My dear brothers and sisters in Christ,
“The second Elizabethan Age ended Thursday. Queen Elizabeth II’s reign has spanned my life. I was born in 1952, a few months after the new monarch was summoned home from the then-British colony of Kenya on the death of her father from lung cancer.” Those words were written by Stephen Fidler in the opening paragraph of his essay published in the Sept. 9, 2022 edition of The Wall Street Journal entitled, “A Reflection on 70 Years of Life With the Queen.” Those could also be the words of the opening paragraph of my column in this issue of Catholic Times.
Queen Elizabeth II acceded to the throne on Feb. 6, 1952. I was born six months later on Aug. 5, 1952, so Queen Elizabeth II reigned just slightly longer than I have been alive! As an American, I do not have any particular attachment to the monarchy, yet it is undeniable that the length and manner of Queen Elizabeth’s reign have made a profound impact throughout the world.
As a political science major in college, I learned the difference between a country’s head of state and head of government. Here in the United States, the president is both head of state and head of government, so the distinction between the two roles is not as readily apparent to us. That is not the case in most countries. Even in parliamentary systems of government with elected officials, such as Germany, France, Italy, and Poland, the president is the head of state and the prime minister is the head of government. In a monarchy like the United Kingdom, the king or queen as head of state is a personal symbol of the nation’s sovereignty, while the prime minister as head of government is the leader of nation’s political processes. The head of state as symbol of a nation’s sovereignty is an important reminder that the country is independent and is not subject to any foreign power or dictator.
To say that the head of state is a symbol of the nation’s sovereignty is not to imply that the head of state is merely a figurehead. Queen Elizabeth II was the epitome of calm, civility, courtesy, composure, dedication, devotion, equanimity, perseverance, and stability. These are intangible qualities and virtues that cannot be legislated through the political process, but which nonetheless are vital to a nation’s character. A monarch cannot order people to live virtuous lives, but can influence a nation’s culture and provide a model of admirable behavior for others to emulate.
In this regard, Queen Elizabeth II conveyed a spiritual quality to her leadership. At her coronation in Westminster Abbey, after the archbishop of Canterbury anointed the new queen, Elizabeth said the anointing “sanctified her before God to serve her people.” It was said that she felt it was the anointing, not the crowning, that made her queen.
Indeed, British law recognizes the monarch as the head of the Church of England ever since Parliament passed the Act of Supremacy in 1534 recognizing King Henry VIII as the “Supreme Head of the Church of England,” a title that Henry VIII had insisted upon after Pope Clement VII refused to approve the annulment of Henry’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon. It was repealed briefly in 1555 under Mary I, but in 1559 Parliament adopted a new Act of Supremacy during the reign of Elizabeth I. In keeping with the Act of Supremacy, the Oath of Supremacy required any person taking public or church office in England to swear allegiance to the monarch as supreme governor of the Church of England. Failure to do so was to be treated as treasonable. My patron saints, St. Thomas More, who served as chancellor of England under King Henry VIII, and St. John Fisher, Bishop of Rochester and chancellor of the University of Cambridge, remained faithful to the pope, and were thus convicted and beheaded for their refusal to recognize the king as the head of the Church of England.
Here in the United States, as Americans after the Revolution sought to distance themselves from matters related to the English monarchy, they began calling themselves members of the Episcopal Church rather than the Anglican Church. The term “Episcopal Church” not only asserted that it was not under the authority of the English monarch, but inferred that the episcopacy, that is, the bishops, were the highest level of ecclesiastical authority, and thus, like their counterparts in the Church of England, were not answerable to the pope.
When Pope Benedict XVI travelled to the United Kingdom in 2010 for the beatification of Cardinal John Henry Newman, Queen Elizabeth II remarked that she was “delighted” to welcome him to the United Kingdom. In her speech welcoming the Holy Father, the Queen said, “We are all aware of the special contribution of the Roman Catholic Church particularly in its ministry to the poorest and most deprived members of society, its care for the homeless and for the education provided by its extensive network of schools. … I know that reconciliation was a central theme in the life of Cardinal John Henry Newman. … I am pleased that your visit will also provide an opportunity to deepen the relationship between the Roman Catholic Church and the established Church of England and the Church of Scotland.”
May the soul of Queen Elizabeth II rest in peace, and may St. John Henry Newman, St. Thomas More, St. John Fisher, and all the English martyrs pray that Anglican and Episcopalian Christians everywhere may return to full communion with the Catholic Church and the Bishop of Rome. May God give us this grace. Amen.