Not born to become a sovereign, it became her vocation following the abdication of her uncle, King Edward VIII (later, Duke of Windsor), and the comparatively short but exemplary reign of her father, King George VI. Her first prime minister, Winston Churchill, is said to have wept and exclaimed following the death of her father, “She is only a child,”1 anticipating what lay before her. At her funeral, many wept, not from pity but from a deep sense of gratitude that the Queen had fulfilled the vow she made as a vivacious yet unseasoned twenty-one-year-old to serve “my whole life, whether it be long or short.”2 Her leadership within and service to the political community (political community in the broader sense) were marked by faithfulness, a concern for the common good, and a vibrant Christian faith through all the seasons of her life.3 Moreover, the Queen developed her particular style of leadership within the limits of a constitutional monarchy (in which she did not have the prerogative to develop and set national policy but simply the right to be consulted, and to encourage and warn) and amidst all the complexities, ambiguities, and problems arising from Britain’s imperial and colonial history.
A Servant Leader for all Seasons
The life and long reign of the late Queen Elizabeth II unfolded within a world that experienced both tremendous upheaval and positive change, a world that was increasingly connected and yet at the same time fragmented.
I have a deep admiration for those who give their lives faithfully to public leadership and service. The Queen’s lifelong service was accompanied by a lively sense that the political community—from the local village to the global community—was comprised of different institutions and social groups animated by various ideals, such as freedom, compassion, and justice, and the public leadership and service of individuals. She never seemed to tire of recognising the contribution that others made to their political communities nor to encourage greater leadership and service from everyone. Consider the following example from her Christmas Day Broadcast in 1991:
There are all sorts of elements to a free society, but I believe that among the most important is the willingness of ordinary men and women to play a part in the life of their community, rather than confining themselves to their own narrow interests.
The parts they play may not be major ones—indeed they can frequently turn out to be thankless tasks. The wonder is, though, that there are so many who are prepared to devote much of their lives, for no reward, to the service of their fellow men and women.4
Her father was her guiding example, especially in her greener years. He had little desire to be a sovereign; however, following his brother’s abdication, he fulfilled his duty, taking on this form of service and facing a number of personal challenges, notably a speech impediment and ill health towards the end of his life. The encouragement he gave and the solidarity he showed with his people during the war stand out as the high point of his reign. As Robert Hardman, one of the Queen’s biographers, writes of King George VI’s service during World War II:
The King who never wanted to be King had led his nation through the gravest danger it had ever known, alert to all the darkest secrets at the very lowest moments. He had seen other monarchies going down like skittles across the continent and had been dive-bombed in his own home. He had held the line, held his nerve and held his people together.5
Unsurprisingly, then, by the time of Elizabeth’s twenty-first birthday, the commitment to lifetime service was set, alongside an almost prescient understanding of what it would require of her and of the divine and human help she would need:
I declare before you all that my whole life whether it be long or short shall be devoted to your service and the service of our great imperial family to which we all belong. But I shall not have strength to carry out this resolution alone unless you join in it with me, as I invite you to do: I know that your support will be unfailingly given. God help me to make good my vow and God bless all of you who are willing to share in it.6
The Queen certainly needed physical, emotional, and spiritual strength to serve in the way she did. At one level, it is a truism to say that she was privileged. Those were the circumstances into which she was born and within which she was required to make good on her vocation and duties as a sovereign. Rather than taking those privileges for granted or exploiting them to her benefit, she worked hard to make the best of her advantages to fulfil her vocation as a sovereign. And make no mistake, the Queen worked very hard to become an effective sovereign over a lifetime of service. As one commentator noted: “She has worked at being the monarch, embracing the job and making it the essence of who she is as a leader—and a public servant. One suspects that her brand of hard work and dedication would result in success in any field she had chosen, whether as a diplomat, philanthropist, or corporate executive, because she fulfils the job descriptions for these three professions and many more.”7
The Queen’s service required personal sacrifice. “Heavy is the head that wears the crown,” the saying goes—and for good reason. Her commitment to public service must have been at times burdensome, especially as she faced various crises, criticism, and even abuse from certain individuals and groups as well as tensions and problems within her own family. Indeed, on occasion, she was open about the difficulties she faced, such as when she described 1992 as her annus horribilis (a year of misfortune or disaster), following a fire at Windsor Castle, separation and divorce among her children, and ongoing family scandal. Characteristically, in her Christmas message that year, she chose to identify with those who faced difficulties and sorrows greater than her own—“My heart goes out to those whose lives have been blighted by war, terrorism, famine, natural disaster or economic hardship”8—encouraging her listeners to personal courage and kindness to others.
