In the summer of 1997 I started a job with Centrepoint, the youth homelessness charity, as manager of a new hostel for young people in the City of London. One of the things I learnt on my first day was that it was going to be formally opened by the Queen.
The official opening happened in November and it was just 2 months after Princess Diana had died. The press coverage was intense. The opening featured on all the main news programmes and I did many interviews.
I welcomed the Queen as she arrived and spent about 30 minutes with her. I took her to meet 2 residents in their rooms and then down to our training centre where she met almost all the residents.
Inevitably, we had residents who were sensitive and unpredictable and the visit caused some agitation (especially the sniffer dogs who came round beforehand!)
But my main surprise was how relaxed the Queen was compared to what I feared. I thought it would be stiff and awkward but she was exceptionally good at talking with all our residents and everyone had a great time.
A couple of weeks later, myself and a colleague were invited to Buckingham Palace and were taken out for a meal in Pall Mall by Sir Robin Janvrin, then the Queen’s Deputy Private Secretary. He wanted to review how the event went and asked us lots of questions.
I later learnt that we were inputting into a review being done by Royal officials to listen to ‘ordinary people’ about the Queen’s image and how she came over. This was prompted by the controversies caused by the Queen’s reaction to Diana’s death. It was a moment when the Royal family realised they had to adapt.
We did not speak about faith that day, but one of the most interesting developments in the Queen’s communication in recent years has been her increasing openness about her Christian faith.
In her Christmas message, often the most watched single programme over Christmas, she has shared her beliefs to the widest possible audience. I think she has been Britain’s best public theologian for these 4 reasons:
1) She speaks personally
“For me, the life of Jesus Christ, the prince of peace, whose birth we celebrate today, is an inspiration and an anchor in my life.” (2014)
“It is my prayer this Christmas Day that Jesus’ example and teaching will continue to bring people together to give the best of themselves in the service of others.” (2012)
No one has a more public role than the Queen, but she is markedly personal in the way she talks about her faith. She continually uses words like ‘for me’; ‘my life’ and ‘my prayer’.
Like all personal testimony, this is powerful and induces respect in those listening. It is in contrast to sharing bland platitudes about ‘Christian values’.
2) She focuses on the person of Jesus
“This is the time of year when we remember that God sent his only son ‘to serve, not to be served’. He restored love and service to the centre of our lives in the person of Jesus Christ.” (2012)
“God sent into the world a unique person – neither a philosopher nor a general…but a Saviour, with the power to forgive.” (2011)
It would be easy for someone in her position to offer a anodyne message about thinking of others and being kind. But the Queen is unabashed about talking directly about the example and achievement of the person at the heart of the Christian faith.
3) She speaks inclusively
“The Christmas message shows us that this love is for everyone. There is no one beyond its reach.” (2013)
“Christ’s example has taught me to seek to respect and value all people, of whatever faith or none.” (2014)
Obviously the Queen is Head of State for a very diverse group of people. And consistently, the Queen emphasises that God’s love is for all people and that believing in this love should drive us to respect and value everyone, whatever they believe. It is the opposite to the kind of faith which seeks to silence and destroy those who are different.
4) She speaks about faith in action
“Reflection, meditation and prayer help us to renew ourselves in God’s love, as we strive daily to become better people.” (2013)
“Forgiveness lies at the heart of the Christian faith. It can heal broken families, it can restore friendships and it can reconcile divided communities. It is in forgiveness that we feel the power of God’s love.” (2011)
Anyone speaking effectively about faith today cannot do so by just speaking about abstract beliefs – they need to make the connection to what faith does.
The Queen refers to the reconciliation, service and love which flows from Christian commitment. It emphasises that faith must make a difference to how we live – it must be a force which helps us become ‘better people’.
Clarity and confidence
Many people have misgivings about the opulence and inherited privilege bound up with the Royal Family. But many Royal-sceptics also have deep respect for the way the Queen has conducted herself.
And what I have most admired about the Queen is her willingness to express her faith with such clarity and confidence in the public sphere. Too often, ‘God-talk’ is considered private or hidden away within books or purely religious environments.
In speaking personally, focussing on Jesus, being inclusive and connecting faith to action, she has been the best public theologian we have had. And what is more, she has lived out her faith through her example of commitment and duty.
May she Rest In Peace and Rise In Glory.