A Defender of Faith: Christianity and the Monarchy
by Arthur Sibanda | 10 October 2022 |
Over weeks since the death of the longest-serving British monarch, Elizabeth II, I have watched with keen interest the geopolitical arguments as people try to reflect on her legacy. Grief is of course to be expected from those who are directly related to her, as well as those who live in the United Kingdom and allied nations. But there doesn’t seem to be a consensus on what her legacy should be in light of the past colonial history of the British empire.
In the Shona language we use the words “wafa wanaka,” meaning that when someone dies people often choose to focus on their positive traits and never on the negative, out of respect. Perhaps this is why some have felt that any scrutiny of the monarchy now is ill-timed. Possibly the sentiments are that whatever concerns are being raised should have come when she was still living and could respond to them. There are understandable concerns about whether the monarchical system will continue to have the same appeal it had enjoyed in the past seventy plus years, and whether some in the kingdom will now seek independence from the British crown. Certainly her heir, King Charles III, has a mammoth task to fill the shoes of his late mother, who seems over decades to have become an essential moral structure of the United Kingdom.
Faith and monarchy
But as I watched the funeral procession, I chose to reflect on the religious legacy of the monarchy which, like the monarchy itself, is fragile right now. As I heard the phrase “God save the king” pronounced as the king greeted mourners lined outside the palace, as well as during the televised regal ceremony, I wondered if this phrase had not now become a cliché. Many who uttered these words were oblivious that while seemingly expressing their own loyalty and devotion to the new monarch, they were in the same breath invoking the name of God whom they had long relegated out of their lives.
I say this because the funeral of the queen has highlighted an often-neglected aspect of the United Kingdom: its state religion. From the bright and colorful priestly robes, the serene and enthralling music from the choir, and the impressive architecture of Westminster Abbey, one could have mistakenly thought religion was at the forefront of this culture.
But just like the monarchy, religion has devolved into a sentimental cultural emblem, to which relatively few of the late Queen’s and new King’s subjects are still personally connected.
Even amidst a growing number of voices who feel the monarchy has seen its day, a sizable number still appear to support it. But the religion that the Queen, and now the King, are sworn to protect has devolved into an unwanted stepchild. In a land famed for being part of the Protestant Reformation, the homeland of the church to which the world owes the famous King James Version of the Bible, Christianity has lost its hold on society. Buildings which once were full every Sunday are mostly empty. Some have been turned into concert halls, boutiques or pubs. English society has become secular, inclined towards agnosticism and atheism. Those church buildings that are still functional have almost no young people except for immigrants from former colonies.
Dr. Graham Maxwell once told of taking a road tour around the isles of the United Kingdom. One of the questions he asked people he met was why the lack of interest in religion in the Kingdom. The responses he got were insightful. Most of the respondents told how as they grew up and became more rationally minded they thought it intellectually inconsistent for them to love a Being depicted as cruel, unjust, and unkind. Others felt turned off by the hypocrisy of the adherents of the Christian faith.
During its colonial period, the British empire spearheaded the spread of Christianity to all nations—missionization seemed always to accompany colonization. While interest in religion in this particular homeland of Protestant Christianity has dwindled, the former colonies have witnessed significant growth in the Christian religion.
But even in some of the colonies the picture is changing. There is a growing movement of dissent towards Christianity by proponents of a pan-Africa political philosophy. Christianity is seen by some to be a Trojan horse which was used to plunder natural resources and bring about repressive systems of governance.
I would argue that Christianity need not have come to the unentered lands as a bedfellow of colonialism. Historical accounts prove that Christianity had already been well established in North Africa in the early years of church history. Christianity in Africa would be healthier today if it had been spread divorced from political intentions and aspirations.
Defending faith, not the faith
Among other things that King Charles III will inherit from his mother, an important one is the title “Defender of the Faith.” This is an intriguing honorific, and to some a controversial one—particularly the word “the”. To his credit, the King has already publicly stated that though he is a Christian, he will seek to defend the freedoms of all who are under his authority, regardless of their spiritual persuasions. This stance is commendable, and it seems to me, necessary. If a democratic monarchy is to survive, this understanding will help to grow sympathy for his reign, as well as support for his religiously diverse monarchy at this crucial juncture.
It appears that in the United Kingdom, faith and the monarchy go together. You could argue that neither of these two can survive without the other. Maybe the monarchy as a cultural compass needs to survive this current volatile transition in order to strengthen faith. Or vice versa—could it be that the monarchy’s viability hinges on the revival of religious practice in society?
The story isn’t over. Whatever happens, I think we all would wish to see a revival of the Christian faith in a form that ensures that “There is no longer a Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Galatians 3:28 NLT
Arthur Sibanda is a nurse. He and his wife, Mercy, have one daughter, Nobukhosi Tashanta. He enjoys writing, composing songs, and singing, and is also involved in a ministry helping people overcome sexual brokenness.