The Death of the Queen and a Christian Understanding of Sovereignty
September 12, 2022

On Thursday, September 8th 2022, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II died. She was our longest-reigning monarch; the magnitude of her presence in the United Kingdom’s life defies most superlatives. The first of her fifteen British prime ministers was Winston Churchill; she appointed her final one, Liz Truss—who was born over a century after Churchill—only a couple of days before her death. Within all of the realms that she ruled, there were more than 170 prime ministers over the duration of her reign. She was the last remaining person in British public life to have served in the Second World War, a living connection to a generation and world that has now almost entirely passed. In 2017, she celebrated her seventieth wedding anniversary with HRH the Duke of Edinburgh and, earlier this year, houses were decked with bunting and streets hosted parties as we marked the Platinum Jubilee.

In the wake of her death, we find ourselves scrabbling feebly for ways to express the nature and gravity of our loss. Many have instinctively reached for the language of familiarity: she is the beloved grandmother of her realms, her presence ubiquitous throughout our lives, uniting us with our childhood selves in a sense of love and appreciation. This doubtless expresses something of the love that she evoked in her subjects and around the world, yet it still seems to fall frustratingly short of capturing the weight of her death.

Nearer to the mark have been those who have reflected upon the significance of the Queen as a living symbol. As Boris Johnson observed in his tribute in the Commons, the Queen’s image is on every stamp and coin and all justice has been administered in her name. That the Queen symbolized this sovereignty as the specific and exemplary person that she was—a dignified, kind, loyal, and dutiful elder sister in Christ of the wartime generation—coloured our entire sense of what sovereignty was, should be, and could be. She united the nation’s past to its present through a period of immense change, bringing the virtues and values of a passing age to bear upon a public life that might not otherwise have been sensible to their loss. Described by a senior Vatican official as ‘the last Christian monarch’ and a faithful member of what has been termed the ‘last active Anglican generation’, some of the last lingering remnants of Christendom in Europe seem to be passing with her.

Oliver O’Donovan once suggested that Christian political thought can have ‘an apologetic force when addressed to a world where the intelligibility of political institutions and traditions is seriously threatened.’1 The need for this apologetic vocation of Christian political thought is a keen one at our present time, in which we are both deeply forgetful of the nature of a Christian monarchy and unconversant with, even bewildered by, the deep natural feelings that might be excited within us by the Queen’s passing. As O’Donovan writes, ‘Western civilization finds itself the heir of political institutions and traditions which it values without any clear idea why, or to what extent, it values them.’2 In giving a thoughtful Christian account of such institutions and traditions, we can give an account of our polities to themselves and bring to light deep truths about humanity and society that have largely passed beyond explicit or conscious memory.

Monarchy is an institution with a complicated biblical history, the subject of both solemn warnings and the greatest promises. In 1 Samuel 8, after the elders of Israel appealed to Samuel to establish a king over them to judge them like all the nations, the Lord instructed Samuel to warn the people concerning the character of such a ruler. While they desired and expected such a king to represent them and to act on their behalf, they would find themselves oppressed and subjugated by the king they established. However, in 2 Samuel 7, the Davidic monarchy is the recipient and the object of the most remarkable covenant promises: the Lord would be as a father to David’s offspring and David’s offspring would be as the Lord’s son. The king, for better or—as was sadly more often the case—for worse, summed up the people in himself and the people were blessed or judged on account of him.

While Israel petitioned for a king like the nations, the monarchy that the Lord graciously established within it was a demythologization of kingship, challenging ideologies of kingship that prevailed in the ancient near east. In The Beginning of Politics: Power in the Biblical Book of Samuel, Moshe Halbertal and Stephen Holmes write:

Though there was certainly a spectrum of monarchic ideologies in the ancient Near East, kingship was not generally perceived as a historical institution that was consciously chosen at a certain critical moment in time out of the imperatives of communal life and in full recognition of the onerous burdens of taxation and conscription that would inevitably be imposed by a human sovereign as the price of organizing collective defense. Elsewhere, for the most part, monarchy was understood as part of the permanent furniture of the cosmos itself…. In the canonized scribal accounts of the ancient Near Eastern kings and their deeds, the deification of kingship and general veneration of political authority meant that an unblinking look into the moral trespasses, ambiguous virtues, and personal shortcomings of monarchs and emperors was exceedingly rare.3

Scripture undermined this vision of kingship, presenting us with profoundly human portraits of even the most celebrated of kings. It opposed the divinizing of men such as the Pharaohs by revealing that kings were not gods and, in the book of Judges, underlined the fact that true sovereignty belonged to God alone. Halbertal and Holmes observe that the conditions for true political thought emerged when a third alternative to the positions of ‘The king is a God’ and ‘God is the king’ emerged, namely, ‘the king is not a God’.

