Brendan Hoban: Religious faith was the bedrock for the Queen      

Religious faith was the bedrock for the Queen      

Western People 20.9.2022

(Yesterday), September 19, 2022, Queen Elizabeth II of England, after her funeral  service at Westminster Abbey, was laid to rest in the grounds of Windsor Castle. After a long lifetime by any standards – stretching almost to the full century – and an extraordinary reign of 70 years, it had the feel of the end of an era.

It wasn’t just that the Queen, as she was invariably called even by Irish republicans, seemed the linchpin in the British royal firmament but the fear that, once she departed the scene, the whole panoply of pomp and ceremony and of ‘flags and flummery’ that sustained her world would come crashing down.

There is probably no country in the world able to deliver, on a par with the British, a ceremony that seems so out of sync with the modern world and yet is such a settled tradition in British society, somewhere between medieval costume drama, public spectacle, tourist attraction and state funeral.

Those watching yesterday will have enjoyed, and apart from the royal family, ‘enjoyed’, seems the right word, the great event of her going. Because what was delivered in the stilted liturgy in Westminster Cathedral and the predictable liturgy in the streets of London, was a familiar repetition of comparable occasions in the past.

It was what the British public wanted and the players involved acted out their anticipated roles with a wary eye on tradition and precedent and with a formidable cast of thousands, some mere actors dressed in and surrounded by the predictable features of such a royal ritual, others – retinues of presidents and prime ministers from around the world – gathered from around the globe to bow and curtsey and by their presence to confer an added importance on the proceedings.  

What in other circumstances might seem, even in terms of over-blown pageantry – a rampant overkill with flags, trumpets, gun salutes, the clip-clopping of horses with gold-braided riders aboard – was no more and no less than what the occasion demanded.

But now that the keystone holding together so much of the mystique of royalty is no longer there, the question hanging over yesterday’s highly organised and professional presentation is what role royalty will play in the UK in the future?

After a long and steady hand on the royal enterprise by a lady of supreme grace and dignity, the jury is out on whether King Charles and his sometimes volatile siblings will be able to sustain the whole show. And, Charles, getting a public hissy-fit before the camera over the clutter on the table where he was writing his first signature as Charles R would not inspire much confidence for the future.

At 73, will Charles, in trying to resolve the growing tension for British royalty between modernity and the medieval accumulation of previous centuries, be able to steer a steady course. Part of his difficulty is that while the contrast – in competence, confidence and subtlety between King Charles and Queen Elizabeth could not be more stark, worse still is the contrast between the costly and cossetted lives of the British royals and the lives of increasing numbers of his ‘subjects’, now that the British economy is contracting. The evidence is that Charles will be expected to slim down the monarchy but whatever he does, he may find himself in the impossible position of being ‘damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t’.

While the question easily dealt with is how many palaces and other ‘residences’ the royals really need, other influences not least the tourist board may be unhappy if the golden carriages, golden throne, ornamental swords, royal horses and more are retired as casualties of a modernising policy. Then there’s the question of funding a host of royal hangers-on to standards to which they had become accustomed. The key player orchestrating the historic diminishment of the royal presence will need to be blessed with phenomenal patience, a quality in notoriously short supply in the new king.

Part of the problem too is that Charles will not be as substantial a presence as his mother, and may feel conflicted about his role as the Head of the Church of England. For Queen Elizabeth, a personal faith was one of the central-truths of her life.

As part of her coronation, she was anointed and made a vow of service to her people for as long she lived, a duty she impressively discharged for seven incredible decades. Indeed, duty for her was born out of a religious conviction; her coronation, a form of ordination; her role, in effect, regarded by herself as a vocation.

Strangely, in the marathon (and sometimes overdrawn) coverage of her death and funeral very little attention was given to the late queen’s religious faith. This was more evident as she grew older and, particularly in her Christmas messages, she began to refer more and more to what that faith meant to her. 

On Christmas Day, 2000, she said that ‘Christianity provides a framework in which I tried to lead my life’. During another Christmas message,  she said: ‘For me, faith is never out of date. It is the generous love and example of Jesus that has inspired me in good times and in bad. Faith has been a great source of comfort’. Last summer, she sent a message to the Lambeth conference, a gathering of Anglican bishops from around the world, and she told them, ‘Throughout my life the message and teachings of Christ have been my guide.’ Catherine Pepinster, the English Catholic writer, in her book on the monarchy, quotes someone who knew the Queen well as saying that ‘Her Christian faith provided the scaffolding of her life’. 

It was a fitting tribute to a gracious queen.

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  1. Paddy Ferry says:

    Brendan, an excellent and very fair appreciation of the late Queen Elizabeth, her life and, also, of the whole funeral process and ritual.

    Apparently, her faith was such that she knelt at her bedside every night –I presume until her legs would no longer allow her — and prayed.

    How the whole process was handled from leaving Balmoral that Sunday to travel to Edinburgh –I stood among the throngs on Queensferry Road in Edinburgh and watched her pass by –until she was finally laid to rest in St. Georges chapel in Windsor was so impressive.

    Except for what you correctly referred to as “the stilted liturgy”. The actual service in Westminister Abbey left me completely unimpressed.
    Was it really necessary to have the arcane language in the scripture readings, for example?

    Of course, we were told the whole thing had been in preparation for decades and it was all, probably, as she herself wished.
    But, I found what should have been so uplifting very disappointing.

  2. Sean O’Conaill says:

    Given that only a sincere faith could have allowed Queen Elizabeth II to stick so solidly to her constitutional duties, to surmount the tragedies and very public humiliations of close family members – and even gracefully to address the challenge of a reconciliatory visit to Ireland – there was obviously a limit to the extent that she could truly ‘get’ Jesus’s message re the incompatibility of great wealth and the kingdom of heaven, or see that the institution she represented was an obvious handbrake on the ‘levelling up’ that the Tory party now claims to espouse. She was as much a prisoner of ‘the crown’ and its castles as an heiress to them.

    It is not therefore difficult to see why her observant faith coincided with the closure of over 1000 Anglican churches in Britain during her reign. How could the professed faith of a church so constitutionally constrained gain wider traction as a commitment also to social justice and equality? There too a clear discernment of the sins of pride and covetousness – the sins that undergird injustice – was historically off limits.

    But for an accident of history this conundrum could now be for an English Catholic hierarchy to resolve, and it would be that Catholic church that would find itself described by the UK left as ‘the Tory party at prayer’.

    Sooner or later it is for church leaders so situated to either put up with such constitutional constraints – and watch the faith and the Gospel itself lose credibility – or to see and to call out the historical compromise that lies at the root of the separation between a sincere egalitarianism and an observant Christian faith. An established Christian church is also an historically doomed church, because the essence of establishment is assent to social inequality and the moral inertia and hypocrisy of a privileged social elite.

    Would there ever have been a Karl Marx or an atheist backlash against Christendom if Christendom had ever been truly and deeply Christian? Our current Irish Catholic hierarchy may also be in deep historical trouble, but I doubt that they envy their counterparts in the Church of England.

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