Sermon given at Matins on 24th June 2012

24 June 2012 at 10:00 am

The Reverend Andrew Tremlett, Canon in Residence

It is an exquisite depiction of religious faith. Rather stereotyped, rather formal, but undeniably pious. The young couple are kneeling, facing one another at prie-dieus, their hands clasped in reverence, their prayer-books open before them.

You might not, perhaps, be surprised at her twenty-three years of age, but almost certainly, the craftsman has added a few years of gravitas to the tender eighteen-year-old king.

Of course, the stained-glass window you can see next door in St Margaret’s Church, where I am also Rector, was created some years after the event. The event was, to all intents and purposes, the engagement of Henry VIII to his older brother’s widow, the beautiful and pious Katherine of Aragon in 1509.

For some reason the window, crafted in the Netherlands, was not completed until 1526, but which time the world had moved on in so many ways. By this time, both King Henry VIII and his Queen Katherine had been named ‘Fidei Defensores’, Defenders of the Faith. The honour was first bestowed on Henry by Pope Leo X in 1521 in recognition of his authorship of ‘Defence of the Seven Sacraments’, which was regarded as a bulwark against Martin Luther and the earlier Reformation. Two years later, Katherine was accorded the same title, again for opposing Luther.

This was to start a tradition of the English monarchy being styled ‘Defender of the Faith’. But there was a problem. By the time the window was completed, Henry had already fallen hopelessly in love with Anne Boleyn and was on a collision course with Rome. And the Defender of the Faith was soon to become the chief protagonist in splitting from the old church in an attempt to justify his marital proclivities.

But for better or for worse, the title of ‘Defender of the Faith’ has stuck. It is still used to describe our own Queen Elizabeth II - Queen Elizabeth the Second, by the Grace of God Queen of this Realm and of Her other Realms and Territories, Head of the Commonwealth, Defender of the Faith.

Is this just a Royal hangover, a residual vestige of a by-gone era, an empty vessel without content or meaning? I think not.

In this series of sermons in June, I have been considering the Monarchy in relation to the Christian Faith. Over the past three weeks, I have looked at the idea of Jubilee as a celebration and as a liberation; at the Biblical ambiguity surrounding kingship and the way Jesus reinterpreted it as ‘servant king’; at the continuity and change which is evident in the current monarch’s long reign. These are all available on the Abbey’s website.

And today, I want to conclude with thinking about the monarch’s role as Defender of the Faith, particularly in relation to the significant demographic changes which have taken place in the United Kingdom over the past sixty years.

But first I want to compare and contrast two short extracts from speeches made by her Majesty nearly sixty years apart.

The first I quoted in part last week. It is Christmas 1952. It is the first Queen’s Speech broadcasted there has ever been. She is Queen, but not yet crowned.

'You will be keeping [the Coronation] as a holiday; but I want to ask you all, whatever your religion may be, to pray for me on that day - to pray that God may give me wisdom and strength to carry out the solemn promises I shall be making, and that I may faithfully serve him and you, all the days of my life.'

Two things immediately stand out. The first is that prominent among the solemn promises she refers to is that, at her Coronation the following June, she will uphold, maintain, and defend the protestant religion of the Church of England as the established Church. She will become for her lifetime Fidei Defensatrix, Defender of the Faith.

But perhaps the second point is even more stunning. Listen carefully: ‘but I want to ask you all, whatever your religion may be, to pray for me on that day’. This was a broadcast to the Commonwealth, that tapestry of nations which look to the Queen as head of state or to the historic institutions of Parliament as their inspiration. These now fifty-four countries contain a multitude of faith communities, ancient and venerable, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhist, animist. Queen Elizabeth was asking them all for their prayers. Let’s remember the year was 1952.

Wind forward sixty years to February of this year. Her Majesty is meeting with representatives of all nine world faiths at Lambeth Palace, the ancient seat in London of the Archbishop of Canterbury. This was an historic occasion at the very beginning of the Diamond Jubilee celebrations and an opportunity to say something of significance.

Again, a short passage:

Here at Lambeth Palace we should remind ourselves of the significant position of the Church of England in our nation’s life. The concept of our established Church is occasionally misunderstood and, I believe, commonly under-appreciated. Its role is not to defend Anglicanism to the exclusion of other religions. Instead, the Church has a duty to protect the free practice of all faiths in this country.

Look how carefully those two themes, adumbrated in the 1952 speech are revisited. She reminds us of the significant position of the Church of England as the established Church – this is Defender of the Faith as people will immediately expect.

But swiftly she moves on to another dimension of Defending the Faith which Anglicans are also comfortable with. Using our role to create a clear space, an opening, a forum for other voices to be heard. The ‘role is not to defend Anglicanism to the exclusion of other religions. Instead, the Church has a duty to protect the free practice of all faiths in this country’.

This interweaving of both defending the Christian Faith but also having sufficient confidence to make space for others, is most evident in the Commonwealth Observance Day, which is marked here in the Abbey on the second Monday of March each year.

It may surprise you to know that this is the UK’s largest annual interfaith celebration, and includes contributions from all the major world faiths, right here in the heart of the Abbey.

And the pattern established there – of open, warm, confident Christian hospitality which is big enough to embrace all those of other faiths – this pattern was used again just this week with the visit of His Holiness the Dalai Lama when he was welcomed by the Dean in the Abbey.

In truth, this interpretation of ‘Defender of the Faith’, confident and open, seems in tune with the demographic changes evident in our corner of Western Europe. As Jeremy Paxman recently noted, it is not so much that the Empire network has disappeared as that we now, as a nation, reflect more closely the rich tapestry of nations, particularly from the Commonwealth, who have made their homes here.

A final thought: if we think of all those who have been baptised as Christians as ‘Defenders of the Faith’, what we might aspire to is not a reactionary movement, battening down the hatches in the face of a secular onslaught. But an open, confident embracing of the love of God wherever and among whomsoever we find it.

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