Many Episcopalians have an affinity for Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. You may see on social media Episcopalians and their churches celebrating Coronation Day where Her Majesty, though already queen, was crowned in Westminster Abbey by the Archbishop of Canterbury. You may see us holding a party for the Queen’s Birthday by sharing high tea or you may hear us vigorously defending the Queen and the Royal Family. Yesterday (April 21st) at Saint Paul’s our carillon rang the anthem and prayer ‘God Save the Queen’ in honor of her 95th birthday. One may wonder why we, Americans who fought a war to separate ourselves from the Monarchy, are so in love with the Queen?
Many Americans love the Monarchy for different reasons. The idea of a ruling Monarch who is a symbol of unity for a country even when it is divided. The idea of steady leadership which lasts for decades and cannot be voted out. The idea of a something older than ourselves. The romantic view of the Monarchy as the institution which held great names such as Alfred the Great, William the Conqueror, Henry VIII, Elizabeth I, Victoria, and so forth. Of course, there also those Americans who like the Monarchy for its soap opera drama. This may play into the Episcopalian/Anglican love of the Queen but for us it is much deeper.
To better understand we must have a history lesson. In 597, Pope Saint Gregory the Great sent Saint Augustine to Canterbury where he re-introduced Christianity to the natives through the conversion of King Aethelbert of Kent. Christianity spread throughout the British Iles and eventually the first king of what could be called the proto-kingdom of England, the kingdom of Wessex, was formed and led by Christian King Alfred the Great.
Beginning with Alfred the Great, the kings and queens of Wessex were Christians as were their
successors of the kingdom of England. During this time, the Archbishop of Canterbury was the leader of the Christian Church in England. That leadership was confirmed through the martyrdom of Saint Thomas Becket who was killed by the soldiers of King Henry II in Canterbury Cathedral. As was the case in almost all Christian kingdoms of the time, the church and state acted as one, meaning that the Archbishop of Canterbury had great power in the realm.
In 1517, when Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the Wittenburg Door and Europe began its entry into the Protestant Reformation, King Henry VIII wrote a theological treatise excoriating Luther and his beliefs which challenged the Roman belief in the sanctity of marriage and the supremacy of the pope (ironic, isn’t it?). For his work, Pope Leo X conveyed upon Henry the title ‘Defender of the Faith.’
Later, when King Henry wanted to divorce his wife Queen Katharine of Aragon for the love of Anne Boleyn, which the pope refused to grant him, Henry convened the English Parliament where they enacted the Act of Supremacy which stated that pope had no jurisdiction in England. The Archbishop of Canterbury at that time, Thomas Cranmer, became the first archbishop of the Church of England. While the pope excommunicated the king and stripped him of his title, Parliament granted Henry again the title ‘Defender of the Faith’ which continues to this day.
Henry made himself the Supreme Governor of the Church of England and the English Monarchs have kept that position. Fast forward a few hundred years to 1776 when the colonists broke away from England. During this time, the Church of England in the newly formed United States almost did not survive. Mainly because all clergy at the time living in America were still part of the Church of England and therefore had to swear loyalty to the Monarch, and because of this they left to Canada.
When the Episcopal Church was formed in 1789, it became the first independent church from the Church of England that kept its Anglican theology, tradition, and style. Thanks to the Scots and eventually the English, the bishops of the new Episcopal Church were consecrated in the line of Apostolic Succession dating back to Saint Augustine.
As the British Empire collapsed more churches became independent and the Anglican Communion was formed to unite all former Church of England churches into one group of affinity. This group recognized the Archbishop of Canterbury as its spiritual leader which made the Church of England our ancestral home. As such, the English Monarch, who is always an Anglican by law, has become our Monarch of Affinity. One might say that if the Monarch is the parent of the Church of England and we are all children of the Church of England, then the Monarch is our grandparent.
As time passed and the anger towards the Monarchy during the Revolutionary War faded, Episcopalians began to see the Monarchy in a new light through the lens of Anglican Tradition. This new understanding gave us permission to be Americans, but also to support and love from afar the kings and queens of England.
Many Americans are fascinated by and are in love with the Queen, but for us Episcopalians, the American inheritors of Anglican Tradition, we see her and we can say, in a way that others cannot, that Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II is not only the Queen of the United Kingdom, Northern Ireland, and her other realms and territories, but that she is also our Queen. For that we are grateful.
God Save the Queen.