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The Faith of Queen Elizabeth: The Poise, Grace, and Quiet Strength Behind the Crown
by Dudley Delffs
Learn More | Meet Dudley Delffs
Duty and Desire
Answering The Call To Serve
In many ways, it was a typical weekday in North London.
The early December sky held the dull sheen of pewter and the moist scent of an afternoon shower. Office workers with coffee in hand or a takeaway lunch rushed back to their cubicles. Locals carrying umbrellas stopped to chat on sidewalks outside the shops. Pensioners and new moms with strollers sauntered toward Barnard Park or King Square Gardens. The usual number of tourists, perhaps lost or looking for Angel tube station or Caledonian Road, wandered about, pausing for the occasional selfie.
On the backstreet in a typically quiet neighborhood, however, a small crowd lined the curb near St. Mary 's Islington, a steepled brick parish church dating to the eleventh century. A service of some kind was clearly about to begin, as smartly dressed couples and families mingled among enormous pilars before pouring through double doors. Within a few minutes, only a dozen or so formally dressed men and women, along with a handful of clergy, lingered outside the main entrance. Then the crowd erupted as a police car turned on to the block, followed by a black SUV and another sleek dark vehicle bearing a small pennant on top.
Stopping directly in front of the church, the claret-red and black car, known as the Bentley State Limousine, discharged its only passenger as a dark-suited attendant opened the vehicle 's rear door. The smiling woman who emerged electrified the crowd filling the sidewalk only a few feet away as a royal guard in full dress uniform greeted her with a small nod and a proper handshake. Dressed in a bright fuchsia coat over a pink and red dress with a matching pink hat adorned with red feathers, the woman stepped up into the open-air portico to be welcomed by the attendant clergy. On her left arm hung an iconic black Launer handbag.
Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II had arrived.
Compared with most official royal arrivals, the Queen 's entrance at St. Mary 's Islington was rather quiet. While a dozen or so paparazzi flashed cameras and captured video footage, the event promised no other celebrities to capture popular attention on social media or in the evening paper. The Queeen was not speaking, presenting honors, or serving as the center of attention. If she had her way, Her Majesty might likely have slipped in just as the service was starting, unannounced and unnoticed, just as she and members of the Royal Family have been known to do when attending converts, operas, and other public performances.
She had no obligation to attend, and likely no one would have noticed if she had chosen not to be there. The event, however, was one the Queen would not have missed. At the small neighborhood church where no monarch had set foot for over a thousand years, this service celebrated the 150th anniversary of Scripture Union, an international, interdenominational, evangelical charity founded to help children and young people grwo in their faith and relationship with God. The organization 's first official meeting had been held in the same neighborhood a century and a half ago, and now St. Mary 's welcomed the opportunity to commemorate the contribution Scripture Union had made in Great Britain and—through international chapters in over 120 countries—around the world.
Unable to attend less conspicuously, Queen Elizabeth sat at the front of the church with other distinguished guests and service participants. She bowed in prayer, sang hymns she knew by heart, and beamed at the performance by a children 's choir from St. Mary 's Primary School. As a new hymn, "God of Unchanging Grace" by Bishop Timothy Dudley-Smith, rang through the church to commemorate the Scripture Union Jubilee, Her Majesty subtly nodded her approval.