Her personal sacrifice, however, is only part of the picture. Those of us in leadership know that we need to find satisfaction in leading and serving others; otherwise, life becomes sheer drudgery. One of the challenges I have found in leadership is integrating personal sacrifice with the deep satisfaction that comes from serving God and others. Given the longevity of her leadership and service, it appears the Queen was able to achieve this integration. As Hardman writes, “[T]he simple truth [is] that the Queen genuinely likes being Queen.”9 Her leadership and service were marked by personal sacrifice and personal satisfaction.
In The Powers to Lead, leadership specialist Joseph Nye introduces the notions of “hard power” and “soft power.” For Nye, leaders are people who “help a group create and achieve shared goals.”10 To do so, they need to exercise both hard and soft power. Hard power rests on the ability to use different “inducements [and] threats”11 to realise group goals. On the other hand, soft power rests on the ability to attract and persuade to achieve group goals.12 In exercising leadership as a constitutional monarch and as Head of the Commonwealth, the Queen recognised the wisdom of leaning heavily on soft power. This is apparent from early on in her reign. In 1957, she noted:
In the old days the monarch led his soldiers on the battlefield and his leadership at all times was close and personal. Today things are very different. I cannot lead you into battle, I do not give you laws or administer justice, but I can do something else, I can give you my heart and my devotion to these old islands and to all the people of our brotherhood of nations.13
It would be easy to dismiss this statement as insipid sentimentality; however, in reality, the Queen used her soft power to work tirelessly to promote the “brotherhood of nations” and to seek the common good of all. This is readily seen in her role as the Head of the Commonwealth in which “she has shepherded an alliance of often-disparate governments, individually at various stages of national development, and created a model of cooperation, collaboration, and civility.”14
She often referred to the Commonwealth as the “family of nations”15 and to her own particular role in promoting its unity. I find her use of the analogy of the family to speak of the Commonwealth is striking: “We talk of ourselves as a ‘family of nations’, and perhaps our relations with one another are not so very different from those which exist between members of any family. We all know that these are not always easy, for there is no law within a family which binds its members to think, or act, or be alike.”16 The Queen was realistic in facing the challenge of bringing together the Commonwealth nations, not least because of the complexities and problems enmeshed in Britain’s imperial and colonial history. Nonetheless, she was convinced that this was important in the period following World War II, believing that the Commonwealth played a unique role in promoting goodwill between nations and in furthering the common good. Thus, in 1972, she spoke of the Commonwealth as a “unique organisation” that is “valued by its members”, where there are “endless opportunities for co-operation” through “a web of relations between people of many races and creeds and now between a great number of sovereign independent states.”17
The common good—that set of conditions and nexus of goods that enables all members of the political community to flourish—is fragile. The Queen recognised that the common good could be impugned, wounded, and even destroyed by intolerance, fear, violence, and war. Given this fragility, the Queen saw great value in bringing people together to build understanding. I can sense her satisfaction from the Commonwealth’s growth and accomplishments:
In April , the Commonwealth Heads of Government met in London. My father welcomed just 8 countries to the first such meeting in 1948. Now the Commonwealth includes 53 countries with 2.4 billion people, a third of the world’s population. Its strength lies in the bonds of affection it promotes and a common desire to live in a better, more peaceful world. Even with the most deeply held differences, treating the other person with respect and as a fellow human-being is always a good first step towards greater understanding.18
The Queen also recognised how easily certain groups could be excluded from full participation in the political community and what this meant for their development as persons. For this reason, she often used her speeches to highlight groups that could easily be disenfranchised, such as people with disabilities, women, and children. Moreover, she recognised the common good cannot not simply be equated with material progress but contains a spiritual dimension—at a time when this was increasingly becoming undervalued—and that there is an essential place for forgiveness in public life in restoring and furthering the common good. These themes were in accord with the Queen’s commitment to Jesus Christ, as expressed in her role as Head of the Commonwealth.
The issues surrounding the expression of Christian faith—or, for that matter, any religious commitment—for those who hold roles of public leadership and service within liberal, democratic societies remain vexed; however, it is clear that simplistic declensionist “secularisation narratives,” in which persons of religious conviction are required to compartmentalise their beliefs and practices to a “private” realm or where they recede from roles of public leadership and service, are wanting. Indeed, the Queen herself defied these simplistic secularisation narratives: she was committed to the Christian faith throughout her life—not least as the Head of the Church of England—and her public speeches became more explicit in the latter part of her reign about her own trust in Jesus Christ and her commitment to his life and teaching. Consider the following two instances from her 2000 and 2002 Christmas Broadcasts:
To many of us our beliefs are of fundamental importance. For me the teachings of Christ and my own personal accountability before God provide a framework in which I try to lead my life. I, like so many of you, have drawn great comfort in difficult times from Christ’s words and example.19
I know just how much I rely on my own faith to guide me through the good times and the bad. Each day is a new beginning. I know that the only way to live my life is to try and do what is right, to take the long view, to give of my best in all that the day brings, and to put my trust in God.
