As a Canadian, I have lived most of my life to this day with a strong sense of the Queen’s presence in deeply personal ways. The constancy of this presence has given many of us the impression that she will always be with us, and like many of my fellow Canadians, I feel disoriented and deeply saddened by her sudden though supposedly not unexpected death. Amidst this feeling of confusion, I am reminded that this should be an occasion on which we may find comfort by reflecting on God’s gift of constitutional monarchy to our nation, and of our late Christian monarch, Queen Elizabeth II.
When I first immigrated to Canada with my parents as a child, I was taught to sing both “O Canada” and “God Save the Queen” in my ESL class. I found the reality of our constitutional monarchy deeply intriguing. I became a naturalised citizen in my early teens when I took a lawful oath pledging loyalty to our Head of State. My parents taught me to be appalled by the idea of such an allegiance to the head of a state in the context of my native Taiwan, where state headship and government headship coincide in a single person. In the Canadian context, however, I happily took that oath as a teenager, and to this day I have kept it faithfully.
This should be an occasion on which we may find comfort by reflecting on God’s gift of constitutional monarchy to our nation, and of our late Christian monarch, Queen Elizabeth II.
From the start of my career as a Presbyterian and neo-Calvinist theologian, I have always defended constitutional monarchy as one biblically legitimate form of government. This is of course primarily a consequence of my theological convictions. However, the very immanent presence of Queen Elizabeth II in my personal life as a Canadian also proved to be significant in convincing me that our constitutional monarchy can indeed be a blessing to our nation and the rest of the world. This conviction was only deepened in the four years I spent in the United Kingdom for my doctoral studies, during which I was privileged to be a participant in local Diamond Jubilee celebrations.
My first impressions of the Queen were from her portraits appearing in police station scenes in the Hong Kong movies that I watched in my childhood in the 1980s and 1990s. It was a time when Taiwan was still in the process of growing out of the totalitarian regime that Chiang Kai-shek left behind. Many times I was publicly shamed in classrooms and corporally punished by my school teachers for exposing the faults of the deceased and deified dictator, which I had learned from my parents at home. “It would be nice to have her as my Queen,” I often thought to myself as I watched the movies from Hong Kong.
During my seminary years, I came to learn that the Queen and I were dedicated to serving the same King. My beloved teacher, the late J. I. Packer, used to speak of the Christian stateswoman with great admiration. In one of his last books he reflects on Her Majesty as a prime example of an elderly Christian unceasingly pressing on towards the goal (Phil. 3:14). When we have a monarch in our midst calling herself a “servant Queen,” not detached from the ordinary folk like the imperial dictator in the Kremlin, but rather having tea with Paddington Bear at Buckingham Palace to celebrate her Platinum Jubilee, we are blessed with an ectypal figure pointing beyond herself to the King of Kings who became the servant of servants.
I fully understand why many of my peers are of the opinion that the very idea of monarchy is opposed to the Christian faith. As a Christian I am firmly convinced by the central thesis that the seventeenth-century Scottish Presbyterian Samuel Rutherford advanced in his monumental Lex, Rex: The Law and the Prince, that “God’s immediate government must be best” (Question 38).
But because of the gulf of sin, this fallen world is incapable of withstanding Christ’s immediate government without being consumed by the fire of his holiness. Even in the church on earth, God reigns through creaturely means including the preaching of the Word and administration of the sacraments. The best forms of government on earth in the state of fallenness, then, are those closest to God’s immediate rule.
On this basis Rutherford makes a statement with which all Bible-believing Christians are obliged to agree:
An absolute and unlimited monarchy is not only not the best form of government, but it is the worst…, because it is an unlawful ordinance, and God never ordained it; and I cannot ascribe the superlative degree to anything of which I deny the positive. Absolute government in a sinful and peaceable man is a wicked government, and not a power from God, for God never gave a power to sin. (Lex, Rex, Question 38).
This rule being unequivocally affirmed, however, we must understand that monarchies are not by definition absolute and unlimited—and I think this is where many of my friends err when they voice oppositions to constitutional monarchy. To be sure, I completely sympathise with their distaste for the Constantinianism that Western Christianity and civilisation inherited from the Roman Empire. The fact, however, is that constitutional monarchies are not necessarily Constantinian. A head of state elected by the American people could also announce to the people of West Berlin, “Civis romanus sum.” And I know all too well from my Taiwanese experience that even in a full-fledged democracy, the rule of the majority can be characterised by absolute and unlimited power—the power of the people—if society as a whole does not uphold the Rule of Law above the will of the people. It is not without reason that John Calvin opined in the 1559 Institutes of the Christian Religion: “The fall of the kingdom to tyranny is easy; but it is not much more difficult to fall from the rule of the best men to the faction of a few; yet it is easiest of all to fall from popular rule to sedition” (4.20.8).
Compared to Calvin’s pick-your-poison pessimism that focuses more narrowly on human fallenness, however, Rutherford’s view is more agreeable to my own neo-Calvinist understanding of the various forms of government in light of Al Wolters’s description of the Christian worldview in terms of the creation-fall-redemption triad. Rutherford writes: “Every government hath something wherein it is best; monarchy is honourable and glorious-like before men; aristocracy, for counsel, is surest; democracy for liberty, and possibly for riches and gain, is best” (Lex, Rex, Question 38).
Rutherford was not a political theorist who wrote in a vacuum. He witnessed the atrocities of the Civil War and was disappointed by Oliver Cromwell’s government. After the Restoration, he was charged for high treason for his opposition to divine right royalism, but was rescued from the trial through his timely death by the wonders of divine providence.
Under the circumstances of his time, Rutherford reflected on the biblical principles underlying Presbyterianism and applied them to his theory of government. He set forth a defense of constitutional monarchy with which many of us in Canada, the other Realms, and the United Kingdom would heartily agree:
A limited and mixed monarchy, such as is in Scotland and England, seems to me the best government, when parliaments, with the king, have the good of all the three. This government hath glory, order, unity, from a monarch; from the government of the most and wisest, it hath safety of counsel, stability, strength; from the influence of the commons, it hath liberty, privileges, promptitude of obedience. (Lex, Rex, Question 38).
Monarchy is not necessarily idolatrous, as long as we recognise that the queen or the “king hath no proper, masterly, or lordly dominion over [her or] his subjects,” and her or “his dominion is rather fiduciary and ministerial, than masterly” (Lex, Rex, Question 16). A monarch who establishes herself as the servant of her people and of our Lord is more than a symbol of glory in this regard. As a servant Queen, Elizabeth II has, with her life and service to her people, testified to the King who was born in a manger.
Indeed, Queen Elizabeth II was so driven by her faith and calling, that even on her last day in her earthly office she worked diligently to fulfil her duties as a servant of her subjects. The constancy of her presence in an era characterised by drastic changes in the Kingdom, the Realms, and the rest of the world has been widely acknowledged by her subjects and people around the world, a constancy that, as an ectypal witness, points beyond itself to him who revealed himself supremely in the humbleness of his flesh-becoming as the immutable I AM. Her witness, as is the nature of all Christian witness, has now culminated in her death as a signpost to the death that gives hope and life to all who believe.
The profoundly saddening passing of the Crown in this fashion, as a proleptic witness to the consummation of God’s unshakable kingdom on earth, is to me the most precious thing about the constitutional monarchy with which our nation is gifted.