Prince William Ate My Religion
It’s royal festivity time, back in my enchanted homeland. A royal wedding! Like in the fairy-tales! Prince Charming still sort of exists, and his wedding still sort of has the power to unite the nation, or most of it, in a carefully staged act of nuptial joy. Right?
I have mixed feelings about the monarchy, but a bit of distance clarifies. I moved to New York last year, and I am glad I’m not back home now.
Am I a “republican”? Well, I do think that the monarchy keeps British society in the past; it affirms the class system and subtly alienates ethnic minorities; it tells Britons that they are feudal subjects rather than modern citizens responsible for the health of their democracy. It is also sexist (a male heir precedes his older sister) and anti-Catholic (the ban on papist monarchs abides). But, on the other hand, republicanism has a sort of cold rationalist aura in the British context. It rejects a colorful myth of social unity, which finds expression in carnivalesque celebration, in favor of some abstract principles which have no real power to unite. It feels puritan, kill-joy, nay-saying, PC.
What keeps our republicanism at bay is the sense that a nation needs to perform a big myth, a story that makes its various tribes feel some sense of common belonging and purpose. The myth we Brits have may be politically incorrect, but it isn’t so acutely objectionable that its removal feels obligatory. What socially binding narrative would we put in its place? Isn’t it best to leave well alone? Even Australia can’t quite bring itself to ditch the old symbolism—so it’s little surprise that republicanism struggles in Britain.
The average British liberal is a theoretical republican who sees no real alternative to pragmatic conservatism. This almost describes my position, but not quite. There is another dimension to the issue that gets me off the fence.
I am a rather keen Christian. The tradition of my upbringing is the Church of England, the established church. But it became clear to me about ten years ago, that this tradition contained the hugest structural error. It shouldn’t be established: Christianity and establishment are incompatible. The case for disestablishment is probably too obvious to restate, especially for American readers. The interesting question, though, is how Anglicanism manages to dismiss this case, how it justifies its refusal to reform.
The answer is that this tradition is awesomely cunning. When you earnestly try to pin it down it slips silkily away. It’s like trying to kill a ghost. You are up against the calmest of patrician voices: “Really, dear boy, it’s just harmless symbolism, no need to get worked up about it. Establishment is slowly dying, but we may as well enjoy the benefits while we can.”
The chief benefit is deemed to be the idea that the Church is not just a club for its members but serves everyone in the nation. But isn’t that noble ideal rooted in theocracy and the persecution of dissent? “Come come, you really think Rowan Williams is itching to burn heretics at the stake, if only he can get the state to allow it? Those days are ended, thank goodness, so let’s not fall into dated polemics.”
But establishment misrepresents the gospel, and makes it seem pre-modern, illiberal! “Don’t be so literal-minded: a nuanced view shows that the established Church has been at the very forefront of liberal Christianity.” And so on.
But what motivates people to go on in this slippery conservatism? The embers of a great theocracy are deeply alluring. It is not psychologically and spiritually easy to be a reformer if you have been raised on “God save the Queen” and “I vow to thee my country” and “Jerusalem” and all the myths of imperial grandeur, and all the pomp and pageantry of royal weddings and jubilees, and so on. This is the most powerful and beautiful national religion of modern times, with authentic medieval roots; it keeps the memory of Christendom stirringly alive. Of course these days it isn’t taken straight; it is mixed with irony and post-imperial penitence. But it nevertheless keeps its hold over English souls. I have been trying to loosen my own attachment for years.
I was raised in old-school Anglicanism. This form of religion was quietly aware of its centrality to the national character, of its establishment in a wide sense. It hardly needed to acknowledge the existence of evangelical enthusiasm, or trendy reform, or Roman Catholicism. For centuries, it had simply been religious normality—what kings and queens believed, what inspired the empire, what the Bible was written for—well, the Bible in its Authorized Version. Other forms of Christianity were known to exist, but this was the authorized one.
When I was a boy, the nation was delighted by the ill-starred wedding of Charles and Diana. The archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Runcie, said that the event was “the stuff of fairy tales.” He didn’t mean Beauty and the Beast. When they took their vows, he said, “They will be doing so as representative figures for the nation.” It is worth noting that Runcie was famously liberal, a soft-left critic of Thatcher’s government. Even liberal Anglicans are deeply implicated in royal pageantry. Only one or two of today’s leading clergy are openly scornful of the monarchy; when the current wedding was announced last November, an assistant bishop declared his republicanism on Facebook and groaned at the prospect of all the “nauseating tosh” surrounding the event. He was suspended from public duties for three months (by the famously pompous bishop of London). The problem with such clerical dissent is that it looks rather hypocritical, given that all clergy in the Church of England have taken an oath of allegiance to the monarch.
The lurid failure of Charles and Diana’s marriage was some help in exposing the obsolescence of establishment. The poor prince had been forced to marry a dizzy blushing virgin rather than the more experienced (and already married) woman he was in love with, who became his mistress (and is now his wife). Religious protocol had contributed to a grim human tragedy. (Something broadly similar happened a generation earlier, when Princess Margaret, the Queen’s sister, was pressured by the Church to renounce the love of her life, as he was a divorcée.) Mindful of this history, the current pair, William and Kate, have been at pains to show that they are well-adjusted modern types with the same sense of humor—code for proven sexual compatibility. In their official engagement interview it was carefully acknowledged that they have long co-habited. There was an intentionally sharp contrast with the engagement interview of Charles and Diana, in which the groom-to-be seemed openly embarrassed to be with this girl who had been chosen for him, who could barely lift her gaze from the floor.
As his marriage collapsed, Charles himself tried to sound modern and relevant by distancing himself from an aspect of establishment. He said that when he became king he would like to drop the title “Defender of the Faith,” and be known instead as “Defender of Faith.” No definite article. He has also stated his intention of having a multi-faith component to his coronation, which is traditionally a very monocultural religious event.
So some cracks in the union of throne and altar have appeared in recent decades. But the Church of England has been very reluctant to add to them. Rowan Williams, who will preside at this month’s ceremony, is exactly the sort of donnish liberal Anglican who is gently critical of royal tradition and all things Tory. Not long before he was appointed to Canterbury he flirted with disestablishment, and wrote a book (Lost Icons) in which he questioned whether monarchy was still an effective social unifier. Once in the top job, such sentiments melted away. He has seen his role as unifying the national Church, as well as the Anglican Communion—and in both cases he has managed to suppress various unhelpful liberal opinions.
My awkward loyalty to this tradition was shaken soon after 9/11. The debate about religion and secularism that ensued woke me up with a jolt. The compatibility of Christianity and liberalism had to be announced, and the old order confused things. It had to go. Making this move in my mind was exciting, a liberation from inherited muddle—but also felt like a betrayal. It felt, and still does, like a betrayal of roots, of home, of the super-subtle code of the tribe, and even of that exemplary old grandmother, Her Majesty. Part of me says: Englishness depends on a spirit of pragmatic evasion of certain issues, a willingness to give tradition the benefit of the doubt over reforming schemes. And one such tradition is that which affirms a national Church, with the monarch at its political head. Earnest, purist, reformist opposition to this would end the delicate glory of the national soul. And the rest of me replies: so be it. In the name of Christ it must end.
I wish William and Kate all the best: they seem like the nicest sort of posh folk. But I also want to tell this young man that his future job is religiously problematic, that his funny family is unwittingly stifling the renewal of Christianity in my land.