourselves.

Rowan Williams is a former archbishop of Canterbury.

First Things

Dr Rowan Williams tribute to Queen Elizabeth II: 'She set the highest of standards'

Dr Rowan Williams tribute to Queen Elizabeth II: 'She set the highest of standards'

Queen Elizabeth II meeting Dr Rowan Williams, then Archbishop of Canterbury. (PA Images/Alamy)

Dr Rowan Williams

4 min read13 September

It is not easy to find anything to say about our collective bereavement that has not by now been said, and said eloquently, by many across the country and the world.

But for readers of this website, there are a couple of things about these sad days that might give us food for thought as we look towards the resumption of routine political life after the first time of mourning has passed.

It will not be easy to forget the way in which the news of Her Majesty’s condition was passed to those engaged in debate in the Commons, a moment captured forever on the broadcast proceedings of Parliament. The management of crises, the bitter arguments over how to deal with political pressures, the gladiatorial exchanges across the Chamber, all of these were abruptly put into a stark new perspective. Political arguments come and go – and no-one would be foolish enough to claim that they are unimportant – but they are conducted against a backdrop. Within that hinterland is the heart of the democratic ideal; a vision of a society whose business is supremely worth arguing about because it is, ultimately, a community in which we have one focus of belonging.

In a good and just society, we are linked by bonds we cannot always see. We need traditions and institutions that remind us we belong together at some level beyond electoral competition or ideological battles. For it is belonging that makes it worth struggling over granular arguments and local conflicts as we search for a better way to manage our common life with one another.

Constitutional monarchy, as we have known it in this country, is good for democracy

In the United Kingdom, the monarchy is the supreme symbol of that continuing belonging. A symbol of the reality which underpins all of our political arguments. This matters because a single electoral or parliamentary victory, however decisive, is only a moment in the continuing search to do better justice by the given fact of our belonging together. Violently polarized politics, which in effect denies this common agenda in our political action, is a step towards the erosion of politics itself – politics as the business of arguing, discerning, risk-taking, deciding and reviewing how we manage our affairs. Democracy, it has been well said, demands that we do it again and try to do it better, rather than fantasizing that we can arrive at an ideal stage of history.

Hence the paradox that constitutional monarchy, as we have known it in this country, is good for democracy. It declares that not everything is up for renegotiation; that we are all committed, more than we realise, to a system in which a set of symbols that we have not chosen to suit our preferences reminds us that we are linked with one another, before we are divided by opinions and interests.

The late Queen set the highest of standards in honouring this vision and making it a reality. The news of her fatal illness quite understandably silenced the arguments of the legislature because it reminded us of the way in which she had, over her unprecedentedly long reign, persistently stood for this shared agenda of trying to do justice to our belonging, our need of one another and our need to look to after one another’s security and well-being, simply because we are part of one local human community.

Other systems have found other kinds of symbol. But the way in which the Queen not only handled the traditional aspects of her role, but united very different groups in a deep personal loyalty and affection, tells us why the events of September 2022 touched so many hearts - and why we have cause to be grateful for the way in which this national symbol has evolved as it has, through the dedicated and generous personality of a very great monarch.

Dr Rowan Williams was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002-2012




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