In his first remarks after the death of his mother, Queen Elizabeth II, new monarch King Charles III acknowledged Friday the “sovereign's particular relationship and responsibility towards the Church of England, the church in which my own faith is so deeply rooted." His words are a reminder that the United Kingdom isn’t just grieving the loss of a monarch, but the loss of a religious leader, too.
The United Kingdom isn’t just grieving the loss of a monarch, but the loss of a religious leader, too.
Because she was the monarch, Elizabeth’s titles included Defender of the Faith and Supreme Governor of the Church of England. She occupied a unique space among the world’s religious leaders, one often not recognized by the broader public. When she met with popes, evangelists and other religious leaders, she was meeting them as the leader of the Church of England.
The queen will be remembered for her consistent Christian faith, for being a moral and religious leader, for her steadfast church attendance and for her quiet mourning as head of church and state at the death of her husband, Prince Philip. While not often spoken of as a religious leader, it is history that brought her to that moment at the death of her father, King George VI.
The state funeral of Queen Elizabeth II will be held at Westminster Abbey on Monday, Sept. 19 at 6 a.m. ET. Follow our live blog for expert analysis and takeaways at msnbc.com/royalfuneral.
The title of Defender of the Faith antedates the Church of England and was bestowed upon Henry VIII in 1521 by Pope Leo X. Because Henry did not have a male heir, and wished to divorce his first wife, which the Catholic Church would not allow, in 1534 he broke away from the Catholic Church and declared the Act of Supremacy. With that act, he declared himself and his successors to be the Supreme Head of the Church, replacing the pope. By 1536, he had “stripped the altars” of the Catholic Church in England and severed the final ties with it.
It is this history and religious role that Queen Elizabeth stepped into. While many did not see her as a religious leader, she took an oath at coronation that outlined her role within the Church of England. That role included not only supporting the doctrines of the church, but also appointing archbishops, bishops, and deans on the advice of the prime minister. Elizabeth appointed seven Archbishops of Canterbury during her reign and numerous other clergy members. Notable moments included the 1985 appointment of Bishop Wilfred Wood, the first Black bishop of the Church of England, and the 2015 appointment of Bishop Libby Lane, the first woman bishop. While these were important firsts, it showed how much, as a religious leader, the queen hewed to male-defined traditions about doctrine in the Church of England.
As a woman occupying this large leadership role, the queen held her faith very personally until her husband encouraged her to speak more about it, according to the Rev. Prof Ian Bradley, author of “God Save the Queen.” Like the papal Urbi Et Orbi message, her Christmas messages during her reign after the year 2000 spoke of hope, faith and encouragement. As queen, she met with five pontiffs including Pope Francis. She met with the late American evangelical leader Billy Graham (a meeting that’s famously portrayed in “The Crown.”) She met with imams and many other religious leaders. Over 70 years, she had a front-row seat to how religious beliefs and practices would change in the United Kingdom and the world.
Religion would also play an important role in her own personal family life. Despite Henry VIII's desire for divorce serving as the motivation for the creation of the Church of England, the church frowned on divorce, believing it was a sin. In what was a tremendous decision as head of the church, Elizabeth went along with Prime Minister Winston Churchill and refused to allow her sister, Princess Margaret, to wed Peter Townsend, a man who’d been divorced. Years later, she would embrace change and urged an early divorce for her son, then Prince Charles, from his wife, Princess Diana.
It is also important to note that over the years, despite the queen’s intense focus on the Church of England and her own Christian faith, demographic changes in the U.K. mean there are a growing number of Muslims, Christian evangelicals and people of other faiths and a decreasing number of people who belong to the U.K.’s official church. King Charles III is the new Defender of the Faith, and Supreme Governor of the Church. How will he execute his role?
Demographic changes mean a decreasing number of people who belong to the U.K.’s official church.
In his Friday remarks, Charles indicated how he will proceed. After he expressed his personal devotion to the Church of England, he added, “Whatever maybe your background and beliefs, I endeavor to serve you with loyalty, respect and love.”
With the queen’s death, the rituals and pomp and circumstance surrounding her funeral will be on full display. It will also be a history lesson for many, especially here in America. While church and state are together in the history and constitution of the United Kingdom, our American context is different, despite the push for some here for the church and state to be closer. As a religious leader, Queen Elizabeth II was for the Church of England a steady hand, a monarch who respected history and tradition. She was able in some ways to adapt to the changes in world’s sensibilities, even as she remained, for many, a constant focal point of steadfast Christian virtue.