Terry Mattingly

Mattingly_Terry_2006 (SHNS photo)

Close watchers of the British monarchy have recently become concerned about two words describing life in Windsor Castle — “new stage.”

First there was Queen Elizabeth II’s unexplained overnight hospital stay in October for “tests.” Then the 95-year-old monarch missed the recent National Day of Remembrance service for Britain’s war dead. She did, however, attend christening rites at All Saints Chapel for her two newest great-grandsons.

All of this represents a “new stage” in her very public life.

“She’s all right, thank you very much,” said Prince Charles, responding to a Sky News inquiry. “Once you get to 95, it’s not quite as easy as it used to be.”

The Queen has not, however, been silent. Her recent message to Church of England’s General Synod — her first absence from this gathering — was strong and personal. It was read by her youngest son, Prince Edward, the Earl of Wessex, who rarely seeks the public spotlight.

“It is hard to believe that it is over 50 years since Prince Philip and I attended the very first meeting of the General Synod,” said the prince, reading the Queen’s words. “None of us can slow the passage of time; and while we often focus on all that has changed in the intervening years, much remains unchanged, including the Gospel of Christ and his teachings.

“The list of tasks facing that first General Synod may sound familiar to many of you — Christian education, Christian unity, the better distribution of the ordained ministry. ... But one stands out supreme: ‘To bring the people of this country to the knowledge and the love of God.’”

It’s significant that Queen Elizabeth was most concerned with matters of doctrine and spiritual life — not the church’s role in politics and various cultural disputes, noted theologian Adrian Hilton, a former adviser to the secretary of state for education.

“Note the supremest task,” he added, writing at the Archbishop Cranmer blog. The titular leader of the Church of England urged the bishops to focus on spiritual and doctrinal basics, as in “the knowledge and the love of God.”

That “supremest task,” noted Hilton, “isn’t to wrangle interminably over divisive doctrines or contentious teachings, but to sustain the visible historical continuity with the Church of the Apostles, the Fathers, the martyrs and the bishops in their historic sees in order to preach the gospel of Christ and to make him known. ... The Supreme Governor reminded (the) Synod of the unchanged centrality of Scripture, and that nothing needs to be added to the explicit teachings of Christ in order to show the way of salvation.”

Truth be told, the Queen was assigning Anglican shepherds a task that may be more difficult than handling public unrest in the age of COVID-19.

After all, statistics describing church life in the United Kingdom have, in recent decades, gone from bad to worse. Many would say the Church of England is imploding. In 2018, only 12% of the population claimed membership in the United Kingdom’s branches of Anglicanism. Sunday attendance in the typical parish fell to 57.

Trends are even more frightening among the young.

A report presented to a pre-pandemic General Synod noted that, in 2018, national church attendance by children — newborns to age 16 — dropped below 100,000. Single-parish reports found that 38% of parishes had no children in that age group attending worship, and 68% of them had five or fewer. The average number of under-16s declined 20% in five years.

That was, of course, before the COVID-19 crisis. Queen Elizabeth noted that, even for “people of faith,” the “last few years have been particularly hard, with unprecedented restrictions in accessing the comfort and reassurance of public worship. For many, it has been a time of anxiety, of grief, and of weariness.”

For church leaders, this means that the “next five years will not always be straightforward. Like every new Synod, you have inherited weighty responsibilities with many issues to address, reports to debate and difficult decisions to make. You may have to consider proposals on governance, on conduct, on the use of resources and on other issues, and on a vision for the future of the Church.”

The Queen closed with these poetic words from a medieval hymn: “O Comforter, draw near, within my heart appear and kindle it, thy holy flame bestowing.”

(Terry Mattingly leads GetReligion.org and lives in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is a senior fellow at the Overby Center at the University of Mississippi.)

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