On Feb. 6, Queen Elizabeth II marked her diamond jubilee, an achievement that Great Britain will celebrate throughout 2012. I am not a monarchist, but I’ll happily join in saluting the Queen, who embodies several qualities that are in short supply among 21st-century public figures.
In one of a slew of diamond jubilee books, author Robert Hardman reports that Prince William, Duke of Cambridge, is awed by the Queen’s “gravitas.” One hopes it’s catching, even as one hopes that people understand why, as one of Her Majesty’s friends puts it, “she is never, you know, not the Queen.” It’s not a matter of Victorian formality and still less of arrogance. Rather, it’s that the Queen thinks of her unique position as a vocation—a responsibility for which she was consecrated at her coronation on June 2, 1953.
The character of Elizabeth Alexandra Mary Windsor was forged in the fires of World War II, when she learned the meaning of duty from her father, King George VI, and her mother, later the Queen Mother Elizabeth, whose name she bears. (Something of the steel in the former Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon may be grasped in her response to the suggestion that the two princesses, Elizabeth and Margaret, be evacuated to Canada to escape the Nazi Blitz and a possible German invasion: “The children won’t go without me. I won’t go without the King. And the King will never leave.”) The teenage Princess Elizabeth played her part in Britain’s finest hour, doing the occasional radio broadcast and joining the Women’s Auxiliary Territorial Service, where she was trained as a driver and mechanic. The quiet stoicism and sense of composure she learned in those days have been powerful assets these past 60 years, even if they weren’t appreciated by the media lynch-mob in the immediate aftermath of the death of Diana, Princess of Wales.
Whatever one’s theological opinion of the “sacring” of British monarchs, it’s quite clear from the pictures of Queen Elizabeth’s coronation that this was a young woman—by then a wife and mother—who thought of herself as being anointed, blessed and crowned for a task to which she must sacrifice her own life, for the sake of her people. Yes, Queen Elizabeth II is enormously wealthy and yes, she has lived a life in which she has been spared much of the drudgery that afflicts other mortals. But anyone who does not think that Elizabeth II has made sacrifices in living out her monarchical vocation doesn’t know much about how public life works these days—or how this remarkable woman understands herself.
Queen Elizabeth’s sense of duty is not generic; it is specifically Christian. That is clear from her annual Christmas broadcasts, the one time each year she speaks to her people in something resembling her own voice. (The annual Throne Speech in Parliament is written entirely by her government.) The 2011 Christmas address was particularly memorable. In it, the Queen talked simply, movingly and profoundly about the meaning of the birth of Jesus for humanity, and about the Christian virtues of forgiveness, compassion and magnanimity. I watched the address and thought, perhaps uncharitably, that there had been few better Christmas homilies preached that day between Land’s End and the Pentland Firth. And it “worked” because it came from the heart—a heart formed by Christian conviction.
Elizabeth II is said to be “low Church” in her Anglican sensibility, but that is of considerably less importance than the fact that she is a genuine Christian who is not afraid to bear witness to the truth of Christ as she has been given to understand it. The future is never certain, but on the present form sheet it seems unlikely that this admirable facet of Queen Elizabeth’s way of exercising her role as sovereign will be replicated in successor generations. Britain, and the world, will be poorer for that.
Still, and on the same form sheet, we may wish for many more years of her company. So on this diamond jubilee, I say, with heartfelt respect, “God Save the Queen.”