Paul Thomas explores the Accession Day Liturgy and vocation of the Christian Monarchy, powerfully exemplified in the life and reign of Her Majesty the Queen


The Accession Service appears within the Book of Common Prayer immediately following the Ordinal as (like Holy Order itself – the diaconate, priesthood, and episcopate) Christian monarchy is both vocational and sacramental in character: vocational in that it is not a role undertaken or function performed but a calling responded to in obedience; and sacramental in that it incarnates and instantiates what it is in the person who exercises it. Monarchy is neither an idea or an abstraction as if it were a theoretical principle, but is concretely embodied in a person, manifest in a life, a reign. 

Though it is our Second Gloriana the seventieth anniversary of whose accession we celebrate this year, it was in the reign of the first Elizabeth that the first Form of Prayer and Thanksgiving to Almighty God for the accession was composed and widely used in England. It may come as a surprise to know just how great in fact was the profusion of special and occasional Forms of Prayer in the reign of the Virgin Queen. In fact, records reveal that at least ten Form of Prayer, liturgical rites of thanksgiving and intercession, are extant from then. 

It was in 1576 that the forbear of the Accession Service was first published. Called A Form of Prayer with Thanksgiving, to be used every year, the seventeenth of November, being the day of the Queen’s Majesty’s entry to her reign, it was written, scholarship tells us, by the Revd Edmund Bunny, a priest and itinerant evangelist of decidedly Calvinistic inclinations who travelled widely preaching the Gospel, ably assisted by two mounted servants. It was for the eighteenth anniversary of Elizabeth I’s accession that Bunny composed a Form of Prayer intended to be used at Matins. It took the shape of an office, naturally, and consisted of Proper Psalms, exceedingly long Lessons taken out of the historical books of the Old Testament in which we are instructed about virtuous and truly biblical kingship; a set of suffrages; a composite canticle made up of various verses from the psalms concluding with the Glory be…; a specially composed collect for the accession; and concluding with further psalms, and the recommendation for a sermon. This is the Accession Day collect that Bunny composed:

O Lord God, most merciful Father, who as upon this day, placing thy servant our Sovereign and gracious Queen Elizabeth in the kingdom, didst deliver thy people of England from danger of war and oppression, both of bodies of tyranny, and of conscience by superstition, restoring peace and true religion, with liberty both of bodies and minds, and hast continued the same thy blessings, without all desert on our part now by the space of these eighteen years: we who are in memory of these thy great benefits assembled here together, most humbly beseech thy fatherly goodness to grant us grace, that we may in word, deed, and heart, shew ourselves thankful and obedient unto thee for the same; and that our Queen through thy grace may in all honour, goodness, and godliness, long and many years reign over us, and we obey and enjoy her, with the continuance of thy great blessings, which thou hast by her thy minister poured upon us: this we beseech thee to grant unto us, for thy dear Son Jesus Christ’s sake, our Lord and Saviour. Amen.

We can see in this the early beginnings of the accession prayers we use now. Yes, it is long, but nowhere near as expansive as other Royal collects of the period. For example, the collect for Elizabeth I’s birthday popularly used during her reign reaches the veritable heights of ecstasy in honouring ‘that jewel of inestimable price, to wit, the blessed spirit and being of thine humble servant, whose sacred person according to thy word we do reverently repute and call the breath of our nostrils, the Anointed of the Lord, by whose breath we live, by whose life we breathe…’ It is a magnificent work of liturgical hyperbole.

Two years later, in 1578, further liturgical texts were published to accompany the increasingly popular accession celebrations. In addition to a metrical psalm (LXXXI), ‘an anthem or prayer for the preservation of the Church, the Queen’s Majesty, and the Realm’ was provided with each verse concluding with the worthy and right-minded refrain: ‘Save Lord, and bless with good increase, Thy Church, our Queen and Realm in peace!’ A further ‘Song of rejoicing for the prosperous reign of our most gracious Sovereign Lady Queen Elizabeth’ also appeared in the same year. The poetry may be lacking, but the sentiment is true:

Give laud unto the Lord,

And praise his holy name:

O let us all with one accord

Now magnify the same.

Due thanks unto him yield,

Who evermore hath been

So strong defence, buckler and shield,

To our most Royal Queen.

These Accession Day ceremonies and celebrations continued throughout Elizabeth’s reign and grew in fervor and scale year-on-year. Indeed, the seventeenth of November continued to be kept by many as ‘Queene’s Day’ long after Glorianna’s death as it had by then taken on associations of a patriotic and decidedly protestant feeling against foreign powers and enemies of England; Accession Day had entered deeply into the imagination of English national Protestantism. 

