She was so young and the task so enormous. Thrust onto the world stage in one of the most visible positions of leadership at the tender age of 25, Elizabeth II was crowned Queen of the British Empire at Westminster Abbey on June 5, 1952.
God in his providence has a way of moving us in directions we could scarcely have imagined in childhood. So it was with Elizabeth. She was not born to be Queen, but when her uncle unexpectedly abdicated as king, she became “heiress presumptive.
From that moment, her life was set as one of wholehearted service to the Empire. With the exception of Queen Victoria, she is now the longest serving monarch in British history. Her reign as Queen has encompassed 12 British Prime Ministers, 10 Canadian Prime Ministers, 4 recessions, several wars, technological revolution, social upheaval, cultural ferment and the transformation of the British Empire into a Commonwealth of Nations. Through it all, her resolve to carry out her duties diligently, conscientiously and with integrity has not faltered.
Elizabeth, the 13-year-old, who falls in love with a young navy cadet named Philip and becomes determined to marry him even though her parents prefer wealthier English aristocrats.
Elizabeth, the teenager repairing military trucks during World War II, who speaks on radio to the British children during the London blitz, exhorting them to have courage, keep faith and persevere amidst the bombs falling around them; and who stands with Winston Churchill on the balcony of Buckingham Palace on VE Day.
Elizabeth, the young Queen, who struggles to balance the demands of her role as monarch with those of being the mother of two young children, and eventually two more.
Elizabeth, the oldest Sovereign that England has ever known, travels further and visits more countries than all of her predecessors put together. She pays 22 visits to Canada.
Elizabeth, who in support of the United States, orders the playing of the Star Spangled Banner at the 9/11 Service of Remembrance at St. Paul’s Cathedral. This is the first time the U.S. national anthem has been sung in the cathedral at a state service.
Elizabeth, who as Supreme Governor of the Church of England and Defender of the Faith, is a faithful steward for all things Anglican. This includes especially the Book of Common Prayer, its history, heritage and legacy to all people everywhere.
Elizabeth, who now presides over a monarchy that has managed to remain popular, regal, inclusive and relevant in the 21st century. After 60 years, she is still one of the most respected figures in the world.
If we are to truly appreciate the reign of our Queen, then we need to understand her deep, inner conviction, the fierce resolve and complete dedication that guides this woman.
Obviously, her Christian faith has been at the heart of who she is. She made this very clear in her 2000 Christmas broadcast when she said, “For me the teachings of Christ and personal accountability before God provide a framework in which I try to lead my life.”
But we can go deeper and find the central idea that shaped Elizabeth before she even became Queen. On her 21st birthday in 1947, in a speech to the youth of the British Empire, Princess Elizabeth said:
“There is a motto which has been born by many of my ancestors – a noble motto, ‘I serve.’ Those words were an inspiration to many bygone heirs of the Throne when they made their knightly dedication as they came to manhood. I cannot do quite as they did.
“But through the inventions of science I can do what was not possible for any of them. I can make my solemn act of dedication with the whole Empire listening. I should like to make that dedication now. It is very simple.
“I declare before you all that my whole life whether it be long or short shall be devoted to your service and the service of our great imperial family to which we all belong. But I shall not have strength to carry out this resolution alone unless you join in with me, as I now invite you to do: I know that your support will be unfailingly given. God help me to make good my vow, and God bless all of you who are willing to share in it.”
Long before the term became popular in church and business, Elizabeth defined herself as a servant leader-as one who serves rather than expects to be served, as a royal who turns the common understanding of royalty upside down. She is a Servant Queen whose life has been one of service to her subjects every hour of every day from the moment she became heiress presumptive to the day she takes her last breath on this earth.
Some of us may think that the monarchy has no real power in this day and age. It’s a symbol without substance, a relic of the past without relevance to the present. And yet, servant leadership is about influence, about shaping the discussion, touching the heart, stretching the mind, motivating action and compassion and engagement in public life. Servant leadership is about the ability to bring people together in common purpose and shared values and a hopeful future. Servant leadership is much like love: the more you give to others, the more flows back to you naturally.
No wonder Queen Elizabeth is one of the most respected people in the world. She has this deep notion of duty and selfless service to others, which is deeply attractive and commands our utmost respect and admiration.
In Journey to the East, Hermann Hesse described the activities and relationship of explorers who were sent on a difficult mission by a certain order. A servant, Leo, cared for their every need: prepared food, washed their clothes, and was at their beck and call. In terms of protocol, he was the lowest and the least. As the mission progressed, Leo’s adaptability and spirit proved invaluable.
The servant’s worth became more evident when their ship was wrecked and Leo was missing. Trying to proceed without him proved impossible. Eventually one member of the party made his way back to headquarters, where he met the leader. And, lo, it was none other than Leo. Though assuming the role of servant during the expedition, in reality he was their leader.
Now that is how to understand the servant leadership of our Queen. Her power is in her influence, and this has more to do with service than status. She is a voice that harmonizes the cacophony of voices in the Commonwealth, a symbol of a common heritage that binds a multitude of nations and peoples into one communion, an authority figure without being authoritarian.
In her 2001 Christmas broadcast, the Queen addressed the issue of multiculturalism that has so affected the United Kingdom, Canada and other Commonwealth nations. She raised her voice for tolerance, inclusiveness and mutual respect when she said that we need to “overcome differences and misunderstandings by reducing prejudice, ignorance and fear. We all have something to learn from one another, whatever our faith-be it Christian or Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu or Sikh-whatever our background…”
That is monarchy at its best-having roots and wings- and soaring into the future while staying grounded in an enduring purpose and shared values. Monarchy gives us that firm foundation to exercise our politics respectfully, civilly and for the common good. It is inherently inclusive rather than exclusive, all-embracing rather than ostracizing, making room for differences among people rather than demanding a rigid uniformity.
I think John Fraser summed it up well for Canadians in his new book The Secret of the Crown when he suggested that at the core of what makes us truly Canadian is the bedrock of our long constitutional connection with the British Crown. He wrote, “When we say ‘God bless the Queen,’ we are really saying, ‘God bless Us.’ We are also saying ‘God bless Canada.’ ”
Yes, God bless Canada and God bless the Queen. Throughout her long reign, oftentimes triumphant and joyful, sometimes sad and tragic, but always dedicated and faithful, Elizabeth has never ceased to be a Servant Queen, a Royal with a heart for her people, a Sovereign with a deep sense of responsibility for her subjects. She has exercised her role as Queen graciously, majestically and with the utmost dignity. So in a world of political expediency, crass politics and shady politicians, how could we not be thankful for such a Queen?
As we celebrate her Diamond Jubilee, all Canadians can pray thankfully and sing joyfully: God save out gracious Queen!
The Rev. Dr. Gary Nicolosi is rector of St. James Westminster Church in London, Ont. Text – Romans 13: 1-10; John 3:16-17
- John Fraser, The Secret of the Crown (Toronto: Anansi, 2012);
- Sally Bedell Smith, Elizabeth the Queen: The Life of a Modern Monarch (Random House, 2012); and
- Robert Hardman, Our Queen (Random House, 2011).