Like others of you who draw inspiration from your own faith, I draw strength from the message of hope in the Christian gospel.20
Clearly, the life and teaching of Jesus motivated the Queen’s own public service and leadership. Furthermore, she saw the life and teaching of Jesus as encouraging public leadership and service more generally as people contributed to the common good in their workplaces, churches, and local communities. For her, Christian faith and public leadership within the context of liberal, democratic societies were not incompatible. In fact, it is worth noting that as Great Britain and the Commonwealth became increasingly pluralistic, so the Queen spoke of the life and teachings of Jesus Christ with greater frequency and depth, particularly in her Christmas broadcasts. In these, Jesus is presented chiefly as an example to follow: the person who exemplifies love for God and one’s neighbour. For the Queen, those who follow Christ’s example promote and contribute to a political community marked by freedom, compassion, tolerance, justice, and peace. One of her favourite titles for Jesus in her Christmas messages is “the Prince of Peace.” Her reference to Jesus as the Prince of Peace is often coupled with the message of the angels—“Peace on earth, and goodwill toward men”—and her reminder that this was an “indivisible” message: “there can be no ‘Peace on earth’ without ‘Goodwill toward men’.”21 She returned to the Parable of the Good Samaritan a number of times, telling her listeners that “[w]e should try to follow Christ’s instruction at the end of that story: ‘Go and do thou likewise’.”22 These are instances of how Jesus Christ was not only an example for the Queen as she sought to fulfil her own vocation and duties but also an example for all. Perhaps she was increasingly aware that the person and teaching of Jesus were less known and understood, and that that would be to the detriment of the common good; therefore, she took care to talk about Jesus publicly in relation to serving others.
Throughout her Christmas broadcasts, the portrayal of Jesus as an exemplar is constant; however, in the latter part of her reign, she often pointed to Jesus Christ as the Saviour and to our need for forgiveness:
Although we are capable of great acts of kindness, history teaches us that we sometimes need saving from ourselves—from our recklessness or our greed. God sent into the world a unique person—neither a philosopher nor a general (important though they are)—but a Saviour, with the power to forgive.
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.
In the last verse of this beautiful carol, O Little Town of Bethlehem, there’s a prayer:
O Holy Child of Bethlehem
Descend to us we pray
Cast out our sin
And enter in
Be born in us today
It is my prayer that on this Christmas Day we might find room in our lives for the message of the angels and for the love of God through Christ our Lord.24
As someone sensitive to intolerance and violence—and perhaps seasoned by an awareness of her own shortcomings—the Queen felt the need to highlight our need for a Saviour and his forgiveness, not only for the good of our own lives but also our communities.
Of course, the Queen never offered a detailed and in-depth account of why commitment to Christian faith is compatible with public leadership and service or why Christians in leadership roles is important for the furtherance of the common good. She was, after all, a sovereign, not a theologian reflecting on Christian faith within liberal, democratic societies more generally. Nevertheless, she is an example of someone who combined explicit commitment to the Christian faith with public leadership and created room within the public imagination for others to do so as well. She offered what the Christian ethicist Robin Lovin (drawing on William Placher) describes as an “unapologetic theology”: a readiness to present the Christian faith “on its own terms and expecting to be understood.”24 As Lovin notes:
[C]ommitment to unapologetic theology does not entail cultural pessimism, and commitment to democratic discussion does not entail the judgment that religious beliefs are conversation stoppers. There are many people who combine those commitments in practical ways, living their lives as believers and citizens without contradiction, although not necessarily without conflict.25
Throughout her reign, then, the Queen was able to demonstrate integrity of Christian belief and practice as she led and served within a liberal, democratic milieu.
It is my prayer that on this Christmas Day we might find room in our lives for the message of the angels and for the love of God through Christ our Lord.
Justin Welby’s sermon at the state funeral of the Queen was widely watched and noted. As Archbishop of Canterbury, he encapsulated, in comparatively few words, the Queen’s leadership, service, and allegiance to Jesus Christ—and used her example to share the good news about Jesus Christ. In particular, given the theme of my reflections here, I have been impressed by the following paragraph:
People of loving service are rare in any walk of life. Leaders of loving service are still rarer. But in all cases those who serve will be loved and remembered when those who cling to power and privileges are long forgotten.26
The point was clear: Elizabeth will be loved and remembered because, although she did have the advantages of privilege and power, she gave herself to serving others, demonstrating faithful service her entire life by upholding the political community and promoting the common good.
