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The Queen and the Church

In the third of a series of articles on the life and reign of the Queen, from the archives of the Church of Ireland Gazette, Karen Bushby recalls Her Majesty’s formal role in the leadership of the Church of England.

Her Majesty the Queen was Head of the Church of England, a responsibility she never wavered from and which she carried out with a diligence, indeed as passion, born of her own deep faith.

Church was central to her life, but, as any stressed bishop or over–worked rector will confirm, being head of any diocese or parish, let along the entire Church of England, has its stresses and strains, some of which become evident as we scroll through the pages of the Church of Ireland Gazette during the years of Her Majesty’s lengthy reign.

But we begin with happy news. After the loss of their King, the nation looked forward with joy to the Coronation of its new Queen in 1953. The service in Westminster Abbey, was to be televised – a Royal first.

On April 3 1953, the Gazette reported that Belfast boys Dermot McConnell, 15, and Edmund Officer, 14, were to sing in the choir in Westminster Abbey at the coronation. Both were senior boys in St Anne’s Cathedral Choir, Belfast, under choirmaster Capt Charles Brennan, and would have three weeks’ intensive rehearsal at the Royal College of Music.

Two weeks later we learned that two choristers from St Patrick’s National Cathedral would also sing in the Coronation Choir. Norman G Williams, a Winstanley Scholar of St Patrick’s Cathedral, was ‘well known for a long time past in his lovely singing of the great Messiah soprano solos,’ while Kenneth Turney, a Monitor of the Choir, had an ’excellent treble solo voice too.’ The boys were accompanied by London by Dr. Hewson, organist of St Patrick’s Cathedral and Professor of Music in Dublin University.

The May 29 1953 issue led with a front page commentary on the Coronation, headlined ‘God Save the Queen.’

On the way to the Abbey for the Coronation. Photo credit: Library and Archives Canada.
On the way to the Abbey for the Coronation. Photo credit: Library and Archives Canada.

“There is New Testament authority for any Christian who feels led to pray for Queen Elizabeth II on her Coronation Day,” it stated. “‘I exhort, therefore, first of all that supplications, prayers, intercessions, thanksgivings, be made for all men; for kings and all that are in high place; that we may lead a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and gravity.’

“On a great occasion the mind can give way to generous impulses and lay aside the meticulous caution in the use of language, which marks the attitude of the politician who may have his words thrown back at him out of their emotional context. Thus there will be, we imagine, as much, if not more, prayer for the young Queen in the Republic of Ireland as in Northern Ireland. 


“Time changes emphasis. Few people would contend now to establish the divine right of kings. Where royalty still reigns, duty rather than right is the watchword. When Queen Elizabeth II is crowned, one further step will be taken in accordance with the teaching of the Church Catechism on the obligation ‘to do my duty in that state of life unto which it shall please God to call me.’

“The course of history has made the call of God to her inescapable except by way of renunciation. Her Majesty has recognised this in public utterance, and has asked often for the prayers of her people. The British Commonwealth of Nations may well thank God that it has a Queen who does not sit lightly to the claims of religion.

“It is her custom to worship God on the Lord’s Day, wherever that day may find her… One thing for which we can all pray is that the Queen may be granted the power to worship God in the stillness of her heart in the midst of multitudes.

“Britain’s Queen has come to the throne in the ripeness of youthful motherhood. This is one of the things which will help her always to ‘possess the hearts of her people.’ But just because the British people are intensely interested in the home life of their Queen there is need to pray that she may not be prevented by public duties and popular importunity from enjoying the pleasures of family life. 

“One thing above all others for which to pray is that her reign may be a reign of peace, that she may be saved from the sorrow of seeing a generation of her contemporaries losing their lives in war… May she ever have wise counsellors capable of interpreting national policy in the light of universal principles. The Coronation is a dedication and a consecration. It is a time for the stirring of the spirit in the lives of all sorts and conditions of men, a time for prayer ‘for all that are in high place.’”


On June 5 1953, the Gazette compared Coronation Service to that of George I, stating: “Thanks should be given for the spirit of worship and for the sense of true dedication which had ‘shone out so wonderfully through the ancient and traditional pageantry and ritual.’ 

“The feastings and the junketings described in Archbishop King’s book have vanished, leaving the stress where it ought to be, on the sacramental centre of the Service in Westminster Abbey. The suspicions and the political undercurrents which shadowed the crowning Service of a monarch of England who spoke no English have no counterpart today to those which caused anxiety when George I was made king. 

“No longer is the coronation the ’raree–show’ which Horace Walpole called it, but a genuine service of devotion, enriched by the Queen’s own call for the prayers of her people. 