On the accession of King James I in 1603, a Form of Prayer and Thanksgiving was issued for use in all churches ‘upon his entry to this kingdom’. In 1625, when the Royal Martyr acceded to The Throne a new service was issued which was later sanctioned by Convocation in the Canons of 1640 but which was later set aside by Parliament at the Restoration when certain parts of it were included in the special service for 29th May. When King James II acceded The Throne in 1685 following the death of his brother Charles II, he ordered a revision of the accession liturgy which first introduced the words ‘the day on which His Majesty began his happy reign’. These words were to be included in the official title of the Accession Liturgy until the early twentieth century. The Form of Prayer fell out of use after the so-called ‘Glorious Revolution’, to be restored to use again during the reign of Queen Anne, and all successors to the English Throne thereafter.

Only the Accession Service survived the great liturgical cull of 1859 when Queen Victoria commanded that the other Forms of Prayer be removed from the Prayer Book and Convocation be asked to revise the service for Accession Day. Convocation obediently went about its work, but this quickly raised a number of questions amongst the liturgical scholars to whom responsibility of revision had been given. These men argued that revising the existing Form of Prayer for Accession Day was near impossible – the liturgy had undergone multiple amendments and adaptations through each successive reign. It was proposed that a wholly new Form of Prayer with Thanksgiving for the Accession be composed. In fact, it was proposed that three Forms of Prayer were necessary. This was eventually agreed upon, and this is what is annexed to the Book of Common Prayer today. 

The first Form provided a new set of proper Psalms, Lessons, suffrages and prayers for use at Matins and Evensong; the second Form provided a proper Collect, Epistle and Gospel for the celebration of the Holy Eucharist; and the third Form was intended as a stand-alone service, not for use in Matins or Evensong, but independently, beginning with the Te Deum Laudamus, with suffrages and collects, concluding with the blessing. It wasn’t until 9th November 1901 that these three new Forms of Prayer with Thanksgiving to Almighty God were finally authorized in the reign of Edward VII, and saving for the usual changes to the members of the Royal Family prayed for by name, we have used the same ever since in our annual thanksgiving to almighty God for the coming to her Throne of our most gracious Sovereign Lady Queen Elizabeth II. 

There are four distinct theological and spiritual themes in the Accession Service concerning the character and vocation of Christian Monarchy and kingship. 


Sovereignty of God

Note just how the collects for the Accession begin: ‘O God, who providest for thy people by thy power, and rulest over them in love,’ says the first; ‘O Lord our God, who upholdest and governest all things by the word of thy power,’ says the second; ‘Almighty God, who rulest over all the kingdoms of the world, and dost order them according to thy good pleasure,’ begins the third. The Accession prayers set forth a deeply biblical view of kingship as an institution subordinated to the divine sovereignty of God. God is the one who rules and reign; he is the one who orders and upholds all things; he is the King universal, eternal, transcendent, mysterious. This same theological idea is consistently forth in all the royal-related prayers found in the Prayer Book (and there are quite a number). In fact, we can say that such a liturgical book as the Book of Common Prayer which has such a developed doctrine of Monarchy is also at the same time a book that marks out the boundary of monarchical power and prerogative so clearly by continually placing it under and in relation to the divine Power. Take for example, the Prayer for the Monarch at the Holy Eucharist: ‘Almighty God whose kingdom is everlasting and power infinite…so rule the heart of thy chosen servant Elizabeth our Queen.’ In the State Prayer at Matins and Evensong the same theme is reinforced; there God is addressed as ‘high and mighty, King of kings and Lord of lord, the only ruler of princes…’ What all these prayers are doing is to establish the biblical belief that no thing has supremacy but God, and no thing is to be taken to be God which is not God, and that the Prince is upheld in his royal dignity in the measure that he is obedient to God. The Old Testament repeatedly insists on this, describing God as reigning eternally, alone in possessing an everlasting kingdom, uniquely having dominion over all things and all peoples. He is a living and personal king, a holy and righteous king. 



