In recent years, audiences around the world have focused their attention on Westminster Abbey for major media events. The funerals of Princess Diana and the Queen Mother, and last year’s wedding of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge have all drawn widespread attention not just from Britons, but from large numbers of international viewers and many Americans.
The religious dimension of these events and their sacred setting is perhaps not always as clear as it could be in popular media coverage, and so the Very Rev. John Hall’s new book on the religious life of Queen Elizabeth as connected with Westminster Abbey is especially welcome. John Hall has served as Dean of Westminster Abbey since late 2006, and he writes of the queen as a “servant leader” whose long life has been permeated by Christian attitudes of service and humility.
The excellence of this book is a readability that transcends opinions about the establishment of the Church of England or the political institution of monarchy. Dean Hall explores the public liturgical life of Queen Elizabeth through the fruits of the Spirit as described by St. Paul: love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. He explains in clear terms just what Queen Elizabeth’s responsibilities at Westminster Abbey are, and how they are parts of ancient continuities for English religion and culture, as well as manifestations of an individual Christian woman’s own abiding and personal faith.
Dean Hall’s wide-ranging review takes in the queen’s anointing and coronation in 1953, her commemoration of the Slave Trade Act’s 200th anniversary, her 50th wedding anniversary, regular observances of Commonwealth Day and Remembrance Sunday, her historic meeting and prayer with Pope Benedict XVI, and of course the recent royal wedding.
The most significant and meaningful chapter, however, discusses the Royal Maundy, an annual ceremony during Holy Week in which the English monarch gives alms to a large group of poor or elderly men and women. (The older ceremony of foot-washing by the king or queen in emulation of Jesus Christ at the Last Supper seems to have ended around 1730.) The Royal Maundy service celebrated each year includes the following collect as both a description of the queen’s role within it, and a lofty example for those who hear it and read about it:
“Almighty God, our heavenly Father, who hast given thy Son Jesus Christ to die for our sins, and hast commanded us to love one another as thou hast loved us: make us, we beseech thee, so mindful of the needs of others, that we may ever be ready to show them compassion and, according to our ability, to relieve their wants; for the sake of the same Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, world without end. Amen.”
For the firsthand view of the ways in which Queen Elizabeth has lived out the deeply Christian spirit of this collect, Dean Hall’s Queen Elizabeth II and Her Church is a fine, informative, easily readable, very timely, and very enjoyable book.
Richard J. Mammana, Jr.
New Haven, Connecticut
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons