Judging by church attendance and the percentage of people who say religion plays an important role in their lives, Europe is a secular place. And yet, as sociologists of religion have observed, Christianity continues to have a major cultural and legal role. Nowhere is this clearer than in Britain, where the Monarch is the “Supreme Governor” of the state church. Britain today commemorated the Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II with a Thanksgiving service in London’s St. Paul’s Cathedral. The Prime Minister read from the New Testament and the Archbishop of Canterbury delivered a sermon praising the Queen for manifesting the values of St. Paul himself:
Dr Rowan Williams paid tribute to the Queen’s selfless devotion, saying: “I don’t think it’s at all fanciful to say that, in all her public engagements, our Queen has shown a quality of joy in the happiness of others; she has responded with just the generosity St Paul speaks of in showing honour to countless local communities and individuals of every background and class and race.”
One would think such ceremonies, to borrow the phrase from American law, send a message of exclusion and disparagement that religious minorities resent, but that is apparently not the case, or at least not typically. It’s not the American way of doing things, but, as Joseph Weiler has written, “there is something inspiring and optimistic by the fact that even though the Queen is the Titular Head of the Church of England, the many Catholics, Muslims and Jews, not to mention the majority of atheists and agnostics, can genuinely consider her as ‘their Queen’ too.”
2 thoughts on “Throne and Altar”
It would be interesting to reconcile this with the resistance Tony Blair received from his inner circle when he suggested ending one of his speeches with “God bless Britain” (see http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/politics/tony-blair/9265571/Tony-Blair-wanted-to-end-speech-with-God-bless-Britain.html).
(Of course, the PM and the Queen occupy quite different roles in the U.K., and perhaps that explains it all.)
Ron, thanks, I wasn’t familiar with the Blair controversy, but you’re right to note some inconsistencies in the perception and treatment of Christianity in Britain. In fact, although I didn’t note this in the post, a number of people, including the former Archbishop of Canterbury, have complained about a bias against Christians in British public life. To give just one example, the British government is currently arguing, in a case before the European Court of Human Rights, that the European Convention does not grant Christians a right to wear crosses in public. And the Prince of Wales has famously said that he would like to change the Monarch’s current title, “Defender of the Faith,” to “Defender of Faith,” to avoid the sectarian reference. So, I agree, it’s complicated. Perhaps the British are comfortable with official, ceremonial acknowledgments of Christianity, like today’s Thanksgiving Service, much in the way they are comfortable with the Horse Guards. These are pleasant anachronisms, but one shouldn’t take them very seriously.