By Madeleine Bunting (THE GUARDIAN, 21/04/06):
There have been the official 80th photographs, the 80 facts for an 80-year-old monarch issued by Buckingham Palace, a respectful television programme on her extraordinary life and long reign. There will be plenty more celebrations come the official birthday in June, but as the Queen finally celebrates her landmark day, there’s a thought that, however inappropriate, can’t but rear its head: what happens to a monarchy that has become so profoundly associated with one particular person? Is the institution robust enough to survive its passage to a new incumbent?
So much of our understanding of the monarchy has been bound up with the character of Elizabeth Windsor; her combination of reserve, sense of duty and that quintessential English upper-class lifestyle of frugal and rural. The kilts, the corgis, the cereal-box Tupperware, the request to servants not to walk down the middle of carpets to prevent wear: all are redolent of an upbringing in the first half of the 20th century and its discipline of iron self-restraint and small indulgences. No one accuses the Queen of celebrity-style extravagance, of too many exotic holidays, house makeovers and absurd wardrobes of clothes. On the contrary, she is a woman of grimly determined duty and her face as often as not indicates the huge sacrifice of a woman who would probably have been far happier living in the obscurity of a large landed estate, breeding horses.
What is often missed out of the puzzling phenomenon of this woman’s life is her religious faith. It is what makes her devotion to duty and self-sacrifice explicable. While the church over which she presides has faced dwindling congregations, her Christmas Day speeches and addresses to the Church of England Synod have often been remarkably religious. It’s hard to think of a recent predecessor – let alone a likely successor – of a comparable sincerity of belief, and it has been vital in sustaining the establishment of the Church of England. It would be quite possible to make the claim that Elizabeth Windsor has become one of the nation’s most articulate religious leaders – but that says as much about the timidity of the competition as it does about her.
Her belief explains much about how she has understood her position and her responsibilities, and about how she has developed a contemporary monarchy; it helps explain the ultimately ill-fated invention of the royal family just as the permissive 60s gathered pace – an alternative model of conjugal commitment and family responsibility – which foundered in the marital troubles of her offspring. It also helps explain why this is a woman who is extremely unlikely to abdicate, rather as Pope John Paul II soldiered on to the bitter end, driven by a sense that he had been chosen and consecrated by God to fulfil his earthly role.
If this sounds a bit far-fetched applied to the Queen, look at the order of service of the 1953 coronation: it makes explicit that she was chosen by God to be queen of England and anointed by the Holy Spirit with the wisdom and other blessings required for the job. If you believe that, retirement is not really an option.
All of which raises the question of how the idiosyncratic and delicate framework of the monarchy, the establishment of the Church of England and the state, which the Queen has managed to hold together despite the dramatic decline in Christianity, would survive her demise. It may be a tactless time to raise the question when celebrating an 80th birthday – it may also, given her mother’s longevity, be a good 20 years off – but this framework will be suddenly exposed in all its glorious anachronisms come the next coronation.
There has been some speculation about how the coronation oath might have to be rejigged with some hasty legislation – four out of the five questions in the oath relate to the upholding of Christianity, three specifically to the upholding of the Church of England. How will that go down in a country where the number regularly attending Anglican services is roughly matched by the number of British Muslims? There has also been speculation about a tweaking of the official title to defender of faiths. But this is fiddling round the edges compared to the actual coronation service. This ceremony at the crux of the British constitution is a ritual steeped in the history of a millennium of European Christianity. It blows apart completely the fiction that we live in a secular state.
The nub of the ceremony is the anointing by the Archbishop of Canterbury of the monarch on the palms, chest and head. This is a sacrament; not just symbolic, it actually transforms the recipient. As the Bishop of Salisbury, David Stancliffe, puts it: “It marks an outpouring of the Holy Spirit with gifts of grace to sanctify the person, it marks the choice of God of this person to be king or queen and starts a process which will be fulfilled in the course of their reign.”
After the anointing, the monarch dons robe royal, orb, sceptre, rod and crown – all symbols of the divine grace being poured on to the new sovereign – while the archbishop incants prayers such as “may you continue steadfastly as the defender of Christ’s religion”. He concludes in a benediction: “The Lord who hath made you [king or queen] over these peoples give you increase of grace, honour and happiness in this world and make you partake of his eternal felicity in the world to come.”
The monarch is accountable to God for their rule, and the prayer is that they will eventually come to enjoy eternal life. (There are echoes here of Tony Blair’s own admission recently that he would be accountable to God for his decision to go to war in Iraq; while he may have horrified secularists, he was, in fact, only articulating the spirit of the British constitution.)
Eternal life, divine grace, sacrament, anointing: it’s hard to imagine, come the next coronation, a BBC commentator like Andrew Marr providing explanations that could satisfy secular Britain. Will a coronation be justified as a “heritage opportunity” marketed to tourists to enjoy some British pomp, or will this Charlemagne-derived event finally prompt the determination to update Britain’s quaint constitution? It’s hard to head off the latter with a discreet revamp of the ceremony ahead of time. That leaves a constitutional crisis waiting to happen: the relationship between sovereign, church and state, which the Queen has managed to largely steer clear of public debate, would come under the bewildered glare of the global media, and who knows how it would fall apart under that kind of scrutiny?