Terry Mattingly: The quiet, yet public, faith of Queen Elizabeth II

Before wearing the Imperial State Crown, Queen Elizabeth II knelt at the Westminster Abbey altar for a moment of silent, private prayer.

The three-hour coronation in 1953 contained myriad oaths and symbols, but the most ancient rite — Archbishop of Canterbury Geoffrey Fisher anointing Elizabeth with holy oil — sought the highest possible blessing on her life’s work and eventual death.

“Our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God,” he prayed, “who by his Father was anointed with the oil of gladness … that by the assistance of His heavenly grace you may govern and preserve the people committed to your charge in wealth, peace and godliness; and after a long and glorious course of ruling a temporal kingdom wisely, justly and religiously, you may at last be made partaker of an eternal kingdom.”

Televised for the first time, 27 million BBC viewers watched what Oxford don C.S. Lewis called the “tragic splendour” of this drama.

“Over here people did not get that fairy-tale feeling about the coronation. What impressed most who saw it was the fact that the Queen herself appeared to be quite overwhelmed by the sacramental side of it,” he noted, writing to an American friend.

It was “a feeling of (one hardly knows how to describe it) — awe — pity — pathos — mystery. The pressing of that huge, heavy crown on that small, young head becomes a sort of symbol of the situation of humanity itself: humanity called by God to be his vice-regent and high priest on earth, yet feeling so inadequate.”

Few could have imagined that the woman some now call “Elizabeth the Great” would reign for 70 years, striving to lead by example after the suffering of World War II, into an age in which humanity would be united by the internet, terrorism, pandemics and other challenges.

Throughout her life, Queen Elizabeth II understood the symbolic importance of kneeling, according to former Durham Bishop N.T. Wright. After one Church of England synod, she privately expressed surprise — disappointment, even — that worshippers in Westminster Abbey simply lined up to receive Holy Communion, instead of kneeling.

“Kneeling was important to her,” said the popular author, in a “Premier Christianity” tribute. In his encounters with her, Wright found the queen “very friendly and clearly a very devout, what we would consider ‘old fashioned’ Church of England Christian. I remember thinking during more than one Christmas broadcast, she has just preached the Gospel to the nation in a way that perhaps nobody else could have done.”

While the queen delivered thousands of public addresses, her Christmas talks — surrounded by family pictures and holiday decorations — were the occasions when she most openly discussed her faith and the challenges facing the nation and even her own family.

In her first Christmas message, she welcomed the chance to face her people through television. “New inventions” are rarely the problem, she noted. “The trouble is caused by unthinking people who carelessly throw away ageless ideals as if they were old and outworn machinery. They would have religion thrown aside, morality in personal and public life made meaningless, honesty counted as foolishness and self-interest set up in place of self-restraint.”

In 2011, she warned: “Although we are capable of great acts of kindness, history teaches us that we sometimes need saving from ourselves — from our recklessness or our greed. God sent into the world a unique person — neither a philosopher nor a general (important though they are) — but a Saviour, with the power to forgive.”

In what would be her last Christmas message, the frail queen reflected on losing her husband, Prince Philip, while reminding viewers life is about “final partings,” as well as new births.

“For me and my family, even with one familiar laugh missing this year, there will be joy in Christmas, as we have the chance to reminisce, and see anew the wonder of the festive season through the eyes of our young children,” said Elizabeth. “They teach us all a lesson — just as the Christmas story does — that in the birth of a child, there is a new dawn with endless potential.” And so it was with “the life of Jesus, a man whose teachings have been handed down from generation to generation and have been the bedrock of my faith.”

Terry Mattingly leads GetReligion.org and lives in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is a senior fellow at the Overby Center at the University of Mississippi. Send comments to [email protected]