While she serves as patron to more than six hundred charities, Queen Elizabeth seems especially dedicated to Scripture Union. As Reverend Tim Hastie-Smith, Scripture Union 's national director, explained, "We were thrilled that Her Majesty the Queen chose to join us as we celebrated 150 years of sharing the good news and love of Jesus Christ with the children and young people of this nation. For so many young people, it is the faithful and gently inspiring witness of parents, grandparents and great-grandparents that testifies most powerfully to God 's enduring love. Her Majesty embodies this witness, and just as she seeks to serve all people of this nation regardless of race or religion, so SU seeks to testify to the abiding presence of a life-transforming loving God, whose love is for all, and is found freely in His world."1
The contrast between that humble service and the pomp and circumstance of the one that launched Queen Elizabeth 's reign could not be sharper. More than sixty years earlier, Her Majesty had attended another historic church, but at this one she could not escape being the center of attention. After all, her coronation in Westminster Abbey on June 2, 1953, was the first televised installation of a British monarch, with an estimated audience of more than twenty-five million viewers.2
Although Elizabeth was the star participant, she resisted televising her coronation at first. Her father had not allowed cameras into the abbey in 1937 for his coronation, which she had witnessed as an eleven-year-old princess, and she had chosen not to broadcast her wedding to Prince Philip in 1947. Apparently, she feared misspeaking or making some mistake in the nearly three-hour ceremony that would not only be televised to millions around the world but would be recorded for posterity.3 In addition, the Queen considered parts of the service deeply personal and sacred, particularly Holy Communion and the pert of the service known as "the anointing."
When the decision not to televise the coronation was announced, however, public outcry prevailed. Elizabeth remained uneasy but compromised, allowing the service to be broadcast live but without close-ups of Her Majesty 's face. It was also agreed that cameras would pan away during communion and the anointing.
The live broadcast united public support for this new sovereign. The young Queen offered the promise of a new beginning, a fresh start. World War II had ended only a few years prior, and hope for establishing a new normalcy blossomed amid the rations and ravages of wartime. The three previous monarchs had been male, with George V and George VI sandwiched around the abdication of Edward VIII. In contrast, Queen Elizabeth II provided the promise of stability, vibrancy, and a reminder of past beloved queens such as Victoria and Elizabeth I, who enjoyed long, popular reigns.
Filled with pomp and circumstance dating back many centuries, the service order had changed little since the coronation of William the Conqueror, the first monarch to be crowned in Westminster Abbey, back in 1066 after his victory over the Saxons at the Battle of Hastings. For the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, Westminster Abbey was closed for six months before the big event in order to prepare. Railway track was installed leading directly into the ancient church to transport the tons of wood and metal required to construct new stadium-style seating. With capacity stretched from two thousand to eight thousand guests, there was nowhere to go but up!
Most of us born after this even have likely never witnessed anything comparable. Queen Elizabeth 's coronation combined the history, tradition, and romanticism seen in the royal weddings of Charles and Diana, William and Catherine, and Harry and Meghan with the preparation, nationalism, and grandeur of an international Olympics. In addition, it combined the glamor of a Hollywood film premier with the community spirit of a neighborhood block party. The Queen 's coronation pulled out all the stops and spared no expense. The abbey, packed to the rafters with witnesses and fragrant with fresh flowers from England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland, became the meeting place of heaven and earth.
Almost thirty thousand soldiers from countries throughout the British Empire marched, paraded, and guarded the safety of the more than three million spectators camped out on the streets of London along the five-mile procession. The Queen rode in a solid gold carriage—dating back to King George III and exceeding anything Disney ever imagined for a princess—drawn by a team of eight gray geldings. While the weather delivered overcast skies and sporadic showers, no amount of rain could dampen the jubilant spirits celebrating Coronation Day.
Less than six months earlier, the new Queen had delivered her first Christmas ddress, a tradition started by her grandfather, King George V. In her address she anticipated the sacred vows she would be taking during her coronation. "I want to ask you all," she said, "whatever your religion may be, to pray for me on that day—to pray that God may give me wisdom and strength to carry out the solemn promises I shall be making, and that I may faithfully serve Him and you, all the days of my life."4
Her request, and the prayers of her many subjects and admirers, apparently was answered. The service consisted of five parts—recognition, oath, anointing, crowning, and homage. However, the sacred centerpiece of the ceremony was her anointing with holy oil, a mixture of sesame seed and olive oil, perfume with roses, orange flowers, jasmine, musk, civet, and ambergris.5 Shielded by a canopy directly abover Her Majesty, the archbishop of Canterbury poured oil from the ampulla, the solid gold vessel in the shape of an eagle used only for coronations, into the spatula-shaped spoon, another priceless artifact set apart for use only on this occasion.
