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Defender of the Faith: How the Queen’s engagement with faith has shaped a twenty–first century Church of England

Defender of the Faith: How the Queen’s engagement with faith has shaped a twenty–first century Church of England

For the Queen’s Jubilee celebration, Catherine Pepinster writes about the Queen’s governing of the C of E and what the future holds. 01/06/2022

Queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, Supreme Governor of the Church of England, Defender of the Faith: these are the familiar titles of Elizabeth II, for 70 years monarch of this country. Her presence has provided the country with continuity and stability amid the turmoil of the late twentieth and early twenty–first century. 

Prime Ministers come and go, yet she has seemed to go on for ever.  

Yet the Queen herself and her role as a Christian monarch have not been impervious to change. While her titles of Supreme Governor and Defender of the Faith have remained the same since her accession, the Queen has effectively reinterpreted them. All eyes will be on the heir to the throne, the Prince of Wales, to see the extent to which he will bring his own approach to them, when he succeeds his mother as sovereign. It is already evident that the Queen’s approach, especially regarding the need to be open to other faiths and Christian denominations, alongside Anglicanism, is a legacy that he will embrace and make his own.  

Henry VIII, who founded the Church of England on his break with Rome over his desire to divorce Catherine of Aragon and marry Anne Boleyn, called himself its Head. But his daughter Elizabeth I, mindful that Christ should be its head, chose to be Supreme Governor. All British monarchs since Elizabeth I have taken this title. 

The role is not, despite the title, about day–to–day governance – the monarch leaves that to the bishops. Instead it involves the Queen in a role regarding Archbishops of Canterbury that is rather like her relationship with Prime Ministers: listening, sometimes guiding and warning. She also attends the opening of General Synod (although most recently she was represented by Prince Edward) and gives an address rather akin to a sermon.  

In 2012, in a speech to faith leaders at Lambeth Palace that at the time was little reported, the Queen effectively rewrote what the Church is about. Anglicanism, she said, “has a duty to protect the free practice of all other faiths in this country”. It was quite the opposite of what it was created to be: an alternative to Rome and an expression of Christian Englishness.  

In effect, she was saying that the twenty–first century Church of England is like an umbrella, under which other faiths and Christian denominations can shelter.  

While it may surprise people, given the Queen’s coronation oaths included upholding the Protestant religion, the signs are that the Queen has long been open to other faiths. As long ago as 1952 she asked people, during her first Christmas message before her June 1953 coronation to pray for her whatever their religion. And since the 1960s she has welcomed the involvement of other faiths in Commonwealth Day Services, after Commonwealth leaders asked her to enable it to happen.  

This engagement with other faiths has been matched with her efforts throughout her reign to engage with the Roman Catholic Church. The Thirty Nine Articles of the Church of England says that “the Bishop of Rome hath no jurisdiction in this realm of England”. However, the Queen acknowledges that while nowadays Roman Catholicism might not have the same temporal power as Anglicanism in the UK, it does have spiritual clout, through its million weekly Massgoers and its five million members. It also has profound influence across the globe, an influence which is important to Her Majesty’s Government. So she has played her part, visiting the Vatican on many occasions and hosting two popes, John Paul II and Benedict XVI, in the UK.  

Mindful of Protestant sensitivities, she has been careful to visit Catholic churches in this country on rare occasions. On one occasion, she attended vespers in Westminster Cathedral but has never attended Mass in this country. Catholic Communion was, for hundreds of years, anathema to the Protestants of Britain who heard transubstantiation denounced as idolatrous, first in the coronation service and later in the accession statement, before mention of it finally disappeared. 

The Queen herself receives Communion only a couple of times a year. She is more of a prayer book and Bible Christian. But increasingly this rather shy, introverted woman has been willing to share her own faith by talking about it in her Christmas messages.  

At one time these were rather platitudinous, with thoughts about Christmas being a time for family. But since the millennium, they have been increasingly frank expressions of Christian faith, as she talks about it providing a framework for her life. As church attendance has declined, so her public apologetics have grown. Being Defender of the Faith is no longer just titular but something she practises. While she is Supreme Governor of just the national church in England, she is Defender of the Faith across the United Kingdom, signified by its inclusion on all her coinage, as you can see from the silver and copper in your pockets. Note the F.D. – the abbreviation for the Latin version of the title, Fidei Defensor.  

While such a title may not be meaningful to the Queen’s more secular subjects, they may well appreciate a key way in which she has lived out her faith by supporting organizations that express particular values – love of one’s neighbour, working for the common good, nurturing creation.  

Since the time of Edward VII, royal patronage of organizations including charities that work with young people, the elderly, the afflicted, animals and the environment has become one of the most important areas of work for the Crown, so much so that the historian Frank Prochaska has called the British set–up the ‘welfare monarchy’.  

In the middle of her reign, the Queen had plenty of other members of the royal family to depend on to help out with this considerable philanthropic version of monarchy. But in these twilight years of her reign, ‘the Firm’ is much smaller. No Queen Mother, Princess Margaret, Diana or Prince Philip. Harry, Meghan and Andrew have stepped down and the dependable Kents, Gloucesters and Princess Alexandra are all elderly too.  

Although the Prince of Wales has indicated that he wants a smaller, slimmed down monarchy, something which has pleased those concerned about cost, having too few working royals could jeopardize this work, so he may wish to think again about effective being slimmed down might be. Welfare monarchy has a broad appeal, vital in a secular world.  

The next monarch of the United Kingdom follows in the footsteps of a Queen whose reign has been distinguished by her understanding not only of kingship, as articulated in scripture, but of servantship too – the humility of Christ the Servant King has clearly influenced her profoundly. In a recent volume of Prince Charles’ speeches, the introduction suggested that it in his work he has placed the idea of stewardship at the heart of his commitment to public life.  

Stewardship indicates a certain care and responsibility – the kind that the prince has advocated humanity should demonstrate toward the environment. It is, like the theology of the servant, a biblical idea, but it is one that could well appeal to much wider constituency than just the scripture–reading one. The Steward King might well be the future for the monarchy.  

Catherine Pepinster is the author of Defenders of the Faith – the British Monarchy, Religion and the Next Coronation, to be published by Hodder and Stoughton on June 9.


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HD photo by Tomas Martinez (

Catherine Pepinster

Catherine Pepinster

Catherine Pepinster is a former editor of The Tablet, the Catholic weekly, and the author of Defenders of the Faith – the British Monarchy, Religion and the Next Coronation,
published by Hodder and Stoughton.

Watch, listen to or read more from Catherine Pepinster

Posted 1 June 2022


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