“Her Majesty the Queen”. For all but a few septuagenarians, this is the only royal title we have known. And it will not be heard again. With two male monarchs lined up to succeed King Charles III, these four words are unlikely to be used for a reigning monarch for decades. It is the end of an era.
I had the privilege of meeting Her Majesty on several occasions.
The first time was in the 1980s while I was still a student. I had mastered (and since lost) the art of “silver service”, the practice of serving every item of food merely with a spoon and fork. I raced through the ranks and swiftly found myself serving Her Majesty at different functions. My role was to remain unseen. Her role was to see everything – including me, who was literally her humble and obedient servant.
Although engaged constantly in conversation, she had so mastered the art of gratitude that she could smile and acknowledge the service given to her with a twinkle of thanks whilst continuing to be wholly attentive to another person. The high and mighty at other London banquets saw only themselves and their social superiors. Her Majesty had no one to impress. But she saw everyone and appreciated everything, always.
The second occasion was in 2002 in the library at Windsor Castle on the occasion of her Golden Jubilee. My Anglican counterpart, Jonathan Jennings, and I were managing the media for a unique ecumenical declaration which the Queen signed along with Christian leaders from across the United Kingdom. Amidst all the pageantry, this quiet gesture removed from the glare of television cameras was deeply important to her.
Although she had only recently buried her sister Princess Margaret and the Queen Mother, the Queen was radiant, as she entered the library with Prince Philip after a thanksgiving service in St George’s Chapel.
Although eyes were always on her as Queen, her eyes were on Christ as her King. She was doing her best to unite Christian leaders within her kingdom. The Servant Queen — sometimes attending up to 400 official engagements a year and being patron of over 600 charities — sought to see the words of Scripture fulfilled, “I pray that they will all be one, just as you and I are one.”
Another ecumenical declaration may seem insignificant. However, Elizabeth II was the first monarch since the bloody, painful Reformation 500 years ago to have attempted to unite still-wary Christian denominations.
She was also the first British monarch since that great divide to offer to a Catholic bishop the personal gift of the Sovereign — the Order of Merit, which is restricted to a maximum of 24 living recipients in the Commonwealth. In this case, it was to Cardinal Basil Hume about whom she spoke affectionately as “my Cardinal”. That was definitely a first for the Head of the Church of England.
And soon after Hume’s death, his successor, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, was invited not only to be a guest at her Sandringham estate but to also preach at Matins. This was an unprecedented attempt at spiritual bridge-building.
The third occasion was at her London home, Buckingham Palace, admittedly amidst throngs of guests at one of her Royal Garden Parties. As a trustee of the British and Foreign Bible Society, I was honoured to represent this centuries-old organisation. At the word “Bible”, her face lit up. In the midst of her ceremonial duties, she rejoiced to be reminded of the reason of her existence.
The Queen’s Christian faith was evident in her Christmas addresses. In 2014, she said: “For me, the life of Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace, whose birth we celebrate today, is an inspiration and an anchor in my life. A role model of reconciliation and forgiveness, he stretched out his hands in love, acceptance and healing. Christ’s example has taught me to seek to respect and value all people of whatever faith or none.” (The book The Servant Queen and The King She Serves contains a foreword written by Her Majesty and includes personal thoughts on her Christian faith.)
I am sure that I join many others around the world who have no doubt that Elizabeth II heard the words “well done, good and faithful servant” as she entered His United Kingdom today.