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Sunday 20 June 2004

Kirking the Windsors

The recent deaths and funeral rites for Princess Juliana and former President Ronald Reagan have confronted us anew with the issues surrounding the influence of religion in the lives of heads of state and heads of government.  In the Netherlands the former Queen’s funeral, presided over by a woman Minister, reminded the world of Juliana’s progressive spiritual views.   In the U.S. many television viewers were amazed at the degree to which expressions of the Christian faith entered the tributes by world leaders.  Lady Thatcher’s eulogy was a strikingly open affirmation of personal religious faith to a world audience on her part.  President Bush’s outspoken religious commitment was also evident in his remarks at the National Cathedral.  And there sat Prince Charles through it all. 

Though royal life is intimately intertwined with religious rites, the personal spirituality of the royals has long stayed well out of the limelight.  King George VI, the late Queen Mother, and Princess Margaret were all deeply devout but very private in their faith.  It is only with the current Prince of Wales and in a recent Christmas broadcast of the Queen that the senior royals have really begun to speak more publicly about their personal religiosity. 

When one stops to look, there is a surprising variety of spiritual expression within the royal family itself.  Two recent events have pointed up the somewhat wandering religious and spiritual interests among the modern royals and their kin.  First came publicity surrounding the Prince of Wales visit to the Mt. Athos monastic communities in Greece; and this was followed by the funeral for Frances Shand Kydd at the Roman Catholic cathedral at Oban, Scotland, at which Prince William read the lesson.  Both Eastern Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism have entered the spiritual repertoire of the royals in a significant way over the last generation or so. 

From the time of Henry VIII until the departure of James VII / II in 1689 the British monarchy was on something a religious rollercoaster, or at least a seesaw.  Since that Glorious Revolution the religion of Britain’s royals has been relatively straightforward.  They have been decidedly and necessarily Protestant.  In England, of course, the Sovereign is Supreme Governor of the Church of England.  But, when he or she crosses the border into Scotland the King or Queen automatically converts into a Presbyterian.  They are constitutionally bi-denominational.  As a minister of the Kirk once told me, “Doon in England the Queen is the head of their Kirk, but whenever she crosses the border she’s just a puir damned sinner like a’ the rest of us.”   Besides this, the only notable religious variations for about two centuries of royal history were the plethora of marriages to Lutherans from Germany and Denmark.  It was all pretty predictable, and boring. 

Things began to change a bit in the late 19th century when several of Victoria’s granddaughters began marrying into Russia, the Balkans, and Spain.  Eastern Orthodoxy and Catholicism entered the picture among the extended family, but didn’t quite make it home to Britain.  It was really only when Philip of Greece married Princess Elizabeth that Orthodoxy entered the British royal scene in any significant way.  Despite their Danish roots, the Greek royals had adhered to Orthodoxy when they took on the job, and so the Queen’s husband springs from those roots.   More importantly, however, his mother turned deeply into that tradition and lived the last decades of her life as an Orthodox nun.   And for many of those years she was living quietly in the background at Buckingham Palace.  Earlier on Princess Alice’s aunt, the Grand Duchess Elizabeth of Russia, had also become a nun and was subsequently made a saint of Russian Orthodoxy after her martyrdom during the Revolution. 

Given this background there is perhaps little wonder that both Philip and Charles have developed an affinity to the Orthodox faith.  Several years ago I saw a piece reporting that Prince Philip had quietly rejoined the Orthodox Church, though he continues to participate in Anglican and Presbyterian services with the Queen.   But it is the mystical Charles who seems to be the most fascinated with the mysteries of the Eastern Church, now making his regular retreats at Mt. Athos. 

Eastern Orthodoxy, whether Greek or Russian, is very different from western Christianity.  Historically it was a deeply imperial tradition, the church of the Eastern Roman Empire that never really fell until 1453, and the church of the Russian Empire until the Bolshevik revolution.   Its imperial aura remains in the elaborate rituals of the faith.  But Orthodoxy also suffered great persecution and oppression both under the Ottoman Empire and under Communism.  The mix of the imperial past with the struggles to survive in the face of persecution have set a distinctive stamp on Orthodoxy, a profound sense of unchanging adherence to the TRUTH that is both impressive and somewhat maddening to those from other Christian traditions who do not agree with them in all points.  In recent times its rich mystical tradition has drawn the interest of many spiritually inclined western Christians, even those who could never imagine fully adopting such a stubbornly fifth century faith.  Given the breadth of the Prince of Wales spiritual interests it seems likely that it is this broader mystical aspect that draws him, and hopefully not the narrower retreat into so closed a system of doctrinal rigidity. 

