The British Monarchy, Religion and the Next Generation by Catherine Pepinster



IN THE surge of books occasioned by the Platinum Jubilee, Defenders of the Faith by Catherine Pepinster focuses on the link between the monarchy and religion and speculates on the shape of the next coronation.

The author has already published a book on contemporary relations between the British and the papacy. She is a distinguished Catholic commentator often heard on Radio 4 Thought of the day.

After a helpful first chapter summarizing the spiritual ideal of kingship in the Old and New Testaments, there is the familiar story of how, in 1521, Pope Leo X bestowed on young King Henry VIII the title of Fidei defender, Defender of the Faith. It was recognition for Henry’s book In defense of the seven sacraments, which denounced the teachings of Martin Luther. A later pope deprived Henry of the title, but it was restored to the king by Parliament in 1544. “FD” appears on our coins and remains part of the formal style of the British monarch to this day.

We are given a brief overview, through a Catholic prism, of the monarchy and religion before the current reign. It is the religion of the Queen and that of Prince Charles that forms the heart of the book.

However, the treatment of James II’s reign does not help us understand why the 1689 Bill of Rights so explicitly barred the throne to a Roman Catholic monarch. Pepinster says that “the evidence shows that he [James] wanted to find a way to religious tolerance. The English were not prepared for it. I wonder if that’s the whole story.

The ease with which an openly Protestant rebellion led by the Duke of Monmouth was put down in 1685 underscores the broad support given to James and his government early in the king’s reign. Parliamentary elections in March 1685 revealed that the vast majority of the political nation was willing to accept a Roman Catholic king so long as he was content to rule within the parameters of the established constitution in church and state. Why, then, just three years later, was it possible for another invader to land a substantial army in the West Country and cause James to flee?

Modern scholarship – notably Steve Pincus in his outstanding 2009 book 1688: The first modern revolution – pays homage to James by acknowledging his radical ambition to reshape the state along French absolutist lines, with a centralizing bureaucracy and a professional standing army. Within the confines of a review it is impossible to provide the details available in a number of recent studies, but it is very important to recognize that this is not just a Catholic vs. Protestant drama. One of the harshest critics of the policies of James and his mentor, Louis XIV, was Pope Innocent XI. None of the modernizing monarchs intended to submit to papal control of the Church in their domains.

The RC Church since Vatican II has changed so profoundly that the fears of 1689 seem exaggerated, and the prohibitions imposed then, grossly disproportionate.

The most valuable part of Defenders of the Faith shows how Queen Elizabeth II reacted to the profoundly changed ecumenical and interreligious situation since the Second World War. It also paints a useful picture, largely in his own words, of the seriousness with which Prince Charles engaged with a variety of religious themes and traditions.

After commenting on the impact of the 1953 coronation, Pepinster traces how the articulation of Elizabeth II’s Christian ideals developed and was tested by the messy realities of family and national life. In the Queen’s Christmas broadcasts, she has been increasingly explicit about her faith. She avoided theological speculation, but, in a matter-of-fact manner, she affirmed her loyalty to Jesus Christ as the model of the servant-kingdom she sought to embody.

Firmly rooted in the Church of England, it has helped redefine the role it plays. In a speech at Lambeth Palace as part of the Diamond Jubilee celebrations in 2012, she said: “The Church has a duty to protect the free practice of all religions in this country. She went on to say that “slowly and surely the Church of England has created an environment in which other faith communities and even people without faith can live freely”. It’s a view that finds expression in the annual Commonwealth Day celebrations at Westminster Abbey.

Such a definition of the Church would have seemed odd under most previous reigns, but it is true, as Jonathan Sacks, the former chief rabbi, was fond of pointing out, that a non-oppressive Anglican establishment serves to maintain the public square open to voices of faith, without being dominated by them. It is unlikely that another religious body could inherit such a position, and possible that a total divorce between Church and State represented by a secularized monarchy would result in a shift towards the French position in which the “faith as such is relegated to the margins of public life.

It is undeniable, however, that any future defender of the faith will rule over a country very different from Churchill’s Britain in 1953. Pepinster explores some of the implications for a future coronation and reflects on lessons to be learned from other cultures, including the rituals surrounding the investiture of a new Japanese emperor.

It is clear that some changes are inevitable. The prominent role of the hereditary aristocracy in the queen’s coronation is untenable under present circumstances. There may be room to revive the tradition abandoned after the disastrous and very costly fiasco at the coronation of George IV, in which a grand reception at Westminster Hall followed the service at the Abbey. This would give the incumbent government the opportunity to develop the traditional ‘recognition’ of the new monarch to embrace the diversity of modern Britain.

No one would envy those who are already pondering these questions, but they will be grateful for the insights contained in this book as they look to the future. In the meantime, “may she long reign over us”.

The Rt Revd Lord Chartres is a former Bishop of London.

Read an excerpt from the book here

Defenders of the Faith: The British Monarchy, Religion and the Next Generation
Catherine Pepinster
Hodder & Stoughton €25
Church Times Bookshop £20

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