The Netflix original series The Crown, which has to do with the last months of the reign of King George VI and the first years of the reign of his daughter, Queen Elizabeth II, is just the kind of program that Americans in particular seem naturally to love. It features beautiful photography of palaces, processions, and formal receptions; and it provides a behind-the-scenes look at the ne plus ultra of the British aristocracy. Consider it Downton Abbey on steroids.
Some of the more affecting scenes in the entire series center around the transition from father to daughter, a time of trauma for the nation and deep personal pain for the family of the relatively young King. After Elizabeth, just returned from an African sojourn, had viewed the body of her beloved father, she meets her grandmother, Queen Mary, in one of the corridors of Buckingham Palace. The old lady, swathed in black Victorian garb, spies her granddaughter and then with tremendous dignity and through considerable discomfort, contorts herself into a formal curtsy. Taking in this unaccustomed display, Elizabeth registers her astonishment and feels, perhaps for the first time, that she is now the monarch.
Queen Mary had composed an extraordinary letter to her granddaughter, just after the death of the King. In it, she specified that, as Queen, Elizabeth would not be beholden to Parliament, for it had not chosen her, nor to the people, for they had not voted for her, but rather to God, in whose name she would be coronated. This is how the letter concludes:
“I have seen three great monarchies brought down from their failure to separate their personal indulgences from duty… While you mourn your father, you must also mourn someone else: Elizabeth Mountbatten, for she has now been replaced by another person, Elizabeth Regina. The two Elizabeths will frequently be in conflict with one another. The fact is, the crown must win — must always win.”
As if to prove Queen Mary’s point with as much visual panache as possible, the filmmakers emphasize the sacred, ordination-like, dimension of Elizabeth’s coronation. Not only does she receive a crown, but she is also anointed, by the Archbishop of Canterbury, “as priests, prophets, and Kings were anointed.” That’s according to a tradition which, the Archbishop explicitly tells her, goes back to King Solomon’s consecration by “Zadok the priest and Nathan the prophet.” And all of it is done under the aegis and in the name of “the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.”
As the series unfolds, we see Queen Mary’s prediction of conflict coming to pass. On a number of occasions, Queen Elizabeth is torn between her obligation to the Church and her affection for her sister Margaret, who has fallen in love with a divorced man whom she wishes to marry. All of her personal instincts and feelings lead her to grant permission to her beloved sister, but her duty to God compels her to refuse. Even in the face of popular opinion, which runs strongly in Margaret’s direction, and despite the bitter tears of her sister, the Queen follows the precepts of the Lord. Elizabeth Regina triumphs over Elizabeth Mountbatten.
Now I bring all of this up, not to address so much the issue of divorce and remarriage within the Christian dispensation, but rather something deeper and more abiding, namely, the presence within any healthy society of values that are grounded in God. We are quite naturally at home with practical decisions that result from majority vote or with allegiances consequent upon strong personal feelings. But finally, both practical strategies and personal feelings must rest upon objective goods that are not, themselves, up for debate, values that flow from God. In Great Britain, the monarch—anointed and not appointed—is the personification of this dimension of the society’s moral life. In the American context, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, which enshrine and defend fundamental human rights, play a similar role.
If you doubt me on this score, I might recommend a close reading of the prologue to the Declaration which states, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal and are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights.” Thomas Jefferson is not speaking here of values consequent upon the people’s will, but rather of the proper ethical matrix for any and all legislative deliberation. When this feature of public life is forgotten, everything becomes a matter of majority vote or private whim—and the society necessarily drifts.
There is another scene in The Crown that brings this point home. When they were children, King George brought Elizabeth and Margaret together and invited them to pledge that they would always remain faithful to one another and that nothing would ever supersede their mutual loyalty. When the moment of truth came many years later, and Elizabeth was forced to choose God’s way over her sister’s desire, Margaret bitterly reminded her of this oath. Though he was a good man and though the two sisters dearly loved one another, King George should never have compelled his daughters to make that pledge. For nothing can be permitted to violate the God-given moral values upon which a society is rightly constructed. God bless the makers of The Crown for helping us to see this in a most dramatic way.
Editor’s Note: Bishop Barron’s article first appeared January 24, 2017 on the Word on Fire website and is presented here with permission of the author.