Greg Garrett: Queen Elizabeth: Semper Fi

Taken with author's permission from

By Greg Garrett, June 05, 2012

I'm back in the UK for a few weeks to write and teach at Gladstone's Library and do some interviews with BBC Radio and BBC Scotland, and the biggest thing going on this month is the Royal Jubilee, a celebration of the 60-year reign of Queen Elizabeth the Second.

Maybe you're one of the millions who love the institution of the monarchy for whom CNN has been doing massive coverage. Or maybe you're like those represented by "Senior British Correspondent" John Oliver on The Daily Show, who imagine this is the last gasp of a once-great Empire, now holding on to its past only through ancient rituals and massive entertainment.

As usual, I can see a bit of both, but today I want to argue that Queen Elizabeth, she of the Jubilee, she of pomp and wealth, is nonetheless a fantastic Christian role model.

After all, who better understands what the Church in the West is going through now, could better teach our fading empire-trying to hold onto its own relevance through ritual or entertainment-what to do in the face of the fading?

Just as once the sun never set on the British Empire, so once the world seemed to be Christianity's for the taking. We were allied with the greatest earthly powers who carried us into the most-remote corners of the world and linked us forever in the triad "God, guns, and glory" that drove imperial expansion.

We were a part of the fabric of every life. The Church christened and buried, and in between, it was taken for granted that people would have a religious life, would bring up children in a religious life.

Now many millions more Africans are members of the Anglican Church than Brits in the Church of England, and African bishops argue that perhaps they need to send missionaries to the West. And in America, where some of us are so smug about the post-Christian state of England and Europe, our children and grandchildren are leaving the Church, perhaps never to return; each Christian denomination faces decline and difficulty; and we are but a generation or two from looking like the Church of England unless something changes.

But Queen Elizabeth teaches us something about what it means to serve, to live for others, and to live in service to an institution that serves others; this can only be helpful to us in our shared process of change.

You've seen the bumper stickers-or tattoos-reading "Semper Fi," the burly or once-burly but still proud Marine nearby. Semper fidelis -- always faithful-is the guiding ethic behind every Marine, as the Corps itself states:

It guides Marines to remain faithful to the mission at hand, to each other, to the Corps and to country, no matter what. Becoming a Marine is a transformation that cannot be undone, and Semper Fidelis is a permanent reminder of that. Once made, a Marine will forever live by the ethics and values of the Corps.

And as much cognitive dissonance as it may bring to bounce back from the Marine Corps to the palace, semper fidelis is the guiding principle behind the reign of Elizabeth, as well.

If you've seen The King's Speech, in which the young Princess Elizabeth is actually depicted, you may have asked yourself as I did, why would anyone want to be king or queen? To live each day not for yourself but for those you serve?

What would it be like to be born into an institution and know you were going to forever live by the ethics and values of that life-or, as exemplified by the short-lived reign of King Edward VIII (Guy Pearce), get out and leave it all behind for the woman you love and a lack of such responsibility?

Queen Elizabeth models for us a life that each of us can emulate. Unlike Mother Teresa, also devoted to a life of service, the queen certainly has known her share of creature comforts.

But the queen too has lived for the good of others, putting aside her own ego to do the work of connecting with people, of letting them remember-or hope-that they are part of something larger than themselves.

Semper fidelis. Although her 90-year-old husband Prince Phillip was hospitalized, the queen showed up Tuesday to complete the celebrations in her honor, with dignity, on behalf of all those who had come to see her and pay their respects.

Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams preached at the thanksgiving service at St. Paul's Cathedral about the queen's legacy-and explicitly tied it into Christian life:

And so to be dedicated to the good of a community-in this case both a national and an international community-is to say, 'I have no goals that are not the goals of this community; I have no well-being, no happiness, that is not the well-being of the community. What will make me content or happy is what makes for the good of this particular part of the human family.'

It is an ambitious, even an audacious thing to aim at. It is, of course, no more so than the ideals set before all Christians who try to model their lives on what St Paul says about life in the Body of Christ. That doesn't make it any easier to grasp or to live out; but the way St Paul approaches it should help us see that we're not being encouraged to develop a self-punishing attitude, relentlessly denying our own goals or our own flourishing for the sake of others. What's put before us is a genuine embrace of those others, a willingness to be made happy by the well-being of our neighbours.

'Outdo one another in showing honour', says St Paul. Compete with each other only in the generous respect you show to one and all; because in learning that respect you will find delight in one another. You will begin to discover that the other person is a source of nourishment, excitement, pleasure, growth and challenge. And if we broaden this out to an entire community, a nation, a commonwealth, it means discovering that it is always in an ever-widening set of relations that we become properly ourselves. Dedication to the service of a community certainly involves that biblical sense of an absolute purge of selfish goals, but it is also the opening of a door into shared riches.

I don't think it's at all fanciful to say that, in all her public engagements, our Queen has shown a quality of joy in the happiness of others; she has responded with just the generosity St Paul speaks of in showing honour to countless local communities and individuals of every background and class and race. She has made her 'public' happy and all the signs are that she is herself happy, fulfilled and at home in these encounters . . . To declare a lifelong dedication is to take a huge risk, to embark on a costly venture. But it is also to respond to the promise of a vision that brings joy.

That lifelong dedication to a cause is what we can learn-and the promise of joy that comes from serving others.

Let the Empire rot.

The subjects still-and always will-matter.

And whatever the institution looks like, we who are born into this family will always need to serve them-and each other.


Greg Garrett is the author of works of fiction, criticism, and theology, including Faithful Citizenship from Patheos Press. He is Professor of English at Baylor University, and a licensed lay preacher in the Episcopal Church.

Garrett's column, "Faithful Citizenship," is published every Thursday on the Progressive Christian portal. Subscribe via email or RSS.