Georgia Bulletin

The Newspaper of the Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta

Queen Elizabeth II, British Catholicism and the Agatha Christie Indult 

By DAVID A. KING, Ph.D. | Published October 2, 2022

Like many Americans, I have always been fascinated by Queen Elizabeth II, the longest reigning monarch in British history. In union with people all over the world, I was saddened by her death a few weeks ago. She had lived and reigned long, and her passing was of course inevitable, yet it still came as a shock to the many of us who never knew another British monarch. She was simply always there; then, suddenly, she was not. 

My interest in the Queen was rooted in a uniquely American Anglophilia that adores the traditional “Pomp and Circumstance” of British royalty, the beauty of the English language expressed in British literature and the High Anglican Church and the deep connection of the monarchy to popular culture and our collective imagination. 

From nursery rhymes to English children’s classics; from Robin Hood to the Beatles, throughout my life the Queen, and the British Crown in general, have always been present.  

The Beatles met the Queen several times, yet even for Paul McCartney, she inspired a kind of gentle awe. Just think of the songs she inhabits: “Penny Lane,” with its fireman who keeps “in his pocket a portrait of the Queen;” “Mean Mr. Mustard,” whose only day out occurs when his sister “takes him out to look at the Queen;” and the Beatles’ hidden coda at the end of Abbey Road, “Her Majesty—” “Her Majesty’s a pretty nice girl, but she doesn’t have a lot to say. Her Majesty’s a pretty nice girl, but she changes from day to day. I want to tell her that I love her a lot, but I’ve got to get a belly full of wine. Her Majesty’s a pretty nice girl; someday I’m going to make her mine; oh yeah, someday I’m going to make her mine.”   

In a way McCartney succeeded, knighted as he was by Queen Elizabeth II. 

As I’ve written before in my column, both Paul McCartney and George Harrison were baptized as Roman Catholics, and McCartney’s “Let it Be” is still seen by many Catholics as a kind of Marian hymn. 

I know Catholics who are as fascinated by the British monarchy as they are the Vatican. I know that some of this passion comes from reasons I’ve already cited, but I also think that Catholics deeply respected her life-long commitment to Christianity. She was a woman of great faith. Her long mourning period and funeral rites evidenced her love for the Church of England. Her reign exemplified one of the monarch’s key roles to “Defend the Faith,” which she did beautifully and sincerely. 

Cardinal Andre Vingt-Trois of Paris loses his zucchetto in a gust of wind as he greets Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II in Paris April 6, 2004. Queen Elizabeth died Sept. 8 at the age of 96. CNS photo/Reuters

Many have remarked how long she served—70 years! Yet here Catholics should take a proud pause. Long before the monarchy severed itself from Rome, the English had been Catholic for 1,500 years. The Anglican Church by comparison is not very old, only 500 years, and its authorized “King James Bible” is even younger, dating back to just 1611. 

In truth, Catholics in Britain have suffered much prejudice and, in many cases, outright bigotry, whether after the Gunpowder Plot led by Guy Fawkes or the modern Troubles in Northern Ireland. Today, “RCs,” as Catholics are often called in Britain, number about 8% of the population. 

Queen Elizabeth II was a key figure in forging stronger ecumenical relations with Rome. Before her coronation, she met Pope Pius XII. Throughout her reign, she met with four other popes multiple times in both Rome and London. Her audience with Pope Francis in 2014 commemorated the 100th anniversary of renewed diplomatic relations with the Holy See. The Queen gave Francis a gift box of treats from her beloved Balmoral, including a bottle of fine Scotch. The two leaders seemed to get along; certainly, they had a mutual respect for one another. 

The importance of liturgy 

Where Queen Elizabeth II and Pope Francis differed, I suspect, is on the matter of liturgy. Pope Francis is of course a proponent for simplifying the Mass in the spirit of Vatican II, and he has placed serious restrictions upon when and where the Latin Tridentine Mass may be celebrated. 

It is ironic that while many Americans—whether Catholic or not—who watched the Queen’s funeral may have been stupefied by its solemnity and length, the roots of that liturgy are in the Roman Catholic Church. 

Liturgy is important. The unification of beautiful language and music with the reality of the sacred mysteries is crucial.  Imagination and faith are entwined. The sensory response to “smells and bells” is a crucial link between body and soul.   

The discounting of solemnity in liturgy leads down a slippery slope to where nobody sings the hymns; nobody recites the Gloria or the Creed; people forget to say ‘amen’ after receiving communion, and having done so, depart the church immediately. I think one of the best things I ever did as a father was to have my sons serve many years as altar boys. They developed reverence and learned respect for both solemnity and ritual. They understand what it means to occupy a sacred space in a sacred time. 

Of course, simplicity can be beautiful. So can the ornate. Regardless of the form, the matter of the Mass is the same: Christ made fully present body, blood, soul, and divinity. Yet there are times when the plain and brief fail to move us. This is why the infamous “Agatha Christie Indult” of 1971 was so important to British Catholics, and even non-Catholics who valued the artistry and cultural identity of the Tridentine Mass.   

Following Vatican II, Pope Paul VI oversaw the revision of the liturgy to include the celebration of Mass in the vernacular language. In England, this pained the philogist and author J.R.R. Tolkien especially, who continued to bellow the responses in his beloved Latin. The truth is that it pained a lot of British Catholics who clung to the liturgical treasure of the Tridentine Mass both for its beauty and familiarity and for its clear distinction from the Church of England. Much like “fish on Friday,” the Latin Mass for British Catholics was a sign of their unique identity as a minority in their homeland. 

‘A living tradition’ 

A large group of British Catholics and notable non-Catholics petitioned Pope Paul VI for permission to retain the Tridentine Mass. Among the many great Catholic artists who signed the petition were the novelist Graham Greene and the poet and painter David Jones; non-Catholic signers included the philosopher and novelist Iris Murdoch and the famous detective fiction writer Agatha Christie. 

The signatures of Jones and Christie were very important, for different reasons. A convert to Catholicism, Jones was drawn to the faith when he observed Mass being said in the trenches of World War I. His writing and painting were deeply Catholic, and he argued throughout his life the importance of seeing sacrament as art and art as sacrament. His book-length poems “In Parenthesis” and “Anathemata” affirm both his Catholicism and his pride in his English and Welsh heritage. 

Christie was a quietly devout Anglican; her husband, the archeologist Max Mallowan was Catholic. In the end, however, Pope Paul VI was swayed by Christie’s signature. Legend has it that when the Pope saw the famous writer’s name on the petition, he exclaimed aloud his delight and granted permission for the Tridentine Mass to be celebrated in Britain. 

The letter Jones and Christie signed was short and to the point and stressed that it was meant to be ecumenical and non-political. The text includes this statement: “In the materialistic and technocratic civilization that is increasingly threatening the life of mind and spirit in its original creative expression—the word—it seems particularly inhuman to deprive man of word-forms in their most grandiose manifestations.” Indeed, the letter calls the Tridentine Mass a “living tradition.” 

I would add over 50 years later that in an American popular culture that is increasingly obsessed with abridgment and condensation, perhaps we as Catholics could take a lesson from the mourning and funeral of Queen Elizabeth II. If people are willing to wait in line in all weathers for 24 hours to pay respects to the death of a long-serving monarch, then surely they can give more than an hour to celebrate in beautiful language and music the sacrifice of our Lord. 

David A. King, Ph.D., is professor of English and film studies at Kennesaw State University and director of RCIA at Holy Spirit Church, Atlanta.