The Crown deserves credit for treating religion and the royal family seriously. In one episode of season three, Prince Philip becomes impatient with and almost hostile to the church. The dean at Windsor Castle’s chapel has become elderly and boring in the pulpit. But more broadly, Philip hankers for men of action over men of contemplation. He idealizes the astronauts who land on the moon in 1969. But upon meeting them he discovers with disappointment they lack deep spiritual insights. So he reluctantly turns again to the church.
At the Queen’s request, there’s an energetic new dean at Windsor, Robin Woods, who asks Philip for permission to create a retreat center at Windsor for spiritually exhausted clergy, known as St. George’s House. Philip reluctantly accedes, but when asked to join a group of clergy, he denounces them as introspective weaklings, urging them to be more like the action prone astronauts. Later, he apologizes, asking for their help with his own spiritual longing. Dean Woods becomes a close confidante.
In real life, apparently Philip supported St. George’s House from the start, and several years before the moon landings, which The Crown conflates into simultaneous events. But the larger story, of Philip’s rediscovery of faith, seems to be true. Another influence at this time was the return to London of his troubled and aged mother, who had found solace years earlier by becoming a Greek Orthodox nun devoted to the poor
The Royal Family has remained actively committed to the church, beyond just their ceremonial obligations. But the Church of England, of which the Queen is head, is in steep decline. Immigrant churches and evangelical urban congregations offer rare vitality in the otherwise somnolent state church. Britain as a whole has become religiously indifferent, as Prince Philip in the 1960s evidently had become. Liberal theology plays a role. But the laxity and privilege of being a state church also undermine the capacity for initiative.
Mainline Protestantism in America has often been the close equivalent of a state religion in America. Its denominations were the pillars of American public life for centuries. Some of them actually were state churches in colonial times. Their own privilege and presumption helped fuel their decline.
When I was growing up there was a large United Methodist congregation in my community that was the prestige church. It was the largest Methodist church in the area, and persons of influence attended there. But its pastors never seemed to remain for long. I knew some of them, and several of them were evangelical and orthodox. But they always seemed to clash with the congregation, or at least its leaders.
The congregation dwindled across decades and finally in recent years it died altogether. The large building remains, now rented to several non-Methodist congregations, including Anglicans, Reformed Baptists, plus African and Hispanic Pentecostals. Within a few blocks there are other thriving evangelical church plants, in a socially and politically very progressive community.
So there were need and desire in the neighborhood for Christian community, but the United Methodists, having become insular, could not provide it. So they died. At least the building continues in service to the Gospel, through congregations of other traditions. This story is writ large across America. Old Mainline buildings are emptied of their own congregations but often house new congregations. New branches are grafted into old ones, sort of.
Liberal theology has been destructive to Mainline Protestantism. But it’s not the whole story. These once great denominations became exhausted and stopped trying very hard. Their wealth, status, and historical trajectory took away their initiative. They are fragments of their former selves. Their leaders and clergy are still mostly in denial. But some within them, perhaps a new generation, will, like Prince Philip, realize their condition and try a new path, which is really the old and true path.