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“The Crown” and the Primacy of Grace

December 3, 2019


Like, I daresay, most of the English-speaking world, these past couple of years I’ve been watching episodes of The Crown, the beautifully filmed, marvelously written program on the life and times of Queen Elizabeth II. The series deals with the psychological dynamics within the royal family as well as with the cultural changes and political challenges that the Queen has faced in the course of her long reign. But what has been, at least to me, most surprising has been the insightful and sympathetic way in which it has addressed issues of faith. Especially in the first season, we saw the fairly frequent conflicts between Elizabeth’s devotion to her family and her role as head of the Church of England. In season two, there was a deeply affecting episode on the visit of Billy Graham to the UK in the mid-fifties. We saw that, despite reticence regarding the American evangelist on the part of some in the British establishment, the Queen found his preaching illuminating and uplifting.

But in season three, the religious theme has emerged with particular and surprising clarity, especially in connection with the figure who, for my money, is the most fascinating supporting character in the series—namely, Prince Philip’s mother, Princess Alice. An heiress related to most of the royal families of Europe, a first-class eccentric (possibly schizophrenic), a mystic, and toward the end of her life, a Greek Orthodox nun dedicated to the poor, Alice could certainly be the star of her own feature film. After political unrest in Greece, the princess-nun is spirited to Buckingham Palace for her own safety, and there she beguiles and/or confounds most of those around her.

When Philip comes to see her, it seems for the first time in quite a while, she inquires as to the Prince’s well-being. At the end of their brief conversation, she wonders about his faith. After he gives a diffident response, she looks at him and says, “You must find your faith; it will help you.” But then, realizing immediately the inadequacy of her characterization, she looks wistfully into the middle distance and insists, “No, it doesn’t just help. It’s everything.” I cannot think of a better way to express the all-determining, all-embracing quality of authentic religious belief. Though modern etiquette dictates that faith be one feature of a person’s private life, the great masters of the spiritual tradition know that such a compartmentalized religion is no religion at all. It’s everything, or it’s a waste of time.

Now, two episodes later, the series flashes forward a few years to 1969. Princess Alice has just died, and her son, the Prince, finds himself in a midlife funk: depressed, convinced that his royal activities are trivial, utterly dismissive of religion. At the same time, he’s preoccupied with the exploits of the American Apollo astronauts—Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins—making their way that summer to the moon. They strike Philip, himself an accomplished pilot, as models of healthy activity, scientific ingenuity, and courage. He begins to feel that somehow associating himself with them and their kind of heroism will restore him to psychological health, peace of soul. As the Apollo 11 mission is underway, Philip is invited to visit a group of Anglican clergymen, who are experiencing burnout and depression in their ministry. Joining their circle of discussion, he hears tales of woe, hopelessness, and unrealized dreams. Showing not an ounce of sympathy, he launches into a purely Pelagian exhortation, urging these sad men to be like “Armstrong, Aldrin, and Collins,” finding their purpose through achievement and self-determination and to stop wasting their time with morbid introspection. To the utter consternation of these suffering clergymen, the Prince then leaves their company in a huff of pitiless condescension.

After the moon landing, the Apollo astronauts pay a formal visit to Buckingham Palace and, more than a little starstruck, the Prince asks to see them privately. Face to face with his heroes, he asks not about the technicalities of flying, but about meaning, vision, and what they learned—in the deepest sense of that term—when they were on the moon. Surely these paragons of achievement will give him what he wants. Instead, they tell Philip that they just didn’t have time to muse on such matters—at which point they commence, with childlike enthusiasm, to inquire about the perks and privileges of the royal life. With that, something shifted in the Prince—something gave way. He seemed to realize that his program of vigorous activity and self-assertion, which he had boldly advocated to the suffering clergymen, would never in fact answer the questions that had welled up in his own soul. In a remarkably moving scene, the Prince subsequently returns to the circle of priests in crisis, whom he had previously mocked and chastised, and makes a kind of confession—and then humbly asks for their help.

There is so much more going on here than mere psychological insight or development—and God bless the writers of The Crown for presenting it. Throughout this episode, Prince Philip was standing on one of the great fault lines in Christianity—namely, the divide between auto-salvation and salvation through grace. In referring above to the “Pelagian” quality of his speech to the priests, I was referencing the fifth-century theologian Pelagius, who opined that we can save ourselves through a heroic exercise of the free will. St. Augustine spent the last years of his life opposing Pelagianism and insisting that peace of soul, happiness, salvation—call it what you want—comes not through self-striving but precisely through a surrender that takes place at the limit of all possible achievement. It comes, as Prince Philip rather slowly and painfully realized, not through strenuous effort, but as his mother clearly knew, through faith—a surrender to what can only be called grace. The primacy of grace, it has been argued, is the central teaching of the Bible. How wonderful that it’s also a key lesson in an episode of one of the most popular television programs of our time.