In a surprisingly sympathetic portrait of Queen Elizabeth first published in The New Yorker May 20, 2002, the notoriously acerbic British novelist Martin Amis observed that “monarchical emotion is emotion hugely magnified. It asks for a detachment that Queen Elizabeth only imperfectly commands.”
That is precisely right. The late queen had heart in abundance that belied the often solemn visage caught by media hounds and disgruntled republicans. And that heart was shaped and informed by an abiding and deeply ingrained spirituality.
I think Elizabeth II was in her leadership, her modeling, her unsurpassed commitment to duty, a saint.
Now the act of “sainting” is not a uniquely Roman Catholic exercise or prerogative. Other churches in the apostolic and sacramental tradition—the Anglican and Orthodox—do likewise. Although Anglicans are not bound to honour the saints, invoke their intercession with God or acknowledge the papal jurisdiction in conferring official sainthood on a candidate, they do attach significant importance to the “great cloud of witnesses,” as the Letter to the Hebrews calls the saints.
Each of the provinces of the Anglican Communion is autonomous and free to pick its own holy ones; unsurprisingly then, there’s more than one calendar of Anglican saints. The Church of England and Anglican Church of Canada include in their lists not only many of those historical figures sainted by the Roman Catholics, but many others who have not been added to the canon over the centuries. Both churches include such eminent Anglicans as the 17th century Metaphysical poet George Herbert and—always a subject of controversy—Charles Stuart, beheaded by Oliver Cromwell, lord protector of the commonwealth and regicide extraordinaire. Among those in the Church of England’s calendar, but not in it that of its Canadian counterpart, are Oxford scholar-bishop Charles Gore; the slum worker and sister of artist and designer William Morris, Isabella Gilmore; the Pre-Raphaelite poet Christina Georgina Rossetti; Samuel Johnson, the towering man of letters; and the social and political activist Eglantyne Jebb.
As you can appreciate, there are undoubtedly Anglicans of a more republican bent of mind who will wonder about the inclusion of Charles I in their catalogue of the holy. Similarly, zealous disciples of the late Iron Lady, the Baroness Thatcher (arguably the most theologically conversant prime minister since William Gladstone) may be disinclined to admire Anglicans of a socialist mould; Anglican readers keen on a postmodern sensibility may be disposed to view the devotional poetry of Anglican saints through an unsympathetic lens; and founders of orders or congregations of women religious may be viewed by some of their later coreligionists as unliberated neo-feminists.
Fair game. After all, inclusion in the canon is not dependent on a high approval score. Saints are products of their culture—historical beings, flawed pilgrims en route to wholeness. Because saints have given themselves over to that “mystery, that perplexity and frustration” which psychiatrist Robert Coles calls God, they speak to our collective need for meaning that transcends history, for perpetuity, and to be “alone with the Alone.” The saints are not an antidote to our agnosticism; they are a still point in the whirligig that is life.
In my view, Elizabeth II was an exemplar of holiness, an icon of hope in an often dark and darkening landscape. She wasn’t a visionary or a mystic; she wasn’t a reformer or a prophet. But she was a steady and wise constant in the lives of countless millions and she was a selfless servant devoted to her anointed task.