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Church of England

BBC says it’s ‘unfortunate’ the Queen is Defender of the Faith

As the Platinum Jubilee celebrations of Her Majesty the Queen entered their final day, the BBC gave us a running commentary on the Platinum Pageant as it crawled along the Mall. There were buses to celebrate decades, dancers doing the Lambeth Walk, bikers doing wheelies, Olympic cyclists reminding us their legendary glories, Dames in Jags preceded by Vespas and Minis and daleks, and the golden State Coach with a window projection of the newly-crowned Queen Elizabeth II from 1953. There was much, much, more, and each part of the parade was greeted with applause and cheers and enthused BBC avowal that we were witnessing a carnival of national unity.

Except when it came to the section celebrating religion, or spirituality, or whatever it was. It was then that Clare Balding’s tone darkened as she told the country (indeed, the world) that one of the Queen’s titles was Defender of the Faith, and what an “unfortunate” thing this was (or is).

It was the only jarring moment for Ms Balding: the rest of the Pageant was a true celebration of multicultural, multi-racial and multifaith diversity, tolerance, equality and such a bonkersly British parade of a 70-year compendium of treasured national memories. She didn’t explain precisely why ‘Defender of the Faith’ is an unfortunate title, but perhaps we were supposed to infer from her admiration of the dove of peace and the gowns of faiths that the definite article offended her.

Clare Balding provided no Tudor history, no Catholic theology, no Reformation continuity and no constitutional context. She didn’t tell us how Henry VIII was granted the title by Pope Leo X in 1521, in recognition of his scholarly apologetic Assertio Septem Sacramentorum (‘Defence of the Seven Sacraments’) against the Protestant teachings of Martin Luther.  Nor did she expound how the title was bestowed again upon Henry VIII by Parliament in 1543, following Pope Pope Paul III’s decision to rescinded it; and then again upon King Edward VI in 1547, and has ever since been the title of the Monarch as Supreme Governor of the Church of England. For 479 years there has been no doubt that Fidei Defensor is the guardian of the Protestant Faith.

It was just “unfortunate”, she said, that Her Gracious Majesty Queen Elizabeth II is lumbered with such a bigoted, intolerant, sectarian and divisive title.

It was a thought once shared by the Prince of Wales, who announced casually some decades ago that he might prefer to be known as ‘Defender of Faith’. But he has since changed his mind:

I said I would rather be seen as ‘Defender of Faith’, all those years ago, because, as I tried to describe, I mind about the inclusion of other people’s faiths and their freedom to worship in this country. And it’s always seemed to me that, while at the same time being Defender of The Faith, you can also be protector of faiths. It was very interesting that 20 years or more after I mentioned this – which has been frequently misinterpreted – the Queen, in her Jubilee address to the faith leaders, said that as far as the role of the Church of England is concerned, it is not to defend Anglicanism to the exclusion of other religions. Instead, the Church has a duty to protect the free practice of all faiths in this country. I think in that sense she was confirming what I was really trying to say – perhaps not very well – all those years ago. And so I think you have to see it as both. You have to come from your own Christian standpoint – in the case I have as Defender of the Faith – and ensuring that other people’s faiths can also be practised.

He refers to the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee address to faith leaders in 2012, when she articulated perfectly the essential duality of her role as Head of State and Supreme Governor of the Church of England; her mission being both temporal and spiritual. She paid tribute “to the particular mission of Christianity and the general value of faith in this country”. Christianity, note, is particular: it is the Faith. Other faiths are are of “general value”, not only because they are “sources of a rich cultural heritage”, but also because they provide “critical guidance” for the way many families live their lives and treat each other. She continued:

Here at Lambeth Palace we should remind ourselves of the significant position of the Church of England in our nation’s life. The concept of our established Church is occasionally misunderstood and, I believe, commonly under-appreciated. Its role is not to defend Anglicanism to the exclusion of other religions. Instead, the Church has a duty to protect the free practice of all faiths in this country.

It certainly provides an identity and spiritual dimension for its own many adherents. But also, gently and assuredly, the Church of England has created an environment for other faith communities and indeed people of no faith to live freely. Woven into the fabric of this country, the Church has helped to build a better society – more and more in active co-operation for the common good with those of other faiths.

Perhaps Clare Balding might like to understand something of how the Queen herself views this title, for Christianity is not a religion of sectarian bigotry (though it may become so) or social exclusion (though it may be perceived so), but of kindness, service, and love. Yes, Christians gather to worship Christ and him alone, but all are welcome to do so if they wish. It is not possible to defend generalised faith when those faiths represent a plurality of mutually-exclusive theological propositions and conflicting dogmata. But it is ecclesially possible and entirely theologically coherent to be simultaneously Defender of the Faith and protector of faiths: the latter role involves general exhortation; the former a particular mission. It is missiologically possible to defend the Protestant freedom to believe (or not) as the individual wishes, while making them aware of the uniqueness and “particular mission” of Christianity.

As the Archbishop of York has written, the Queen’s Christianity is the lens through which she views the world, and that view is one of service first to her Saviour, and thence to her peoples:

Invoking the parable of the Good Samaritan in her Christmas address in 1989, she said: “Our neighbours are those of our friends, or complete strangers, who need a helping hand. Do you think they might also be some of the living species threatened by spoiled rivers, or some of the children in places like Ethiopia and Sudan who don’t have enough to eat?”

Referencing the same story in 1985, she concluded her address by saying: “The story of the Good Samaritan reminds us of our duty to our neighbour. We should try to follow Christ’s clear instruction at the end of that story: ‘Go and do thou likewise.’”

As Supreme Governor of the Church of England, when addressing the General Synod the Queen has often spoken about the “ministry of reconciliation” to which Christians are called.

For Queen Elizabeth II, to be Defender of the Faith is to be the ever-reconciling defender of freedom of religion and belief, and for that part of the Anglican Settlement we can be very grateful indeed, for building bridges across the diverse communities of faiths is a laudable objective: Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God.

God Save The Queen, Fidei Defensor.