Christmas lunch, for many British families, has regularly concluded with everyone gathering around the television to hear the Queen’s annual message to the nation and the Commonwealth.
About twenty years ago it was widely reported that some of Her Majesty’s advisors had suggested to her that, now that Britain was home to many different religious traditions, she might want to play down the specifically Christian aspect of her message.
The Queen’s response was robust. That Christmas she was more explicit than ever. The Jesus whose birth we celebrate, she said, and his teaching, have been my companion and guide throughout my life, and with his help we can go forward into another year. Or words to that effect.
I remember staring at the television in surprise and delight. She had preached the Gospel to an audience of millions. She had completely outflanked the fussy, compromised political correctness of the time, both by what she said and by how she said it.
The second is just as important as the first. Her Majesty spoke with calm, humble assurance. She wasn’t talking about herself, but about the Jesus she knew and served. She cherished and valued the millions around the world – people of very different cultures and traditions – who looked to her for leadership. But her own leader was Jesus, and she wasn’t shy about saying so.
And it is crystal clear, as we look back with gratitude on her extraordinarily long life and reign, what it meant for her to follow Jesus. It didn’t mean bombastic dogmatism, laying down the law. It meant humility, faithfulness, steadfast commitment, selfless service to others.
She gave of herself to people of all sorts, with genuine interest and concern, with humor and grace. We sometimes speak of “a long obedience in the same direction”. Well, how long is “long”? Will seventy years of unswerving devotion do? I should say so.
Her own personal spirituality was deep and heartfelt, unfussy and unshowy. She got to know Billy Graham on one of his early visits to the UK, and it wouldn’t surprise me if he helped to draw out into more explicit form the personal faith which she had from her early days.
Later, in the 1970s and 1980s, one of her “chaplains” – clergy on whom she would call for advice and spiritual wisdom – was the Reverend John Stott, perhaps the best known evangelical leader of that time. But, as in political life, Queen Elizabeth stood well back from church parties and controversies.
Her own preferred style of worship was that of the traditional Anglican – neither “high-church” nor “low-church,” but focused on the Bible, especially the Psalms and the Gospels, and on the Prayer Book.
I remember her expressing surprise when, at a large service in Westminster Abbey, most of the congregation received communion standing up. For her, kneeling was a vital sign of her humble devotion to Jesus.
I suspect that many forthcoming obituaries will list her interests and achievements and then add, as a kind of footnote, something about her personal faith. That’s how many like to see Christianity: an added extra, a little religious hobby, off on the side. But that would be profoundly untrue to Queen Elizabeth II.
Everything else she did, including her vibrant love of life, of horses and dogs, of the countryside, of family and friends, was shaped and colored by her being first and foremost a follower of Jesus.
To follow Jesus is to affirm and celebrate the goodness of God’s creation in all its aspects, even while grieving – as she often had to do – over a world groaning in travail, awaiting God’s ultimate new creation. And the sheer hard work of the Head of State – all those red boxes, all those meetings, official occasions, endless streams of people to see, people to be encouraged, congratulated, consoled, advised – that work was her faithful service, not just to her people – though she loved them, and that was obvious, which is why we loved her back – but to her Lord.
Many years ago I heard a sermon explaining why, in Jesus’ parable, the workers in the vineyard all got paid the same wage, despite their very different day’s work. They all alike, said the preacher, came when they were called; they went where they were sent; and they did what they were told.
Queen Elizabeth found herself called, at a young age and a challenging time. She offered herself, her life, in response. And she did what she was told, following Jesus’ command and example into a life of humble, faithful service.
We preachers talk a lot about Christianity. She got on and did it. Thank God for Queen Elizabeth.