Having established this theme of the sovereignty of God in and over all things, we can then begin – as the Prayer Book liturgy does – to understand monarchy aright, in relation to the One who is its source and legitimacy. What at once flows from that principle is that all things are set in service of the divine kingship of God, none more so than the Monarch. Monarchy is God’s instrument, the person of the Monarch God’s servant – and this is the second theme. Directly related to the sovereignty of God is the theme of the essential servanthood of the Monarch. Listen again to what the Accession Service says: ‘We yield thee unfeigned thanks for that thou wast pleased, as on this day, to set thy Servant our Sovereign Lady, Queen Elizabeth upon the Throne of this Realm.’ Only a Christian liturgy could understand and express sovereignty in terms of servanthood because the King of kings and Lord of lords came in his holy incarnation ‘not to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.’ At the very heart of our Faith is the servanthood of the divine King; Monarchy is a kind of sacrament of his servanthood. God’s downward trajectory in the incarnation, ever downward into ever greater self-emptying, this for us is the very pattern and model of Christian Kingship. Christ is its exemplar. Now, ‘sovereignty’ and ‘servanthood’ are contrary states of being from a secular perspective. Secularity demands we see sovereignty and servanthood as being in hostile and antagonistic conflict with one another: any notion of ‘master’ and ‘slave’ must be smashed, but in the light of the incarnation these states are become inseparable. For the Christian Church sovereignty and servanthood are now united and perfected cruciformly, brought together and consummated upon the cross on which the God-Man reigns in suffering, the fulfilment of his divine servanthood. It is in the scandal and paradox of the cross – the cross that surmounts the Royal Crown – that the kingdom of God is fully revealed. Therefore, for our Queen to profess the Crucified One as King, and for her to be anointed with sacred Chrism at her coronation, is for her to be granted a share in both Christ’s kingship and his lowly burden-bearing servanthood.  


Ordering the kingdom

In God’s covenant with the Jews at Sinai, God’s kingship is revealed to be personal and moral. God gives Moses and the People of Israel a body of law, a covenant, so that their common life may be ordered morally as God wishes it to be ordered, and through their liturgical life (which is also carefully set out according to divine precept) they are to orient themselves toward their creator in praise, obedience, adoration and love. Later in the Old Testament we see under the Prophet Samuel how a settled people ask for a king to rule over them. They are given a king but only so that he might serve God’s purpose in ordering his people rightly, justly, obediently, morally. Kings who do this are honored in the bible; kings who do not are condemned. Kingship in Israel, therefore, has a unique role in ordering Hebrew society toward God; the king is to so arrange the affairs of the kingdom that they conform ever more closely and faithfully to the covenant with God and God’s purposes for them. In this third theme of ordering the Kingdom toward God, the Accession Service prayers understand monarchy to have this moral purpose: ‘Let thy wisdom be her guide, and let thine arm strengthen her; let truth and justice, holiness and righteousness, peace and charity, about in her days…’ The Christian Monarch, like the Kings of Israel, is to do no less than to use the Royal power to order the affairs of the realm toward the Kingdom of God; to labour in service in order that the temporal affairs accord with God’s wishes for human society and its flourishing, that there is a kind of budding forth now of the Kingdom that is to come. When any society abounds with truth and justice, holiness and righteousness, peace and charity then it is a society ordered toward God who is the Summum Bonum, the Highest Good from whom all good things do come and toward whom they are rightly aligned.


Life of the world to come

And this leads to the final eschatological theme, which finds its fulfilment beyond death, in the Kingdom that is coming. The Book of Common Prayer is very coy when it comes to praying for those who have departed this life in God’s faith and fear. However, when it comes to the Monarch and the Royal Family, the Prayer Book is positively enthusiastic in praying for their eternal souls before they die: the Accession rite is no exception. The first collect asks that having persevered ‘in good works unto the end [she] may by thy guidance, come to thine everlasting kingdom;’ the second collect prays that ‘after death [she] may attain everlasting life and glory…’; and the third collect asks God to ‘crown her with everlasting life.’ But perhaps these petitions ought not to be overlooked; perhaps they illuminate a hidden and mystical dimension of Monarchy. Of the Proper Lessons given in the Accession Liturgy, a passage from the Revelation to St John (chapter 21) is provided in which the kings of the earth enjoy an almost priestly role in the New Jerusalem:

And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and its lamp is the Lamb. By its light will the nations walk, and the kings of the earth shall bring their glory into it, and its gates will never be shut by day – and there will be no night there. They will bring into it the glory and honour of the nations.

It is the earthly kings who, in New Jerusalem, ‘bring’ into the city the glory and honour of the nations. The word St John uses here can also mean ‘offer’. The kings of the earth make an offering of the nations. Now redeemed, now glorified, now brought fully into the Reign of God, human states and societies are made new and seen for what they truly are, an oblation, an offering made in worship to the Lamb slain to redeem them. Therefore, praying that the Sovereign may come into God’s everlasting kingdom is to affirm our belief in the eschatological end of things, in the fulfilling purposes of God, that he will bring in the Kingdom that is coming, and that in his Kingdom the Monarch continues her sacred vocation, first exercised in this life but pointing ever towards the next, to order the realm and to offer it up unto God in obedience, faithfulness, virtue, and praise, world without end.


The Revd Paul Thomas is the Vicar of St James’s, Sussex Gardens, London. He has given lectures on the Accession, on which this article is based, to the Prayer Book Society and at All Saints’, Northampton, earlier this year.