Now the dust has settled on the celebrations of the Queen’s remarkable achievement in reaching 70 years on the throne, perhaps we can reflect on the words of the National Anthem which we heard played and sung so joyfully at the concert and other events over the weekend?
God save our gracious Queen!
Long live our noble Queen!
God save the Queen!
Send her victorious,
Happy and glorious,
Long to reign over us,
God save the Queen.
Have you ever considered what the words say, let alone what they mean? Have you wondered for example, what it is we are exhorting God to ’save’ the Queen from? Or whether we should continue to ask that she should be ‘long-lived?’
If so, perhaps a perfectly valid response from God might be that as the lady in question has reached the impressive age of 96, which part of ’saving’ her and giving her a long life, do we think he has missed? Surely, he might argue, he can put a big tick in the ‘saving’ box, and we should perhaps now be moving on and asking him for something else in regard to this exceptional person?
Of course, all this is academic, if you take the more theological view that what we’re actually doing is asking God to be a Christian ‘saviour’; in other words, to ‘save’ the Queen in the same way that Jesus was supposed to be sent to save all of us – from ‘original sin’. This was the sin derived from the actions of Adam, Eve and the Serpent, involving a certain apple in the Garden of Eden, as told in the book of Genesis. Unless you are a committed creationist and believe that the earth is only 6,000 years old, it was created in six days and that snakes can talk – in which case you are probably part of a very small minority in Britain today – this is hardly a valid request.
Either way, by asking God to save Her Majesty from death, or from ‘original sin’, I think this makes the National Anthem into a form of prayer. Great Britain is now a diverse and multicultural society, and although 54.7% of the 2011 census respondents described themselves as Christian, 35.3% described themselves as having no religion.* And I suspect that these figures will have shifted significantly further away from Christianity when the 2021 census figures are released later this year.
I would therefore argue that this makes the words of the anthem – which date back to 1745 – singularly inappropriate to modern Britain. Surely we should have a National Anthem that better reflects our society and beliefs today? I suggest when the sadly inevitable does happen and we have to bid a fond and heartfelt farewell to Her Majesty, that the new King Charles should use his influence to start a national debate on our anthem.
Should it have any exhortation to God at all? I accept that Charles will be head of the established church, but surely it is inappropriate for the song we sing at national events to be so deeply based on a religion that fewer and fewer of us subscribe to, or even believe in? Another anomaly is that the National Anthem is British, while there is no equivalent anthem (to the best of my knowledge) for the English. The Welsh have Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau and the Scots have Flower of Scotland – yet as part of the United Kingdom, both also have God Save the Queen. This leads to the interesting spectacle that when either of these teams play England at an international rugby match they each sing their own anthem, while the English team sings one that applies equally to both sides.
So let’s have a national debate on the National Anthem – not now, as I say, but once God has stopped saving Queen Elizabeth – and find something more appropriate to modern Britain, and maybe also a different one for modern England. Naturally, I would rather this is later than sooner, not least because it would be great for God to save our current sovereign for as long as possible, but also because she has revealed herself to be a fine comedy actress. No matter how old she is, it was clear on Saturday night that she has impeccable timing, and can deliver a comedy punchline with the best of them. I would love to think she could regale us with lots more skits in years to come.
More tea with Paddington Bear, anyone?