Such a vision of kingship is already expressed in Deuteronomy 17:14-20:

When you come to the land that the Lord your God is giving you, and you possess it and dwell in it and then say, ‘I will set a king over me, like all the nations that are around me,’ you may indeed set a king over you whom the Lord your God will choose. One from among your brothers you shall set as king over you. You may not put a foreigner over you, who is not your brother. Only he must not acquire many horses for himself or cause the people to return to Egypt in order to acquire many horses, since the Lord has said to you, ‘You shall never return that way again.’ And he shall not acquire many wives for himself, lest his heart turn away, nor shall he acquire for himself excessive silver and gold.

And when he sits on the throne of his kingdom, he shall write for himself in a book a copy of this law, approved by the Levitical priests. And it shall be with him, and he shall read in it all the days of his life, that he may learn to fear the Lord his God by keeping all the words of this law and these statutes, and doing them, that his heart may not be lifted up above his brothers, and that he may not turn aside from the commandment, either to the right hand or to the left, so that he may continue long in his kingdom, he and his children, in Israel.

The sort of monarchy that Deuteronomy advocates is marked by its pointed submission to the sovereignty of the Lord and to his Law. The sovereignty of the king is one in which the people are to know their own sovereignty: he must be one of them. His sovereignty must not be self-aggrandizing, nor can he exalt himself in pride over his brothers. As his sovereignty is submitted to the Lord, as he is observant of God’s Law, and as he humbly serves his brethren, his throne will be established.

While the Scriptures expose the humanity of kingship and strip it of its pretentions to divinity, the vision of kingship that emerges within it is a more profound and enchanting one than any of the petty god kings of the nations could represent. In Psalm 8:3-8, King David, reflecting upon his exaltation to the rule of the Lord’s people, marvels:

When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place,
what is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him?
Yet you have made him a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned him with glory and honor.
You have given him dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under his feet,
all sheep and oxen, and also the beasts of the field,
the birds of the heavens, and the fish of the sea, whatever passes along the paths of the seas.

Elsewhere, in Psalm 23, David, the great shepherd of Israel, speaks of the Lord as his shepherd. We typically sing these psalms forgetful of the fact that their author was Israel’s king, as if the speaker was simply a generic everyman with whom we can all simply identify. Yet, even in this forgetfulness, we are acting in terms of a deep truth about the biblical vision of monarchy. David was chosen as an everyman, as Psalm 78:70-71 testifies: ‘He chose David his servant and took him from the sheepfolds; from following the nursing ewes he brought him to shepherd Jacob his people, Israel his inheritance.’

The apotheoses of men in philosophies of divine kingship do not offer what such texts offer. In philosophies of divine kingship, certain men are exalted above all their fellows, so much so that they become utterly separated from them in their nature. Yet, in Scripture, in the exaltation of their humble brother to kingship, Israel is supposed to recognize their own exaltation and their participation in the rule of a king who, as their brother, can truly represent them. This representation is especially evident as the king bows before the Lord. Nowhere is the truth of representation more powerfully and remarkably manifested than in the work of the Son of David who in his incarnation took our flesh and experienced our sufferings and trials so that, in his exaltation, we also might be exalted.

It is easy to regard the monarchy as an irrational mystification of the true character of politics, yet in the death of our monarch and sister in Christ HM Queen Elizabeth II, I am once again sobered by the clarifying and demystifying force of the institution. While the British monarch is not the heir of the Davidic covenant, in such a monarchy we are nonetheless still recalled to the fact of human sovereignty that the Davidic king manifested. In reflecting upon the Queen’s coronation, C.S. Lewis wrote:

You know, over here people did not get that fairy-tale feeling about the coronation. What impressed most who saw it was the fact that the Queen herself appeared to be quite overwhelmed by the sacramental side of it. Hence, in the spectators, a feeling of (one hardly knows how to describe it) — awe — pity — pathos — mystery.

The pressing of that huge, heavy crown on that small, young head becomes a sort of symbol of the situation of humanity itself: humanity called by God to be his vice-regent and high priest on earth, yet feeling so inadequate. As if he said, ‘In my inexorable love I shall lay upon the dust that you are glories and dangers and responsibilities beyond your understanding.’

Do you see what I mean? One has missed the whole point unless one feels that we have all been crowned and that coronation is somehow, if splendid, a tragic splendour.4

A humble monarch, who experiences such awe in the divine gift of sovereignty, can grant her people something far greater than evocations of magical childhood tales, fantasies, and memories of make-believe worlds. In and with such a monarch we can behold the wonder of the human condition itself and the staggering dominion that has been granted to the children of men. An appreciation of the representative power of a humble monarch helps to explain something of how dignifying and elevating an encounter with such a sovereign can be: as we are seen by such a sovereign, we can also see ourselves as beneficiaries of and even participants in their sovereignty.

