One of the big hits for Netflix, the television streaming service, has been ‘The Crown’. It is beautiful, compelling and emotional programming — drama well crafted, stories well told, and above all, it is a visual feast.
The disorienting quality of the series is that it is no documentary. While creator Peter Morgan says that the show has been thoroughly researched and is true in spirit, each episode so seamlessly intermingles what is known with what is imagined that any viewer may have difficulty deciding what is fact and what is fiction.
Did Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher say that to Her Majesty the queen in their weekly audience? Did Princess Diana really roller-skate around the palace because she was lonely and bored? Is Prince Philip always in such a foul mood?
The vision for ‘The Crown’ is of an institution that leads almost exclusively by looking backward. Royal duty is portrayed as synonymous with preserving inviolate continuity with the past. Decisions in the Buckingham Palace of the series are framed by cautions like, “Remember your great-grandmother Queen Mary” or, “What would your father have done?” In the series we see Prince Philip trying to modernise the way the palace works , constantly battling with courtiers from King George VI’ s day whom he refers to as ‘the moustaches’. Watching this I am reminded of every church committee that has ever protested, “But we have never done it that way before.”
The Christian commentator Gregory L Jones once wrote “Tradition is the living faith of the dead, traditionalism is the dead faith of the living,”. Not on religious matters alone but in almost everything. Yet, despite the portrayal of the battles within the British court, Queen Elizabeth has done much to advance the monarchy from a medieval institution to a more modern one while simultaneously preserving what is at its heart. History with adaptation. Tradition with responsible innovation. This pattern of change and development should be true for the church. Church leadership inevitably involves the stewardship of tradition as well as enabling the church to change and respond to situations our forbears could have never conceived of.
Our churches are not ahistorical organisations, we must find our place in a polyphonic tradition that reaches back in history before there were royals in England, before England was England, (and Scotland was Scotland, and Wales was Wales, before somebody comments!)
That past informs our future, but what matters is how we allow it to do so. We cannot lament what lies ahead of us in hopes of returning to the past or perpetuating it perfectly; this is the Christian problem with nostalgia. Instead, we must reckon with the past, retrieving from it the best and lamenting in it the worst, all for the sake of God’s future.
2021 has started with as many challenges as 2020 gave us our response is vital for the future life of the church how do we adapt and innovate whilst maintaining the heart of our Methodist tradition? (And there are two more series of ‘The Crown’ still to come!)
God bless and stay safe,