Keen observers of the British monarchy have recently become concerned about two words describing life at Windsor Castle – “new stage”.
First there was the unexplained overnight stay in Queen Elizabeth II hospital in October for “tests”. Then the 95-year-old monarch missed the recent National Day of Remembrance service for the British war dead. She did, however, attend baptismal rites at All Saints Chapel for her two most recent great-grandsons.
All of this represents a “new stage” in his very public life.
“She is fine, thank you very much,” Prince Charles said, responding to a Sky News survey. “Once you get to 95, it’s not as easy as it used to be.”
The queen, however, did not remain silent. His recent message to the General Synod of the Church of England – his first absence from this gathering – was strong and personal. It was read by his youngest son, Prince Edward, Earl of Wessex, who rarely seeks the public spotlight.
“It is hard to believe that it has been over 50 years since Prince Philip and I attended the very first General Synod meeting,” the prince said as he read the words of the Queen. “None of us can slow the passage of time; and although we often focus on all that has changed in the intervening years, much remains the same, including the gospel of Christ and its teachings.
“The list of tasks facing this First General Synod may sound familiar to many of you – Christian education, Christian unity, the best distribution of ordained ministry. … the knowledge and love of God. ‘”
Significantly, Queen Elizabeth was most interested in matters of doctrine and spiritual life – not the role of the church in politics and various cultural conflicts, noted theologian Adrian Hilton, former adviser to the secretary of State to Education.
“Note the supreme task,” he added, writing on Archbishop Cranmer’s blog. The titular head of the Church of England urged bishops to focus on spiritual and doctrinal foundations, as in “the knowledge and love of God.”
This “supreme task,” noted Hilton, “is not to argue endlessly over divisive doctrines or contentious teachings, but to maintain visible historical continuity with the Church of the Apostles, Fathers, martyrs and bishops in their historic seats in order to preach the gospel of Christ and make it known. … The Supreme Governor reminded (at) the Synod of the unchanged centrality of Scripture, and that nothing should be added to the explicit teachings of Christ to show the way to salvation. “
Truth be told, the Queen was giving Anglican Shepherds a task that could be more difficult than dealing with public unrest in the COVID-19 era.
After all, the statistics describing church life in the UK have, over the past decades, gone from bad to worse. Many would say the Church of England is imploding. In 2018, only 12% of the population reported belonging to the UK’s branches of Anglicanism. Sunday attendance in the typical parish fell to 57.
The trends are even scarier among young people.
A report presented to a pre-pandemic general synod noted that in 2018, national church attendance by children – newborns up to age 16 – fell below 100,000. only one parish revealed that 38 percent of parishes had no children of that age group attending worship, and 68 percent of them had five or less. The average number of children under 16 has fallen by 20% in five years.
This was, of course, before the COVID-19 crisis. Queen Elizabeth noted that, even for “people of faith,” the “past few years have been particularly difficult, with unprecedented restrictions on access to the comfort and assurance of public worship. For many, this has been a time of anxiety, grief, and weariness. “
For church leaders, this means that “the next five years will not always be easy. Like every new Synod, you have inherited heavy responsibilities with many questions to deal with, reports to discuss and difficult decisions to make. governance, on conduct, on the use of resources and other matters, and on a vision for the future of the Church.
The queen concluded with these poetic words from a medieval hymn: “O Comforter, come near, in my heart appears and kindle it, your holy flame which gives.
Terry Mattingly is the editor of GetReligion.org and principal investigator at the Overby Center at the University of Mississippi.