But while Prince Philip and Prince Charles seem to look East, the greater appeal to various modern royals and their in-laws seems to lie with Rome.   Princess Diana’s late mum was an enthusiastic convert to Roman Catholicism, and well before Diana’s death there were rumors of her own interests in that direction.  We will never know if Diana would have ended up Catholic or not, but there has certainly been some movement in that direction among other members of the royal family.  The most prominent instance of conversion to Catholicism within the royal family has be that of the Duchess of Kent some years ago, followed by that of her younger son, Lord Nicholas Windsor.  (Somewhat ironically, the Duchess was also the first descendant of the Puritan dictator Oliver Cromwell to marry into the royal family.)  The Kent’s elder son, the Earl of St. Andrews, is also married to a Roman Catholic and thus gave up his place in the succession.   Prince Michael’s controversial wife is also Catholic, and their marriage caused him to have to renounce his place in the succession as well. 

Needless to say, in the eyes of many the continued exclusion of Roman Catholics and those married to them from eligibility to wear the British crown is totally outdated and wrong.  The historical conflict between Protestant Britain and the Catholic Church has largely been laid to rest, of course.  And it seems only right that members of the extended royal family should be able to enjoy the freedom to embrace the tradition that feeds their spiritual longings without prejudice to their position.  That would seem to be the appropriate “liberal” attitude in contemporary western culture. 

At the same time it should remembered that certain issues of wide social consequence remain intimately tied to religious affiliation.  The question of religion in the ongoing debates over reform of the monarchy thus differs from questions such as that of gender.  The fact that the Church of England and the Church of Scotland both ordain women to all ecclesial offices while Roman Catholicism does not is a case in point.  Other moral issues that figure in public policy also need to be held in mind.   In the fairly recent past the late King of the Belgians, the deeply devout King Baudouin, found it necessary to temporarily abdicate rather than be required to put his signature on legislation legalizing abortion in Belgium.  The acceptance of openly gay church leaders among liberal Protestants is yet another point in contention, as is the whole issue of gay marriage.  Whatever one’s position on the issues themselves, the threat of some Catholic bishops and clergy in the U.S. to withhold communion from politicians who openly differ with their church positions raises a real question.  The potential for a royal excommunication of a Catholic monarch is not just something from tales of the Middles Ages, even as the question of a church marriage for a divorced Prince has continued to raise debates in Henry VIII’s C of E.  (Albeit, Charles and Camilla could just pop over to Crathie from Birkhall, and follow Anne’s example of Presbyterian marriage.) 

So perhaps, just perhaps, there is still some merit in the old-time religion of previous royal generations, even given the faltering state of contemporary Protestantism.  The Queen herself is a devout but fairly conventional Episc-byterian, of perhaps moderately evangelical tendencies.  Despite his monastic retreats, the Prince of Wales generally seems to have leanings toward the old “Broad Church” strain of Anglican inclusivity.  And in Archbishop Rowan Williams they certainly seem to have one of the more astute, devout, and visionary leaders of the contemporary church, who may just help the Establishment reinvent itself with a creative balance of heartfelt and mindful Christianity for the 21st century.  Between the three of them, they might just manage an appropriate re-modeling of how a spiritually inclined Queen and/or King can preside over a realm of many faiths with people on many different spiritual paths. 

Now if something similar would just start stirring in the dry old bones of the Kirk…. 

- Ken Cuthbertson

(FYI – The Laird o’ Thistle also happens to be a Presbyterian Minister and church historian.  So the gentle jabs at the Kirk contained herein are offered in genuine and deep affection.)

Previous columns can be found in the archive

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This page and its contents are 2008 Copyright by Geraldine Voost and may not be reproduced without the authors permission. The Laird o'Thistle column is 2008 Copyright by Kenneth Cuthbertson who has kindly given permission for it to be displayed on this website.
This page was last updated on: Sunday, 29-Aug-2004 19:42:18 CEST