Undergirding Welby’s sermon was another point also: to really understand the life of Queen Elizabeth II, it is essential to recognise her commitment to Jesus Christ. The closing paragraphs of his sermon had the persuasive force they did because they were backed up by the Queen’s example. Her very life was a witness to the gospel—and an invitation for others to respond to God in Christ:
We will all face the merciful judgement of God: we can all share the Queen’s hope which in life and death inspired her servant leadership.
Service in life; hope in death. All who follow the Queen’s example, and inspiration of trust and faith in God, can with her say: “We will meet again.”27
1 Robert Hardman, Queen of Our Times: The Life of Queen Elizabeth. (London, United Kingdom: Macmillan, 2022), 130.
2 Robert Hardman, Queen of Our Times: The Life of Queen Elizabeth. (London, United Kingdom: Macmillan, 2022), 130.
3 Queen Elizabeth II, “A Speech by the Queen on Her 21st Birthday, 1947” (speech, Cape Town, South Africa, April 21, 1947), The Royal Household, https://www.royal.uk/21st-birthday-speech-21-april-1947, para. 14.
4 For a fuller framing of political community in the broader sense, see Section II of Nathan McLellan’s article “How to Vote Responsibly”.
5 Queen Elizabeth II, “Christmas Broadcast 1991” (speech, London, United Kingdom, December 25, 1991), The Royal Household, https://www.royal.uk/christmas-broadcast-1991), paras. 8–9.
6 Hardman, Queen of Our Times, 130.
7 Queen Elizabeth II, “A Speech by the Queen on Her 21st Birthday, 1947” (speech, Cape Town, South Africa, April 21, 1947), The Royal Household, https://www.royal.uk/21st-birthday-speech-21-april-1947), paras. 14–15.
8 Dudley Delffs, The Faith of Queen Elizabeth: The Poise, Grace, and Quiet Strength Behind the Crown (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2019), 45. Emphasis original.
9 Queen Elizabeth II, “Christmas Broadcast 1992” (speech, Sandringham, United Kingdom, December 25, 1992), The Royal Household, https://www.royal.uk/christmas-broadcast-1992, para. 5.
10 Hardman, Queen of Our Times, 6.
11 Joseph S. Nye, The Powers to Lead (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2008), xvii.
12 Ibid., 29.
14 Queen Elizabeth II, “Christmas Broadcast 1957” (speech, Sandringham, United Kingdom, December 25, 1957), The Royal Household, https://www.royal.uk/christmas-broadcast-1957, paras. 16–17.
15 Delffs, The Faith of Queen Elizabeth, 64.
16 Queen Elizabeth II, “Christmas Broadcast 1956” (speech, Sandringham, United Kingdom, December 25, 1956), The Royal Household, https://www.royal.uk/christmas-broadcast-1956, para. 14.
17 Ibid, para 14.
18 Queen Elizabeth II, “Christmas Broadcast 1972” (speech, London, United Kingdom, December 25, 1972), The Royal Household, https://www.royal.uk/christmas-broadcast-1972, paras. 11 & 12.
19 Queen Elizabeth II, “Christmas Broadcast 2018” (speech, London, United Kingdom, December 25, 2018), The Royal Household, https://www.royal.uk/christmas-broadcast-2018), para. 7.
20 Queen Elizabeth II, “Christmas Broadcast 2000” (speech, London, United Kingdom, December 25, 2000), The Royal Household, https://www.royal.uk/christmas-broadcast-2000), para. 12.
21 Queen Elizabeth II, “Christmas Broadcast 2002.” (speech, London, United Kingdom, December 25, 2002), The Royal Household, https://www.royal.uk/christmas-broadcast-2002), paras. 11–12.
22 Queen Elizabeth II, “Christmas Broadcast 1955” (speech, London, United Kingdom, December 25, 1957), The Royal Household, https://www.royal.uk/christmas-broadcast-1955), para. 13.
23 Queen Elizabeth II, “Christmas Broadcast 1985” (speech, London, United Kingdom, December 25, 1985), The Royal Household, https://www.royal.uk/christmas-broadcast-1985), para. 26.
24 Queen Elizabeth II, “Christmas Broadcast 2011” (speech, London, United Kingdom, December 25, 2011), The Royal Household, https://www.royal.uk/christmas-broadcast-2011), paras. 13–15.
25 Robin W. Lovin, Christian Realism and the New Realities (New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 126.
26 Ibid., 127.
27Ibid., para. 16.
Header image: From The Dominion, via Stuff.
Third image: From Queen Elizabeth II’s final Christmas message, 2021.