Dipping his finger in the holy oil, the archbishop made a cross on Elizabeth 's hands, then her heart, before concluding, "Be thy head anointed with holy oil, as kings, priests and prophets were anointed....As Solomon was anointed king by Zadok the priest and Nathan the prophet, so be thou anointed, blessed and consecrated Queen over the peoples whom the Lord thy God has given thee to rule and govern."
His words came from the precedent set by the earliest known coronation as recorded in the Old Testement (1 Kings 1:38-50) and consummated the intimate bond between sovereign and God, the King of Kings—and in this case, Queens. The anointing conveys the holy seal of God empowering the monarch, a meeting and mingling of the sacred and sacrificial, the eternal and the temporal, the divine and mortal. It is simply "magic," as the duke of Windsor declares in Peter Morgan 's version of events in the "Smoke and Mirrors" episode of The Crown.
Divinely appointed or humanly anointed monarchs seem to have always embodied the divine for their subject, either as a self-proclaimed deity or as a specially chosen representative for God or gods. In the Hebrew history recorded in the Old Testament, leadership almost always involved God in some dramatic way. Generally, either kings and queens were anointed and chosen by God directly and accepted as such by those around them, or they were rebellious leaders set up to suffer the consequences of shirking their faith as well as their duty to lead by examples for God 's people.
We see this dichotomy in the life of Saul, who was chosen by God as the first king of Israel, signaling the transition from twelve tribes to one nation. God 's prophet Samuel found Saul and informed him of God 's decision, and King Saul led the people of Israel effectively until he began to disobey God and make his own decision. This led to God 's Spirit departing from Saul, which in turn ignited an ongoing depression in the king.
Then there 's David, the young, plucky shepherd boy whom God chose to replace Saul, once again via a visit from the prophet Samuel. In hindsight, David 's life may have been messier than Saul 's, with one crucial difference: David remained a man after God 's own heart. For all his mistakes—pride, adultery, murder, and abuse of royal power, to name a few—David never closed his heart to his need for God, and his willingness to serve God never waned.
The sovereign, then and thereafter in most monarchies, embodied an incarnational role as God 's chosen representative to lead—and to serve—God 's people. This divine responsibility precedes Queen Elizabeth 's other duties to this day, as reflected in the first question asked by the archbishop of Canterbury during the oath on Coronation Day: "Will you to the utmost of your power maintain the Laws of God and the true profession of the Gospel?"6 Commitments of intent regarding her leadership of the Church of England and the government formed by the United Kingdom 's constitutional monarchy followed after her vow to uphold God 's laws and to profess the gospel of Christ.
Such emphasis, along with her affirmation, could easily have evolved into just another perfunctory part of an ancient and arcane ceremony for British monarchs in the twentieth century. But Elizabeth 's firm "I will" before her faithful subjects and the eyes of the world resounded with sincerity and humility. Her response echoed the willingness apparent in the speech she had given on her twenty-first birthday:
- I declare before you all that my whole life whether it be long or short shall be devoted to your service and the service of our great imperial family to which we all belong. But I shall not have strength to carry out this resolution alone unless you join in it with me, as I now invite you to do: I know that your support will be unfailingly given. God help me to make good my vow, and God bless all of you who are willing to share in it.7
When she arrived into this world on April 21, 1926, Elizabeth was the firstborn of the Duke and Duchess of York and the third grandchild of the reigning monarch, King George V, who reportedly delighted in the thoughtful, well-behaved child whispering secrets to him at family holiday celebration and informal gatherings.
That Elizabeth, or Lilibet as she was known then, whould live a life of royal privilege was a given. Like her younger sister, Margaret Rose, and cousins on her father 's side, she would enjoy a life of leisure framed by public service. But then something most unexpected forever changed the trajectory of Elizabeth 's life.
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