Long Has She Reigned Over Us: The Death of Queen Elizabeth II and the Dignity of Duty
“There,” the Queen said, “That’s so much better than talking, isn’t it?”
In his book, War Doctor: Surgery on the Front Line, Dr. David Nott recounts a personal conversation with Queen Elizabeth II. Nott was seated next to her at a palace lunch hosted for humanitarian heroes. Having served as a doctor in Aleppo during the war, he returned to London with PTSD and emotional struggles. But now, also, a chance to meet the Queen.
Engaging in conversation, the Queen asked him where he was from, and Nott, unsure even years later why he answered as he did, said, “I recently returned from Aleppo.” The Queen responded, “Oh, what was that like?” Nott went blank. Images of war, bloodied children, and violence flashed across his mind. He was lost for words and sat in awkward silence. The Queen, noticing this, touched his hand gently, “Well, shall I help you?” she inquired. Nott was confused. What did she mean? Again, he sat in complete silence to her question, not so much feeling like a fool as a helpless child who, confronted with a question for which there was no answer, could not reply. Nott’s own words detail what happened next:
“She then had a quiet word with one of the courtiers, who pointed to a silver box in front of her, which was full of biscuits. “These are for the dogs,” she said, breaking one of the biscuits in two and giving me half. Together we fed the corgis. “There,” the Queen said. That’s so much better than talking, isn’t it?” (p. 289)
The story is an endearing antidote about the empathy and compassion of Queen Elizabeth II. Her death, at 96, marks the end of an era, and one cannot help but feel the last rays of the sun setting on the old monarchy as well. The British Monarchy is an institution over a thousand years old and has shown its endurance against change and threats. Still, at its best or worse (one thinks of Charles I and the English Civil War as a particularly threatening moment, Diana’s death being a second), it has largely maintained its longevity based on the character of the Sovereign who reigns.
Elizabeth was not born to be Queen; she became the heir presumptive only after her uncle Edward VIII’s abdication and her father’s ascent to the throne. Her short adolescence was during the Second World War when she worked as a mechanic. But at 25, her father died, and she became the monarch. Her first Prime Minister was Winston Churchill.
Few will argue against the supposition that her most outstanding attribute was her steady commitment to duty – a word held at arm’s length in many Protestant circles for its closeness to terms like law, legalism, and works. We shirk at duty and its constraint; we recoil at its prescriptions of obedience, conformity, and unwavering requirement of self-sacrifice.
But without duty, we cannot keep promises. The gospel promise of Christ for us is grace towards us because Christ did his duty. It is freedom for us because Christ went to the cross. One’s diligent execution of their duty opens the possibility and reality of grace for another. There can be no grant of grace if duty does not precede it. The preservation of our rights and freedom comes from the performed duty of the soldier; the blessedness of a happy childhood comes from the performed duty of loving parents and guardians. The duty for Christians to perform good works as an extension of their faith is a blessing of grace and love to those who are recipients of them. Duty is not gospel, but it makes the gospel possible, as well as every other good and perfect thing. And not doing our duty—eating the forbidden fruit, slandering our neighbor, shirking our responsibilities, brings sadness, violence and injustice into the world. To not do our duty is sin.
Without duty, we cannot keep promises. The gospel promise of Christ for us is grace towards us because Christ did his duty.
Queen Elizabeth II was perhaps one of the greatest monarchs, but she struggled as a mother. Her relationship with her children has been strained at times. She often found it challenging to balance her duty to the nation with those as a mother, sister, and wife. Such duties often collided, contrasted, and even competed with one another. When her sister Margaret wanted to marry a divorced man, something not permitted in the royal family at the time, she chose to do her duty to the nation over her love for her sister. When a young Charles objected to being sent away to school, Elizabeth deferred to her husband Philip’s decision to send him away. Duty always brings with it sacrifice and, in our human context, continual crises of competing loyalties, no-win scenarios, and continual self-abandonment. The Queen may have lived a life of privilege in a gilded cage, but she took her coronation vows seriously and tried to live into them to the best of her ability and as a model of moral integrity.
Outside the romantic and sensational flights of fantasy that accompany modern royalty, few westerners understand what a monarchy is supposed to do or why it matters. Especially since modern monarchies are often devoid of the kind of power that politicians are granted under their respective constitutions, the monarchy’s relevance is continually under debate. Yet, correctly understood, the monarchy is supposed to be almost sacramental. The monarch is not Christ but is supposed to incarnate the image of Christ into the nation’s presentment. Part of the coronation vow taken by the monarch is, “I will to the utmost of my power maintain the Laws of God and the true profession of the Gospel.” The true profession of the gospel. Though one may debate the quality of monarchs’ various character and witness over the ages, the ideal is worth striving to enact. But why do we need a monarch to do this? Can’t we go without one and strive for the same?
