Sermon given at the Judges Service on Monday 1 October 2012

1 October 2012 at 11:00 am

Reverend Andrew Tremlett, Canon of Westminster and Rector of St Margaret’s Church 

Defender of the Faith

It is an exquisite depiction of religious faith. Rather stereotyped, rather formal, but undeniably pious. The young couple are kneeling, facing one another at prie-dieus, their hands clasped in reverence, their prayer-books open before them.

You might not, perhaps, be surprised at her 23 years of age, but almost certainly, the craftsman has added a few years of gravitas to the tender 18-year old king.

Of course, the stained-glass window you can see next door in St Margaret’s Church, where I am also Rector, was created some years after the event it commemorated: the ‘event’ being the engagement of Henry VIII to his older brother’s widow, the beautiful and pious Katherine of Aragon in 1509.

For some reason the window, crafted in the Netherlands, was not completed until 1526, but which time the world had moved on in so many ways.

By this time, both King Henry VIII and his Queen Katherine had been named ‘Fidei Defensores’, Defenders of the Faith. The honour was first bestowed on Henry by Pope Leo X in 1521 in recognition of his authorship of ‘Defence of the Seven Sacraments’, which was regarded as a bulwark against Martin Luther and the early Reformation. Two years later, Katherine was accorded the same title, again for opposing Luther.

This was the start of the tradition of the English monarchy being styled ‘Defender of the Faith’. But there was a problem, evident with the luxury of hindsight.

By 1526, the year the window was completed, Henry had already fallen hopelessly in love with Anne Boleyn and was on a collision course with Rome. And the Defender of the Faith was soon to become the chief protagonist in splitting from the Old Church in an attempt to justify his marital proclivities.

So Henry kept the title, Defender of the Faith; Mary repatriated it to the Catholic Church and Elizabeth set it back firmly in the Reformation model.

For better or for worse, the title has stuck. It is still used to describe our own monarch - Queen Elizabeth the Second, by the Grace of God Queen of this Realm and of Her other Realms and Territories, Head of the Commonwealth, Defender of the Faith.

So, is this just a Royal fossil, a residual vestige of a by-gone era, an empty vessel without content or meaning? Or has its reworking as Defender of faith in our own generation associated it with a particular view of multiculturalism?

Neither of these interpretations will do. And to illustrate why, I want to compare two short extracts from speeches made by her Majesty nearly 60 years apart.

The first comes from Christmas 1952. It is the first Queen’s Speech ever broadcast. She is Monarch, but not yet crowned, addressing both the Nation and the Commonwealth.

You will be keeping it [the Coronation] as a holiday; but I want to ask you all, whatever your religion may be, to pray for me on that day - to pray that God may give me wisdom and strength to carry out the solemn promises I shall be making.

Two things stand out. The first is that prominent among the solemn promises referred to is that the Queen would uphold, maintain and defend the Protestant religion of the Church of England as the Established Church. She will become for her lifetime Fidei Defensatrix, Defender of the Faith.

But perhaps the second point is even more striking. ‘I want to ask you all, whatever your religion may be, to pray for me on that day’. This was a broadcast to the Commonwealth, that tapestry of nations which look to the Queen as head of state or to the historic institutions of Parliament as their inspiration.

These now 54 countries contain a multitude of faith communities, ancient and venerable, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhist, animist. Queen Elizabeth was asking them all for their prayers. And, let’s remember, the year was 1952. Long before interfaith dialogue and multiculturalism had been articulated.

But this was not a one-off, rather it is a pattern played out every year here in the Abbey at the Commonwealth Observance Day, when all the world faiths are represented and participate in the United Kingdom’s largest Inter-Faith event.

And then wind forward sixty years to February of this year. Her Majesty met with world faith representatives at Lambeth Palace, the ancient seat in London of the Archbishop of Canterbury. This was an historic occasion at the very beginning of the Diamond Jubilee celebrations and an opportunity to say something of particular significance.

Again, a short passage:

Here at Lambeth Palace we should remind ourselves of the significant position of the Church of England in our nation’s life. The concept of our established Church is occasionally misunderstood and, I believe, commonly under-appreciated. Its role is not to defend Anglicanism to the exclusion of other religions. Instead, the Church has a duty to protect the free practice of all faiths in this country.

We can see how carefully those two themes, adumbrated in the 1952 speech, are revisited. Her Majesty reminds us of the significant position of the Church of England as the Established Church – her role as Defender of the Faith as people will instinctively expect.

But swiftly she moves on to another dimension of Defending the Faith which many Anglicans and other traditions are also comfortable with, and which relates to what  is often called the public sphere. Taking seriously our responsibility to create a clear space, an opening, a forum for other voices to be heard. The ‘role is not to defend Anglicanism to the exclusion of other religions. Instead, the Church has a duty to protect the free practice of all faiths in this country’.

In other words, this is a foray into the vexed question of the extent to which the public sphere is to be regarded as religion-free or whether we accept that our cultural history is part of the texture of contemporary life. Defending the place of faith is simply giving voice to an inherent part of British life. Watch the Olympic Opening ceremony if you want a good example.

So from a pious window in the Parish Church of the Palace of Westminster and a near neighbour of the Supreme Court, ‘Defender of the Faith’ has come a long way.

The meaning has mutated, to say the least: Catholic against Protestant; Protestant against Catholic; embracer of world faiths and now advocate of the religious dimension of the public sphere.

But now a final thought. The received wisdom of cultural secularism is that of a decreasing role for religion in the United Kingdom, as evidenced by every census since 1851 – doubtless to be repeated this year - and paralleled by declining popular engagement in organised politics and trades unionism, withering on the vine.

But the global perspective is strikingly different, and provides evidence for what the sociologists have coined ‘European Exceptionalism’.

Far from being a model for the way forward, from this perspective the Western European public sphere, emptied of faith, looks more like a blind alley, or a cul-de-sac of unsustainable government intervention in personal life, squeezing the life out of authentic communities by the dead hand of bureaucracy.

Whether we agree or not, this view holds that as Western governments are no longer able to sustain their presence on the ground, it is community associations – in practice, overwhelmingly religious – which will fill the gap, or in many cases, re-take their seats at the table in health, education and welfare.

A different pattern will emerge, one which will be equally troubling to established religion as it will be to radical secularism, and the strength of the monarchy, as Defender of the Faith, will rest in its ability to re-imagine the role as the religious landscape is transformed.

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