“We who shared in that service as we listened in our homes have entered into its spiritual content. We have seen in our mind’s eye, as we have heard the service, the anointing of the Queen as the outward and visible sign of her stablishing with the Gifts of the Spirit. We have seen her receive the Scriptures, ‘the Royal Law’, she has been given the ring wedding her to her people; she has been given the Rod with the Dove of Mercy; she has received the Orb symbolising the dominion of the Cross over the World. We have seen the glittering majesty of her crowning, and the final simple and sublime consummation of worship, when she knelt with her husband to take the Holy Communion.

“It is these spiritual gifts which have been at the centre of the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. Its message has been one of dedication to God and to good. There is no one today who can feel that Coronation Service to be other than a humble acknowledgment of the rule of God.”

Not everyone could be in the Abbey for the service, or even watch it on television as TVs were something of a luxury at the time, but parishes across the Church of Ireland ensured it was celebrated. On Trinity Sunday, special services was held in Christ Church Cathedral in Lisburn, Connor Diocese, to mark the Coronation. The Dean, the Very Rev EH Lewis Crosby, read special intercessory prayers and preached the sermon. The choir sang items including the Te Deum to the setting composed by Dr Vaughan Williams for the Coronation of King George VI.

The Gazette reported that the very large congregation included the British Ambassador, representatives of British, Canadian and Australian Embassies, the US Minister, Greek Minister, Dr HW Parke, representing Trinity College Dublin; representatives of Mothers’ Union and the Friendly Brothers of St Patrick, St John Ambulance, the Actors’ Church Union and Messrs WD and HO Wills, Alexandra College.


In November 4 1955 we learned that Her Majesty, along with the Duke of Edinburgh, the Queen Mother and Princess Margaret attended a ceremony of rededication of the Lambeth Palace Chapel on October 19. Lambeth Palace is the home of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Head of the Anglican Communion. The dedication service was necessary, we read, because the Chapel had been ‘reduced to a shell’ by German bombs on May 10 1941.

It was a time of rebuilding in the capital after the horrors of war. On May 30 1958, the Gazette carried a report on the re–dedication of St Bride’s in Fleet Street following incendiary bombs dropped in 1940. The church, built by Sir Christopher Wren in 1672, was re–dedicated by Her Majesty the Queen.

Queen Elizabeth was making a little bit of history in 1961, as it was reported on April 6 that year that for the first time in the history of the Australian Church, an Archbishop was knighted.

The report stated that Sir Reginald Halse was ‘believed to be the oldest living Diocesan in the Church of England.’ He had served a five–year curacy in the slums of London, two years in a ‘difficult parish,’ and moved to Australia as Warden of the Bush Brotherhood of St Barnabas (appointed by the Bishop of North Queensland), a role he occupied for 12 years. We read: “Those were the hard days in the north when transport was irregular, roads unmade and the population sparser than even today.” Sir Reginald went on to serve for 18 years as Bishop of a ‘difficult country diocese’ and 18 years as Archbishop of Brisbane. Such service to her church clearly caught the eye of Her Majesty!


On May 28 1971 it was reported that Her Majesty had authorised a change in the Royal Charter of the Corporation of the Sons of the Clergy – the first such change since the Royal Charter was granted to the Corporation by Charles II in 1678.

The news was announced by the Archbishop of Canterbury, President of the Corporation, and the change meant the work of the Corporation would now be extended to include clergy and their dependants of the Scottish Episcopal Church, of the Church of Ireland, and clergy from the United Kingdom and Ireland who were serving in the mission field.

An advert for the Corporation from the 1980s.
An advert for the Corporation from the 1980s.

The Gazette stated: “Until now, the scope of this ancient charity has been restricted to the Church of England and the Church in Wales. In 1970, £85,000 was distributed to help clergy and their dependants who were in need.”

History was again being made at the General Synod of the Church of England in 1972 when, for the first time in its existence, the General Synod decided to present a new canon to Queen Elizabeth. The Gazette (February 25 1972) explained the new canon: “This allows the admission of non–Anglicans to receive the Holy Communion provided they are in good standing in their own churches. But the canon also sets out that if they received regularly over a long period, the minister is required to point out to them the normal requirements of the Church of England regarding communicants.”

Dean John Bond, representing the Church of Ireland, attends Church of England General Synod 2015.
Dean John Bond, representing the Church of Ireland, attends Church of England General Synod 2015.


As we noted earlier, being a Head of anything brings certain stresses and at times dilemmas, and Her Majesty faced such a dilemma early in 1983 in relation to the appointment of Bishops.

