God’s Grace in Britain’s Christian Queen
Queen Elizabeth II (1926-2022) was a remarkably Christian monarch in an age of remarkable decline from Christianity. In her successive Christmastime declarations of faith, one might hear Christian England’s swan song. She appears to have been unsuccessful in her attempts—as both head of state and Supreme Governor of the Church of England—to prompt the British people in their faith and spiritual heritage. Yet the testimony of her reign could be seen just as plausibly as a sign from God that he is not done with this people, despite their insistence that they are done with him.
The 2001 UK census reported 71.5% identifying as Christian. By 2011, this had fallen to 59%, which is expected to have fallen further to around 50% in 2021. In 2019, the Church of England was attracting less than 1% of the population to its worship services, with a third of those aged 70 and up. Catholic churches have also emptied dramatically. But reasons for checking the Christian box range from citizenship in a Christian country to having been christened (baptized as an infant) to actually believing in Christian teaching.
Queen Elizabeth’s reign spanned this post-war religious decline but did not share in it. She has been called “the last Christian monarch.” Her faith was sincere and, within the bounds of propriety, given her position, vocal. As if that were not blessing enough, in God’s providence she was also Britain’s the longest serving monarch, and this in times of deep secularization and heavy immigration from Muslim and Hindu lands within the Commonwealth.
In her first Christmas address to her subjects in 1952, the young new queen solemnly asked, "May God give me the wisdom and strength to keep the solemn promises I shall make, and that I may serve Him, and you, all the days of my life." She was still reigning when we marked the two thousandth year of our Lord. She declared in her Christmas Message that year: “For me the teachings of Christ and my own personal accountability before God provide a framework in which I try to lead my life.” Former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams reports that the Queen “deliberately decided to fill the gap” in the culture’s Christian messaging.
A nation’s rulers, we are assured, are God’s servants for our good (Rom. 13:4), and the fact that God continued to speak to that nation and that upon her death they did not revile her but loved her is telling. But he gave them other signs, less articulate in words but more pronounced in their drama.
In 1984, Dr David Jenkins, professor of theology at Leeds University, was appointed Bishop of Durham despite considerable popular protest. He was known as the "unbelieving bishop" for his denial of the virgin birth and resurrection of Christ. Two days after his consecration at York Minster, lightning struck the ancient cathedral, causing a great fire. The connection with God’s displeasure was too obvious for anyone to miss.
And as the residents of London were mourning the passing of their beloved Queen Elizabeth, they beheld with wonder a rainbow arcing over the city, over the Buckingham Palace Union Jack at half mast, over their grieving heads.
Before we all adopted a thoroughly naturalistic understanding of everything, divine prompts such as these would have been marked widely with sober and profitable introspection. There is intelligent design not only in nature but also in history.
There is hope for that land despite its now dry and hard spiritual soil. The gospel is freely preached in the realm, in church and chapel, in worship both high and low. The British sovereign, as head of the Church of England, is thus required to sit under its ministry. Ministry in that spiritually and theologically diverse church is at times better and at times worse. But whatever the spiritual state of the church, Christ, the king of kings, regularly addresses both the king and the heir who will be king with his law and gospel in the reading of Scripture and in the Book of Common Prayer.
Elizabeth was a sign of God’s enduring faithfulness to his church of every denomination in Britain, feeble though it is. The York Minster lightning was surely also a sign. The Elizabeth rainbow must also have been a sign. Less than a decade after Bishop Jenkins retired, the Lord elevated an evangelical man “who did what was right in the eyes of the Lord,” N.T. Wright, to the office that the "unbelieving bishop" disgraced.
It is a fearful thing for any person or any people when God goes silent with them.