Thousands of cathedrals and Christian churches rang their bells for an hour at noon the day after Queen Elizabeth II passed away in honor of the 96-year-old monarch and her 70 years of service as Queen of the United Kingdom.
The ringing of church bells across the country on the death of the monarch is a custom that dates back to the early 13th century in Britain. Inasmuch as expert in medieval liturgy and long-time participant in dialogue between the Episcopal Church – a member of the community of Anglican churches worldwide – and the Roman Catholic Church in the United States, the sound had a special emotion for me, and I thought of the lifelong commitment of the queen towards British religious life.
Based on her Christian faith, the Queen encouraged dialogue and tolerance between the different Christian churches as well as with other religions. This is particularly true of Britain’s two oldest religions: Catholicism and Judaism.
But to appreciate the importance of his efforts, it is necessary to understand the complicated history of these religions in the UK.
“Defender of the Faith”
For centuries, English monarchs ruled as King or Queen of England. But since the 16th century, they have also held the titles Defender of the Faith and Supreme Governor of the Church of England.
King Henry VIII received the title Defender of the Faith of Pope Leo X, then head of the Catholic Church, in 1521 after the king published a refutation of the ideas of Martin Luther, whose reforms launched the Protestant Reformation. Henry retained this title even after he later broke with the authority of the pope, calling himself head of the Church in England.
With the exception of his Catholic successor – his daughter Mary I – all British monarchs have retained this title.
In the 17th century, some of the kings of England became personally sympathetic to Catholicism. It was so unpopular that in 1689, Parliament passed a Bill of Rights, forbidding Catholics to ascend the throne; it remains in effect today. Until the Succession to the Crown Act 2013, sovereigns were forbidden even marry Catholics.
After the passage in 1707 of the Union Statutesthese kings and queens ruled over an expanded kingdom of England, Scotland and Ireland – the United Kingdom – but retained the leadership of only the Church of England, the Anglican Church.
Most Irish were Catholic, while the The Church of Scotland was Presbyterian. This Protestant church eliminated the old office of bishop and placed leadership in the hands of ordinary pastors, called elders or elders.
In the Articles of Union, the British monarch guaranteed the rights of the Presbyterian Church of Scotlandand every monarch since has taken an oath to respect them on ascending the throne.
Such protection was not guaranteed to any other church or religion.
Ongoing problems in Catholic Ireland
In 1649, King Charles I, a supporter of Catholicism, was tabled and executed by Parliament after a bloody civil war. The invasion of catholic ireland by Oliver Cromwell, a former Member of Parliament, followed soon after, resulting in brutal massacres. Although the English monarchy was restored in England and Ireland in 1660, restrictions on Catholics in Ireland and Britain continued long after.
The freedoms of non-Anglican groups, including Jews, continued to be restricted by criminal laws until the 19th century. Tensions between Irish Catholics and British Anglicans continued even after the repeal of the laws.
Judaism in England
For two centuries, small communities of Jews in Britain lived quietly, protected by the British monarchy. They faced growing hostility in the 13th century due to the Crusades, religious wars to capture the Holy Land from its Muslim rulers, when Christian attitudes towards “foreign” religions hardened.
Since only Jews were allowed to lend money and collect interest – Christians considered it a sin – indebted nobles began to accuse Jewish lenders of “usury”, charging exorbitant interest on loans. They pressured the crown to act, and in 1290 King Edward I expelled all Jews from the kingdom. They were not allowed to return until the 17th century by law.
Under Cromwell, Jews were unofficially allowed to return to England. Some were already living there, including New Christians – Spanish Jews who had at least superficially converted to Christianity to avoid expulsion from Spain after 1492. Gradually other groups of openly Jewish refugees were unofficially allowed to resettle in England.
As Jewish immigration increased during the 18th and 19th centuries, restrictions were lifted and Jewish businesses has become an important part of the British economy. Synagogues were built in London and other major UK cities at that time, and worship was openly permitted. The Jewish Relief Act of 1858 granted Jews the right to sit in parliament. Despite this, anti-Semitism remained an important part of British social and cultural life.
The Queen and the Past
In the first decades of the 20th century, British monarchs began to adopt a more tolerant attitude. The Queen’s great-grandfather, King Edward VII, takes some important first steps. But Queen Elizabeth II brought non-Anglican Christian churches and non-Christian religious communities into dialogue a priority during his reign, recognize the growing reality of Britainespecially England, as a multi-denominational nation.
In 1951, two years before Queen Elizabeth II took the throne, she met Pope Pius XII in private – nearly 400 years after Queen Elizabeth I officially excommunicated by Pope Pius V for assuming the title of supreme head of the Church of England.
Queen Elizabeth II had a private audience with Pope John XXIII 10 years later – only the second reigning UK monarch to visit a pope.
His efforts to build a new relationship with the Catholic Church included ongoing interactions with popes. An official state visit with Pope John Paul II followed in 1980, and that the pope made a pastoral visit to Britain two years later, it was the first time that a pope went there.
Another private audience with John Paul II followed in 2000, and in 2010 the Queen met Pope Benedict XVI during her official state visit to the UK In 2014, she met Pope Francis at the Vatican, a meeting commemorating 100 years of renewed diplomatic relations between the two sovereign states.
Violent resistance and tension continued in the independent Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland from the United Kingdom over independence until the Good Friday Peace Accords were approved by both parties in 1998. In 2011, the Queen became the first reigning monarch to visit the Republic of Irelanda signal of support for the republic independence and what has been called one of the “The most important“deeds of his long reign.
The Jewish community in Britain was also supported by the queen. Although she herself has never visited Israel, several other members of the royal family have made.
The queen has also been visited by several presidents of Israel. On several occasions, she participated in Holocaust commemorations and visited memorials, including a 2015 trip to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, 70 years after its liberation by the Allies. And in 2022 the Church of England published an apology for his contribution to the expulsion of the Jews of England in the thirteenth century.
In 2012, Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, called the Queen “Defender of all British religions“, writing that” No one does interfaith better than the Royal Family, and it starts with the Queen herself. “
The King and the Future
Indeed, the former Prince of Wales suggested in 2015 that the title Defender of the Faith be understood more broadly, as simply “Defender of the Faith. He stressed that he wanted to be seen as an advocate for religious rights in general, not just the Anglican faith.
And when his accession was proclaimed on September 10, 2022, King Charles III took the long-standing oath to preserve the rights of the Church of Scotland using the same wording as his predecessors since the 16th century – as a defender of the faith.
There is no doubt that during his reign, King Charles III will continue to build on the foundations of tolerance and dialogue laid firmly by his mother. Modern Britain is a nation of many religions, and a contemporary monarch will need to ensure that each is vigorously defended and warmly celebrated.