The Gazette reported on February 25 1983 that the Archbishop of York, Dr Stuart Blanch, holder of the second ranking position in the Church of England, would retired that summer. 

“Announcing his retirement, Dr Blanch said it had ‘nothing to do’ with his state of health. It was simply that he himself felt 65 was a better age to retire than 70, the mandatory retiring age for bishops of the Church of England. ’I would rather retire when I am still fit and can take on other responsibilities than go on until people say ‘when is the old man going to retire?’ he said.”

The announcement had apparently sparked off intensive speculation within the Church of England about who his successor would be and how much influence the British Prime Minister would be able to exert on his appointment.

“Since 1977, the Church of England has been able to exercise a decisive influence on the appointment of its bishops – who technically are nominated by Queen Elizabeth and are still by a legal fiction that is shortly to be abolished ‘elected’ by the Dean and Chapter of the Diocese,” the Gazette stated. 

“That year saw the setting up of the Crown Appointments Commission… It presents the name of two suitable candidates to the Prime Minister, and the convention is that she [Margaret Thatcher] then presents the first of these to Queen Elizabeth for actual nomination. But when Dr Graham Leonard was appointed Bishop of London in 1981, there was widespread suspicion that his was the second name on the list and that Mrs Thatcher made sure he was appointed.

“This was thought to reflect agitation within the diocese rather than the fact that Dr Leonard’s outlook on political and social matters is more congenial to Mrs Thatcher than that of many other Anglican Prelates. 

“As a result there is now anxiety lest Mrs Thatcher might block the appointment of a candidate like the Rt Rev David Sheppard, who succeeded Dr Blanch as Bishop of Liverpool in 1975. His radical views cannot be expected to arouse much enthusiasm within the Conservative Party.”

Those historians reading will know that in fact, scientist Lord John Habgood succeeded Dr Blanch as Archbishop of York, a role he occupied until 1995.


On April 10 1987, the Gazette carried a lengthy article by the Rev AM Dutton reflecting the Maundy Thursday tradition. He wrote: “On Maundy Thursday, April 16 1685, our Gracious King James II wash’d wip’d and kiss’d the feet of 52 poor men with wonderful humility.”  This, he wrote, was historically the last occasion when any king or queen of England did such a thing – although we should say that washing of the feet on Maundy Thursday still continues in churches on this island.

Mr Dutton carries on to reflect: “With the Accession of Queen Elizabeth, changes were made. In her imitable way, she has broken with tradition in some respects – The parishioners now include women and the Queen goes on ‘circuit…’  But how far we have gone since the ‘washing of feet?’” he asks, adding that this act expresses Christ’s command to love each other. “The Queen, in her way at this service, does just that – loves her people,” Mr Dutton concludes.

The Lambeth Conference normally takes place every 10 years, since it was first held in 1867. In July 1988, the conference was making the news in The Church of Ireland Gazette, and not just for the debates and resolutions that were to follow.

On July 8 that year, in its preview of the Conference, the Gazette listed 12 ‘firsts,’ including first time for women’s presentations; first time for youth consultants; first three–week wives’ conference and according to Susan Young, news editor of the Church Times: “A touch to crown it all perhaps – Queen Elizabeth II has invited delegates to a Garden Party at Buckingham Palace!”

On July 29, at the conclusion of the Conference, the Gazette reported: “There was a Eucharist at St Paul’s Cathedral which was followed by lunch at Lambeth Palace. Here the delegates had an opportunity to view the new Rose Garden created by Archbishop Runcie out of an area previously overgrown. Then on to Buckingham Palace for a Garden Party Hosted by HM Queen Elizabeth and His Royal Highness The Prince Philip. Delegates arrived back… in the evening looking rather tired and weary…”


On August 5 1988, we learned more about the Royal Garden Party: “As Big Ben across the River Thames was striking three, conference participants were reboarding coaches and beginning the short ride past the Houses of Parliament and Westminster Abbey, to Buckingham Palace for the garden party hosted by Queen Elizabeth. 

“On the dot at four, the royal party emerged – the Queen and her husband, the Duke of Edinburgh, their son and daughter–in–law, the Prince and Princess of Wales, and the Queen’s sister, Princess Margaret. 

“To facilitate them, each royal had a Lambeth escort – the Archbishop of Canterbury was paired with the Queen, the Archbishop of Armagh with Prince Philip, the Archbishop of Cape Town with Prince Charles, the ACC general–secretary with Princess Diana.”

The weather had to get a mention of course! “The day’s meteorological luck finally ran out while royal tea (and other liquids) and sweets and savouries were being served beneath a very long tent at one side of the Palace’s back yard. (One participant said he was sure something would be amiss weather–wise when he saw the royals appear with umbrellas.) 