Monarchy humanizes sovereignty. We can easily fancy sovereignty to be a matter of abstract ideologies, impersonal structures, and technocratic systems of power—Man is not to be found behind the curtain, just the machinery of power for which we must struggle for control. Yet in the living symbol of the monarch the theological source of sovereignty is disclosed. A human being it is who is the sovereign: a man, a woman, made in God’s image as structures, power, and systems are not. So too is disclosed the mortality of all human societies. Nations are mortal at heart, though perhaps modestly gesturing towards immortality as they last beyond one lifetime. They pass as a legacy from one generation to the next. They flourish. And they fade, to be, perhaps, raised again on the last day. Monarchy invites us to regard the truth of a nation’s existence less in constitutional documents, founding ideologies, and institutional forms than within the symbolic frame provided by births, marriages, deaths, and the life of a family.

In reading the Song of Songs, both Jews and Christians have commonly ascended through allegory, recognizing God’s relationship with his people within the song of Solomon and his bride. Yet biblical principles of sovereignty invite descending interpretative movements too: reading the Song, every man and wife should know themselves to be a king and queen in real though modest realms, rejoicing in the elevating mysteries of each other and of the divine gift of sovereignty.

The dignifying reality of sovereignty can easily be forgotten when we become narrowly preoccupied with the exercise of power. The latter has its place and importance, but it can so easily be impatient with, or even despise and disregard the former on account of its concern for elaborate ceremony, sober majesty, etiquette, formality, propriety, and giving of honour, and its common reticence in the actual forceful exercise of executive power. Such sovereignty seems to be obsessed with appearances, while utterly failing to get necessary things done. Yet the symbolic power of a sovereign and the solemn rituals and ceremonies and elevated actions through which a monarch is established and with which a monarchy surrounds itself are constant reminders of the awesome and dignifying mystery of the divine gift of sovereignty to men and the gravity with which it must be conducted. In acting soberly as a living symbol of this sovereignty, comporting herself and treating others in accord with the weightiness of her office, HM Queen Elizabeth II invited all her subjects to live in light of the mystery of the sovereignty God has given to the sons of Adam and the daughters of Eve.

For a woman in nominal possession of such vast powers, perhaps few things left strangers to the British monarchy more confused than the fact that the Queen never really exercised them to get her way. Indeed, the Queen was expected to remain strictly politically neutral, not even casting a vote. Although we might speculate as to her political convictions, preferences, and desires, they were not openly declared. The Queen’s importance was not as the leader of a political or social party, but as a unifying representative and figurehead of the family to which all her subjects belong, no matter how fraught our relations, constantly recalling us to the duty and the love by which a people must be sustained.

Such political neutrality might strike many as synonymous with political inconsequentiality, yet in the absence of more overt exercise of power, monarchy can more clearly manifest the symbolic gravity of sovereignty itself and the attractive strength of its spectacles. Besides this, through her quiet dignity and self-possession, the Queen exhibited the power of calm presence as itself a mode of leadership, even apart from self-assertive action. Coupled with the exemplary character of her virtues, the potent nature of such leadership has commonly been referred to in people’s tributes. In whatever station of life we might find ourselves, we all have much to learn from reflection upon such modes of power and leadership. Often the greatest power we can exercise will be in quiet mastery of ourselves; in virtuous, self-effacing, and dutiful service; in respect for and dignity in our offices and vocations, and honouring others in theirs. Sovereigns in whatever realms God has placed us, we must also humbly recall people to the source and the dignifying mystery of all sovereignty in our behaviour.

As, following the death of the Queen, we feel the frustration of our stumbling inarticulacy before the mysterious realities to which it awakens us, it will be in returning to the Scriptures and the Christian tradition that we will be best equipped to understand the humbling weight of sovereignty that has been laid upon the shoulders of the children of Adam. The sovereignty of fallen humanity is mortal and fleeting, a fact appropriately contemplated in the death of such a long-reigning monarch. For one whose reign involved such great changes, HM the Queen is a human focal point for considering all that is passing, a renewed summons to the love and duty needed to sustain a nation, and a humbling reminder that only the reign of the risen King whom she served will endure forever.

Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham) is adjunct Senior Fellow at Theopolis and is one of the participants in the Mere Fidelity podcast.. He blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria and tweets using @zugzwanged

  1. Oliver O’Donovan, The Ways of Judgment (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2005), xii ↩︎
  2. Ways of Judgment, xiii ↩︎
  3. Moshe Halbertal and Stephen Holmes, The Beginning of Politics: Power in the Biblical Book of Samuel (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2017), 5 ↩︎
  4. C.S. Lewis, The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis, Volume 3: Narnia, Cambridge, and Joy, 1950–1963 (HarperOne, 2007), 343 ↩︎
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