In observing her 90th birthday we reflect on the reign of Queen Elizabeth II. In spite of her human failings, Elizabeth exemplifies stability and uprightness – necessary biblical qualities in a ruler.
For the majority of us, the only Canadian monarch we have known is Elizabeth II. She has literally embodied this great royal institution for decades so that it is very hard to imagine life without her. Soon, as the Euro 2016 football tournament kicks off for our English cousins, fans will be singing in loud voice the national anthem that is associated solely in my mind with this distinguished lady.
Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II was born on April 21 1926, and came to the throne in 1952, knowing that she was stepping into a role that had been modelled by her illustrious great-great grandmother, Victoria, who had reigned for over sixty-three years – large shoes to fill. The Coronation Service of Queen Elizabeth in June 1953 was watched by millions, and had been eagerly anticipated as people rushed to buy the relatively newly-invented television set from their local store. Now, as the longest-reigning monarch in British and commonwealth history, the Queen’s 90th birthday reminds us, not just of the blessing she has been to Britain, Canada and her whole commonwealth for all these years, but of our remarkable heritage. She is a unique woman, someone of whom we are justly proud, and easily the most famous and most photographed woman in the world.
At her Coronation she held two sceptres; the sceptre with the cross in her right hand symbolising the supremacy of Christ, and the Rod of Equity and Mercy in her left, topped with a dove as a symbol of the Holy Spirit. During her anointing as God’s servant queen to the nation, the cameras were shut down because the moment was considered too sacred to film or broadcast as, dressed simply in plain white like a bride adorned for her husband, the Bishops poured holy oil upon her. The royal biographer William Shawcross relates that the moment of anointing was of supreme importance to the Queen – in fact the most solemn and important moment of her entire life.[i]
No biblically literate Christian could fail to see the unmistakable recapitulation of the coronation rites of ancient Israel, going back to King Saul in the Old Testament, in this service. She is presented in that moment not only with the royal sceptres but with the sacred Scriptures as the most precious gift this world affords. In this remarkable ritual of deep and abiding significance, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth makes an oath to serve Christ, defend his law and gospel and serve her people faithfully. Although scripturally there was only one chosen covenant people called for the particular purpose of bearing the promises of God and the Messiah that formed a nation in history – the nation of Israel – the nations of Great Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand self-consciously constructed their understanding of government, godly rule and authority upon the Old Testament people of God. In the British Commonwealth, this included (like Israel after the period of the judges) a monarchy, as the head of the established church in England and over the various states.
The English idea of the Christian sovereign state was very much derived from God’s establishment of the sovereign nation-state of Israel with its own line of kings, and the notion that ultimately God appoints kings, queens, rulers, judges, and priests, and in their service to God and their people, they are to serve and preserve the nation and God’s covenant word and truth within it. From the time of the Christian King Alfred, the first monarch to claim kingship over all England, the laws of the land were founded upon God’s law. And from the time of Henry VIII and the independence of the English church, a reformed confession has been the formal faith and commitment of the land. In the Canadian Dominion a strong Christian identity of informal establishment was basic to its development, with the Queen as the head of state. Queen Elizabeth II, throughout her long life and service, has sought to govern faithfully and in so doing has brought many blessings on Britain, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the wider commonwealth.
Kings Hezekiah and Josiah are noted in Scripture for doing what was right in the eyes of the Lord during their reigns, and so followed in the path of their great ancestor David. Neither man was perfect, but they were faithful. Hezekiah upheld the truth of God’s Word, opposed idolatry and trusted in God. Scripture says, “He remained faithful to Yahweh and did not turn from following him but kept the commands the Lord had commanded Moses. The Lord was with him and wherever he went, he prospered” (2 Kgs. 18:5-7).
Of course as Canadians and Brits, we don’t want to be merely sentimental about our Queen on her 90th birthday year, nor unrealistic about her very human failings, but the consistent record is there to show that despite living through times of war and peace, in the midst of great turbulence and change and massive cultural upheaval – much of it that would violate her own convictions – she has been a stabilizing and moral force for good. Her Christmas messages and unflagging life of service reveal a true and abiding faith in the Christ of Scripture as saviour and Lord of all. Moreover she has been faithful in her marriage and family when those around her have stumbled and abandoned theirs; she has morally led with quiet dignity and humility; she has endured suffering with patience and modelled kindness, grace, quiet strength and courage for the long years of her reign. She has used power considerately, used her influence for good, and inspired hope and faith in others.
It is certainly the case that there have been times when some of us would have wanted her to take a stand against the will of national Parliaments on issues like abortion and the redefinition of marriage – both of which almost certainly violate her own convictions – and refuse to sign them into law. We know of course that in our age such an action, not taken by a monarch in many years, would have provoked a constitutional crisis in Britain and Canada, and she may have felt herself in an impossible position. We shall likely not know until judgment day what she has said in private discourse with Prime Ministers and bishops on such matters.
There have been other times when I for one would have had her toss out some of her bishops on their ear for their total abandonment of the Christian faith and failure to uphold God’s law and gospel in many matters. Perhaps she could have done more to defend the law and gospel of Christ, and perhaps her hands have been so tied that her quiet witness to the faith has been her total duty – God alone is judge of all men, both kings and commoners, and that is his prerogative alone.
Like David, Solomon, Hezekiah and Josiah, no king who does what is right and lives justly and faithfully is perfect, but they are nonetheless commended by God and rightly honored by their people. Indeed Solomon wrote, “A just king gives stability to his nation, but one who demands bribes destroys it” (Prov. 29:4). Throughout her long reign, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth has never had even a hint of scandal attach itself to her. She has lived uprightly and righteously, seeking justice and serving her people. As such the quality that I think of most when I think of our queen is stability – she has indeed given and continues to give stability to the nation. May our Lord and saviour Jesus Christ, the ruler of the kings of the earth, prolong her days.
God Save the Queen!
[i] See William Shawcross, Queen and Country: The Fifty-year Reign of Elizabeth II (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2002).