There’s a lot to like about the Netflix series The Crown, but I’m particularly struck that it’s that rarest of TV shows: one that takes religion seriously.
In season 1, that theme showed up as the family of Queen Elizabeth II educate her about her role. Her dying grandmother insists that “Monarchy is God’s sacred mission to grace and dignify the earth… That is why you are crowned in an abbey, not a government building. Why you are anointed, not appointed.” And in the episode when Elizabeth actually is anointed, there’s a flashback to her father, George VI, preparing for his unexpected coronation: “When the holy oil touches me,” he tells her, “I am transformed, brought into direct contact with the divine. Forever changed. Bound to God. It is the most important part of the entire ceremony.”
Then season 2 featured what amounted to an extended reflection on the Christian practice of forgiveness. Trying to decide whether to forgive her uncle, the former King Edward VIII, when his dalliances with the Nazi regime come to light, Elizabeth seeks the counsel of none other than Billy Graham. (For more on that episode, see my Anxious Bench post on the relationship between Elizabeth and Graham.)
In the episode, no one does more to discourage such forgiveness than Elizabeth’s consort, the ever-churlish Prince Philip (played the first two seasons by Matt Smith). “Don’t for one minute start on about it being a failure of Christianity,” he chides her, when she doubts her decision to send Edward back into exile. “You protected your country, and you protected the reputation of your family. Not to mention successfully banishing Satan from the Garden of Eden. That’s Christ’s business in anyone’s books. So it’s a gold star from Jesus.”
That’s about as devout as the young Philip gets. Earlier in the episode, he whines about having to listen to Graham preach at Windsor Castle: “Couldn’t you just make up an excuse and saying I’m off sinning somewhere?” So it’s intriguing that the 3rd season of The Crown features a three-episode arc that ends up focusing on the faith of Philip, played in middle age by Tobias Menzies.
Things start unexpectedly with the 1966 disaster in the Welsh mining village of Aberfan, where heavy rainfall caused a buildup of coal waste to slide down into the town, burying alive over 140 people — most of them school children. Philip represents the royal family at a mass funeral, during which the survivors join together to sing “Jesu, Lover of My Soul,” with Charles Wesley’s text set to the haunting tune “Aberystwyth.” (Here’s an account of the funeral from Life magazine.)
“It’s the most astonishing thing I’ve ever heard,” Philip reports back to Elizabeth. But while the villagers actually asked God, “leave me not alone / Still support and comfort me,” Philip can only see it as evidence of their “anger at the government, at the Coal Board… at God, too… The rage, in all the faces, behind all the eyes…”
That he was blind to such faith ends up foreshadowing the end of the next episode, featuring Philip’s mother. A great-granddaughter of Queen Victoria, Alice had a religious conversion after her royal husband was banished from Greece in the aftermath of World War I. During the war, she helped to shelter Jewish refugees in Athens. When she was recognized among the Righteous of the Nations in 1994, Philip explained that his mother was “a person with deep religious faith and she would have considered it to be a totally human action to fellow human beings in distress.” Indeed, she founded an order of Greek Orthodox nuns after WWII. Forced to flee Greece after a military junta took power in 1967, Alice spent her last two years at Buckingham Palace. In the Crown’s fictionalized telling of that transition, the princess-turned-nun asks her son about his faith. When Philip admits that it’s “dormant,” she advises him to “find yourself a faith. It helps—no… it’s everything.”
He finally takes steps in that direction three episodes later, in a story organized around the Apollo 11 mission to the moon. A new vicar at Windsor asks to use a royal cottage to house a spiritual retreat center for mid-career priests wrestling with their faith and vocation in a post-Christian age. When Philip is forced to sit in on a session, he unleashes his disdain:
I’ve never heard such a load of pretentious, self-piteous nonsense. What you lot need to do is to get off your backsides, get out into the world and bloody well do something. That is why you are all so lost… I believe that there is an imperative within man, all men, to make a mark. Action is what defines us: action, not suffering. All this sitting around thinking and talking… Let me ask you this: Do you think those astronauts up there are catatonic, like you lot? Of course not. They are too busy achieving something spectacular, and as a result, they are at one with their world, at one with their God, and happy. That’s my advice: model yourselves on men of action, like Armstrong, Aldrin, Collins. These men score A-triple-plus. They‘ve got the answers, not a bunch of navel-gazing underachievers infecting one another with gaseous doom.
Given the chance to chat privately with the Apollo 11 crew on their visit to London, Philip hopes to hear “perspectives, observations of our place” in the universe. Instead, he discovers something that I wrote about last summer for the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing: “To the frustration of observers like Norman Mailer, who couldn’t understand how so transcendent an ambition inspired such mundane reflection from its participants, NASA was filled with engineers.” I drew heavily on Kendrick Oliver’s book To Touch the Face of God, which observes that
The space program, for all of the Christians in its midst, for all of its evocations of transcendence, was a product primarily of profane, sometimes prosaic, ambition…. It was mostly left to those outside the program, if they so wished, to reflect on the relation between exploration of the cosmos and cosmological tradition, to judge whether the space age would be friendly to faith.
Disappointed by the astronauts and grieving the death of his religious mother, Philip returns to the spiritual retreat center and confesses his own crisis of faith:
There wasn’t a specific moment when it started. It’s been more a gradual thing: a drip, drip, drip of doubt, disaffection, disease, discomfort… My mother died recently. She saw that something was amiss. It’s a good word, that: “A-miss.” She saw that something was missing in her youngest child, her only son: faith. “How’s your faith?”, she asked me. I’m here to admit to you that I’ve lost it. And without it, what is there? The loneliness and emptiness and anticlimax of going all that way to the moon to find nothing but haunting desolation, ghostly silence, gloom. That is what faithlessness is. As opposed to finding wonder, ecstasy, the miracle of divine creation, God’s design and purpose.
In the end, Philip affirms the value of the retreat center and befriends the vicar, Robin Woods. Now, in reality, that relationship had started years before: Woods came to Windsor in 1962, and he and Philip co-founded St George’s House in 1966. (And one royal historian considers the idea of Philip’s midlife crisis a “complete invention.”) But in resetting it to the year of the moon landing, Crown creator and “Moondust” writer Peter Morgan inadvertently left Philip echoing some of the key themes of another interested observer of the Apollo missions, Charles Lindbergh. Philip’s closing comment could easily have come from the mouth or pen of my biography subject:
What am I trying to say? I’m trying to say that the solution to our problems, I think, is not in the ingenuity of the rocket or the science or the technology, even the bravery. No, the answer is in here [points to his head]. Or here [touches his chest], or wherever that faith resides.