Queen visits Irish Roman Catholic church
“Blasphemy!” cried one of His Grace’s communicants, in an irate email received yesterday.
“Ecumenical religion is apostasy,” he wrote, “which runs contrary to the Queen’s Coronation Oath to uphold the Protestant Reformed Religion.” He insisted that Her Majesty should be denouncing ‘Romanist priests’; not consorting with them. They are ‘purveyors of false religion, deniers of the efficacy of the atoning death of Christ and of His sole mediatorship’. He concluded: “For the Supreme Governor of the Church of England to enter a Roman Catholic Church and shake hands with Romanist priests and cardinals is to condone their erroneous views and endorse their falsehoods.”
The Supreme Governor of the Church of England is also the British Head of State, and by virtue of being so she is obliged to exercise her public ‘outward government’ in a manner which accords with the private welfare of her subjects – of whatever creed, ethnicity, sexuality or political philosophy. The Royal Supremacy in regard to the Church is, as Hooker said, ‘in its essence the right of supervision over the administration of the Church, vested in the Crown as the champion of the Church, in order that the religious welfare of its subjects may be provided for’. Theologians and politicians may argue over the manner of this ‘religious welfare’ or the precise meaning of what Hooker meant by the ‘true fulfilment’ of a ‘right relationship with God’, but that is the function of theologians and politicians. For Hooker, church and society were one.
The Queen is acutely involved in leading men to salvation: ‘A gross error it is, to think that regal power ought to serve for the good of the body, and not of the soul; for men’s temporal peace, and not for their eternal safety,’ wrote Hooker. If the state were concerned solely with economics and the material, it would cease to be concerned with people’s welfare in respect of a right relationship with God. Hooker’s articulation of the prerogative of the Crown over its subjects’ religious welfare is the same as that which still underlies the role of the Queen in relation to the Church of England.
So the brief walk over the road from the Anglican St Macartin's Cathedral to St Michael's Roman Catholic church is consistent with both her Coronation Oath and her vocation as a Christian and Church leader.
Indeed, His Grace is increasingly persuaded that the Queen is the greatest living embodiment of the Gospel of Christ of any world leader; the very incarnation of patience, kindness, grace and forgiveness. In Northern Ireland she is quite literally a bringer of peace, sowing love where there is hatred, and pardon where there is injury. She instils faith where there is doubt, and hope where there is despair. She shines light where there is darkness, and brings joy where there is sadness.
Politicians rarely achieve the spiritual objectives of St Francis’. They might quote them, talk about them, debate them, or make manifesto pledges to fulfil them. But the Queen just gets on with it, and lives them.
Today, she will shake hands with Martin McGuinness in Belfast, and we are told that it will be captured on camera. This has been greeted with incredulity and despair by representatives on both sides of the sectarian divide. Martin McGuinness did, after all, play a not insignificant role in the murder of the Queen’s cousin, the Lord Mountbatten. But she will not feign pardon or utter words of forgiveness: in the symbolic shaking of the hand of a terrorist and murderer, she lays bare her heart, which is for peace, reconciliation, and hope.
To those who criticise her for walking into a Roman Catholic church or shaking hands with a former leader of the IRA, consider what Jesus might do.
In an era beyond conflict, he would not hold grudges or harbour unforgiveness. He urges us to love our enemies, which requires a counter-intuitive act of will. And that might mean the occasional visit to a Roman Catholic church, a mosque, gurdwara or mandir. It might also mean encounter with one’s enemies or critics, which involves discussion, and even a handshake.
The Queen doesn’t do emotion in public: the nearest she has ever got to baring her soul was in her address to the nation following the death of Diana, Princess of Wales. But she does ‘do God’. As she said in Dublin last year, it is important ‘to bow to the past, but not be bound by it’. By shaking hands with the Sinn Féin deputy first minister, she is recognising not only his elected position, but that things have moved on. The bombs, blood and carnage of Enniskillen have been transformed into another milestone in the peace process in Northern Ireland. As the Queen reaches out her hand in friendship and reconciliation, Martin McGuinness extends his to the ultimate symbol of British rule in the Province.
Blessed are the peacemakers.