Indeed, we do not need a monarch. Many nations, like the United States, long ago decided they did not need or want one. But for monarchists, the Sovereign is a living symbol for the nation to remember its moral conscience and call to duty. The monarch stands to lower us a bit, to remind us that we are worshipers, servants, and subjects of a Greater Master. The monarch personifies tradition, a link to the wisdom of the past, while giving authority to the present to make a better future. The monarchy also stands as a living embodiment of divine mystery. Walter Bagehot, the great writer on the English Constitution, wrote, “the mystic reverence, the religious allegiance, which are essential to true monarchy, are imaginative sentiments that no legislature can manufacture in any people. You might as well adopt a father as make a monarchy.”
The monarch stands to lower us a bit, to remind us that we are worshipers, servants, and subjects of a Greater Master.
At its best, monarchy incarnates Christ. It presents the authority of the Church in the secular sphere while displaying the mystery of divine impassibility. It preserves the constancy of duty and the rule of law. At its worse, monarchy descends into a privileged, bloated, irrelevant, immoral, sycophantic institution of high corruption and corruptibility where privilege outstrips grace by manifesting excess. That is why positive arguments for a monarchy are often enhanced or threatened by how the Sovereign lives and reigns; that is, how they do their duty. The monarchy’s fragility is not its apparent irrelevance but the threat of its failure to embody the moral, compassionate, mysterious, and Christian tradition that gives it strength and purpose.
The Queen’s passing means a new modern monarchy will emerge. The new monarchy will be slimmed down, try to be more socially aware and relevant, and appear less pretentious. But the dangers that await it are real. If King Charles III does not live with the high moral standards of his mother or refrain from political bias, real calamity will follow. If the image of Christ becomes muddled and replaced by an ecumenical god of all stripes, the monarchy will lose its sacred authority. If all-access documentaries and royal interviews replace the mystery of the monarchy, the monarchy will become too common when its purpose is to be uncommon. If the Royal Family cannot resolve their infighting and broken relationships, it will show it is too petty and unwilling to work for its greater cause. At that point, it will cease to be much more than another reality TV show, only this one starring hereditary celebrities. And that will hardly be worth keeping or supporting.
In 1986 the UK paper, The Sunday Times ran a headline that proclaimed that the Queen thought then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was “uncaring.” This was in response to Thatcher’s firm and hard stance against labor unions and African sanctions. What the Queen believed about Thatcher remains a mystery, but the Times supposedly had gotten their information from inside sources at the palace. The article was a major crisis for the Queen since the monarch must remain politically neutral under the British Constitution. But then something incredible happened. Queen Elizabeth called Margaret Thatcher and apologized to her. The Queen apologized to her subject. She knew that whether true or not, the story had put Thatcher in a tough spot politically, essentially inferring that Thatcher did not listen or care about the Queen’s advice in their weekly meetings. It was a no-win for Thatcher, whose popularity was already sinking. But the Queen showed the grace and charity of Christ and not any sense of entitlement or privileged difference. This was servant leadership.
With but a few exceptions, the only time the Queen directly speaks to the nation is during the Opening of Parliament and her Christmas broadcast. She does not write the Queen’s Speech that opens Parliament, the government does, but she must read it as a constitutional requirement of her office.  But the Christmas speeches are written by her and give a rare glimpse into her personality, concerns, and cares. In her 2014 Christmas broadcast, she confessed the following: “For me, the life of Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace…is an inspiration and an anchor in my life. A role model of reconciliation and forgiveness, he stretched out his hands in love, acceptance, and healing. Christ’s example has taught me to seek to respect and value all people, of whatever faith or none.” Such faith has no doubt sustained her in the execution of her duty.
Don’t do your duty to earn glory or win salvation. That will never work. Do your duty because in doing it, in trying to do it, you make promises into reality, hope into realization, and grace into a living experience—for someone else.
Long has Queen Elizabeth reigned over her kingdom, and now she passes into the greater Kingdom of Heaven, meeting the Incarnate Christ to whom (we can assume) she long attempted to reflect. Few of us in the world are royalty, and few of us will have lived through so much change. But if Queen Elizabeth II can inspire us to anything, it is to have us reflect upon our calling, circumstances, and choices. What have we been given as duties? Will we struggle to fulfill them and make sacrifices to keep them? Will we open the gate of grace for others by doing our duty so they can reap the reward? Will we preach the gospel to the lost? Will we pray for those in prison? Will we forgive the detestable? Will we love others and fulfill the law of Christ? Will we support our local churches, pastors, elders, and missionaries? Will we pray for those who ask us to? If you want to see grace flow out like a river, if you want to change the world with an ever-small step, and if you want to let your “yes” be “yes” and your “no,” “no”—then do your duty. Don’t do your duty to earn glory or win salvation. That will never work. Do your duty because in doing it, in trying to do it, you make promises into reality, hope into realization, and grace into a living experience—for someone else. Duty is how you love your neighbor and, by extension, God.
Ora et labora
Pray and work
Dei gratia Regina
God Save the Queen
 Or, if not her personally, one in her name and authority must read it.