Prominently placed in the sitting room of my dad’s ancestral home in India sits a photo of my one meeting with Queen Elizabeth II. That everyday visitors from a different cultural reality look on her with mutterings of immediate recognition, respect and affection reveals something about her grassroots and universal appeal. That the fiercely republican government of India has declared an unprecedented day of national mourning for the passing of this foreign monarch, and leader of Anglicanism, shouts her standing as an international stateswoman and historical figure.
Across the UK, places of worship and centres of community are united in grief. For me as a Hindu who works to develop effective leadership across all faiths, the sovereign’s sacramental bond of duty over seventy years deeply resonates with scriptural teachings on service and sacrifice. It pulled together people of every race, religion, generation and background into an unparalleled and healthy plurality. Britain’s communities are also secure in knowing that our new King, in words and deeds, has shown his dedication and commitment to all people and to being a protector of religious practice and freedom.
It’s getting on for thirty years since the King, as a forty-something Prince of Wales, famously floated the idea of dropping the definite article from the centuries old title Defender of the Faith. He rightly foresaw that by the time of his accession, Britain’s religious make-up would be unrecognisable compared to 1952, when the title was last bestowed as his mother took the throne. Then, 80 per cent of people identified themselves as Christians. Today, the Office for National Statistics records a figure of 51 per cent. Across our four nations, Hindu temples, mosques, gurudwaras and synagogues as well as churches, are a welcome architectural testament to the undeniable fact that twenty-first century Britain is home to the world’s main religions and beliefs.
In making clear his preference to protect and defend all faith, King Charles showed he recognised the valuable contributions made to all our lives by diverse traditions. What’s more, his visible and lifelong commitment to foster closer bonds between denominations (he is patron to Jewish and Islamic organisations) is a compelling acknowledgement of how he sees integration as a powerful catalyst for positive change. Unleashed, as he has, this can heal the world we share.
Shifts in domestic religiosity in the seven decades Charles III has been heir apparent have coincided with social change that has, on occasion, bordered on turmoil. Retreat from empire, deindustrialisation, globalisation, terrorism, environmental neglect, Brexit and Covid could have torn our country apart. In bringing attention to the work of vital convening inter-religious bodies, the King has prevented the entrenchment of silos and suspicions and has instead enabled countless bridges to be built across wisdom traditions, and people of every background.
As a result, we have evolved into a society where Britons of all faiths have likewise remained interconnected in their hopes and dreams of a better world. The dedication of NHS staff is but one example of functional plurality. Nearly three-quarters of that workforce adhere to a religion. During the pandemic they showed how a covenantal bond of duty directed towards a common cause can get us through.
King Charles understands the importance of dialogue – of giving space to come together and discuss complex human problems in environments of confidence and trust. He is an advocate of shared ideas, co-operation and the necessity for agreeable disagreement. He favours deep, authentic, meaningful relationships that build trust and connect people. He is motivated to mend what is broken, to reconcile and not inflame. Yes, he has shown himself a natural activist, but he’s also made clear that the role of sovereign is a separate exercise, and that he understands entirely how that should operate.
Through his work with multiple faith-based organisations, the King has shown he cares about other people’s freedom to worship (or indeed, not worship) in this country. As monarch his influence stretches further, into a world where a striking majority say they have some connection with religion. We must hope for an ecumenical trickle-down of his points of view.
King Charles’ suggestion in the 1990s that his future title be changed to Defender of Faith was simply that – a suggestion. He has since made clear that his intention was never to undermine the deep roots of his own or anyone else’s Christian standpoint, but rather to promote the Church’s duty to protect the free practice of all religions in this country. So, when he is crowned, there will be no change to the monarch’s position as Supreme Governor of the Church of England. Fidei Defensor – Defender Of The Faith will remain the official moniker, as it has since 1544. But in making his multi-faith preference clear, Charles shows that he minds about the inclusion of other people’s faiths. He cares, which is surely more applicable than the symbolism of words and titles.
The nation’s prayer for the last seventy years and across all faith groups has been God save the Queen. In praying for the King, I see the humility with which he delivered the televised address that followed the death of his mother in which he emphasised the goodness of loyalty, respect and love. Plenty remains to destabilise us, but King Charles III has a safe and secure grounding in humanity. His encouragement for unity will preserve a quiet constant we became accustomed to and were, perhaps unknowingly, reassured by. God save the King!
Krish Raval OBE is Director of Faith in Leadership