“The heavens opened and a soaking rain pelted down for a quarter of an hour or so. Bishops and others squeezed together under the tea tent, trying not to spill their beverages or make a mess of their munchies. In good Titanic tradition, the band played on, under its tent.”

This writer certainly cannot be accused of a failure to bring a scene to life! He/she continued: “The rain over, the sun returned and some guests resumed their strolls around the spacious grounds – some even discovered where the pink flamingos hang out. By six, participants were boarding coaches for the two–hour trip back to the university – many tired, most quite pleased, some a mite awed.”

In August 1990, the Gazette recorded that the Rt Rev Dr George Carey had been appointed by Her Majesty to succeed the Most Rev and Rt Hon Dr Robert Runcie as Archbishop of Canterbury at the start of the following year.


And it was Dr George Carey, who preached at a special service in St Paul’s Cathedral, London, in September 2001 in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. The service was attended by Queen Elizabeth and church and political leaders. The Gazette reported that immediately after the tragedies, Archbishop Carey had joined American priests from the Episcopal Church in prayer at St Matthew’s Church, Westminster.

On a happier note, the following year congregations around the world were keen to get their hands on ecumenical worship resources produced by Churches Together in Britain and Ireland to mark the Queen’s Golden Jubilee. The Gazette of May 3 2002 reported: “The Archbishops of Canterbury and York have commended the resources, for which orders have poured in from all over the world. In Britain and Northern Ireland the material has been purchased by local councils, the offices of Lords Lieutenant, cathedrals, parish churches, local Churches Together groups and country villages. Some will use the material as it is and others will use it to compose their own services. Schools are adapting the resources for their assemblies. 

“The Archbishop of Canterbury has said: ’Churches Together have compiled a number of imaginative resources for use in connection with the celebration of the Queen’s Golden Jubilee. The materials, touching on the themes of thanksgiving, community, service, commitment and jubilee, look back with thanksgiving and point us forward in prayer and expectation to the future.’” 

The booklet comprised resources, an Order of Service, Coronation symbols, hymns, music and original line drawings. There were also extracts from broadcasts made by the Queen on her twenty–first birthday and at the previous Christmas. 

CTBI’s Coordinating Secretary for Church Life, the Rev Jean Mayland, was reported as saying: “In the aftermath of the death of Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, it seems that there will be a desire on the part of the public to show their affection and esteem for the Queen who has also served the nation so faithfully and suffered such personal losses in her Jubilee Year.”

To mark the 50th anniversary of the Coronation, a service was held in Westminster Abbey on June 2 2003. It was attended by members of the Royal Family, people who had attended the 1953 service, and 1,000 members of the public who were successful in a ballot for tickets.


Her Majesty the Queen and His Royal Highness the Duke of Edinburgh returned to Westminster Abbey to celebrate their diamond wedding anniversary in November 2007 – they were married on Thursday November 20 1947 and the anniversary service was held a day early to allow them to leave for a return visit to Malta, their first home as a married couple. The service was attended by members of the Royal Family, and the Archbishop of Armagh, the Most Rev Alan Harper, was also present.


The Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh were welcomed to the Abbey by the Dean of Westminster, the Very Revd Dr John Hall. In his address, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Rev and Rt Hon Dr Rowan Williams, said: “Every marriage is a public event, but some couples have to live more than others in the full light of publicity. We are probably more aware than ever these days of the pressure that brings. But it also means we can give special thanks for the very public character of the witness and the sign offered to us by this marriage and what it has meant to the nation and the Commonwealth over the decades.”

That marriage lasted more than 73 years, when on April 9 2021, in the midst of the Covid–19 pandemic, Prince Philip died. His funeral, on April 21, was held, not in Westminster Abbey, but quietly in the Chapel at Windsor Castle.  

The Gazette editorial after the funeral read: “Amongst the pageantry of the funeral of Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, it was the solitary image of Queen Elizabeth, mourning and masked, in a pew alone in Windsor Chapel, that many found most enduring. Mourning the loss of her husband of 73 years, her consort, her ‘strength and stay,’ she was bound by regulations to grieve in solitude and solemnity, in the glare of the world’s gaze.”

How appropriate it is that the funeral service for Her Majesty will take place in the church that she loved so much, and where she marked so many key events in her life – Westminster Abbey.

Photo credit: Alison Day.
Photo credit: Alison Day.

With thanks to the editor of the Church of Ireland Gazette for copyright reproductions.

Readers may also be interested in yesterday’s article on the Queen and the Commonwealth.


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