You know things are serious when “Senior Royals” in Buckingham Palace let it be known that they are “hurt” and “disappointed” over a decision made by one of their own. The revelation this week that the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, intend to step back as senior royals and instead seek a way to become financially independent has received not only public challenge from the royal family but also a high degree of criticism from pundits and the press.
The tone of reporting in the United Kingdom has felt very judgmental, with one of the main critiques being the couple’s lack of consultation with the wider royal family. However, over the past few months, the Sussexes have made no secret about their personal and professional struggles. In October, they issued an official statement in which the prince said he could no longer be a “silent witness” to his wife’s “private suffering.”
Markle continues to bear the brunt of the angry reaction, which some see as both misogynistic and racist. Despite the scandal over Prince Andrew’s relationship with convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein, the tabloids have nevertheless focused on her surprising choices: to wear jeans to Wimbledon; to ride on a jet with Elton John; or to guest edit Vogue magazine. The media’s obvious problems in dealing with Markle as a progressive American woman of color with ideas and opinions is born out in the stinging criticism that has been directed at her over the step-down, in what some are calling “Megxit.”
Prince Harry has been the first to compare the hounding of his wife to that of his mother, Princess Diana. He has made it clear that he cannot stand by and watch history repeat itself. This has led him to break protocol before, when he helped lead a campaign on mental health issues and opened up to his own need for counseling two decades after he lost his mother at the age of 12. Unsurprisingly, the general public has always had a great deal of sympathy for the prince.
While there are some who are very critical of the couple for abandoning tradition—accusing them of dereliction of their taxpayer-funded duties—others like myself are more supportive of the Sussexes’ progressive stance. Their desire to prioritize one another, be financially independent, and champion causes close to their heart despite great sacrifice is praiseworthy. Many are hopeful that this will catalyze the modernization of the monarchy and facilitate it to further its positive contribution to the UK’s and the Commonwealth’s public life.
Christians should consider carefully our response to this latest episode with “Harry and Meghan.” The church and the royal family have more in common than we might at first imagine. Both are ancient institutions struggling with recent scandals of high-profile members failing to deal adequately with accusations of sexual abuse; accused of being biased against women and non-inclusive of people of color; and now apparently losing the allegiance of a new generation.
For many years, the Barna Group has been analyzing generational engagement with churches. In his book, Faith for Exiles, David Kinnaman states that in 2011, 59 percent of young Americans who grew up Christian had stopped attending their churches. Less than a decade later, the number has now increased to 64 percent. Despite numerous initiatives to try and reverse the trend, we have not managed to sufficiently engage young adults with Christianity.
This speaks to a major challenge to the mission of the church: for all the evangelistic initiatives, for all the church planting, for all the populist fears of immigration diluting the Christian population’s majority, the biggest challenge to the Christian church is our inability to disciple our own children and help them transition from childhood faith to adult belief.
Harry and Meghan’s story highlights that transitioning tradition is not just a problem for the institution of the church. And like the royal family, the church needs to renegotiate how it holds on to the past and contextualizes for the present. For Christians, this necessarily involves working out the relationship between the unchanging gospel and our current culture—a conversation that has been on the church’s agenda since the time of the New Testament, when the topics ranged from the eating of meat offered to idols to the question of circumcising Gentile believers.
At the crux of these debates, Christians have had to wrestle with their own traditions and look behind and beyond them to discover what is essential to the gospel and what is culturally contingent. Too often we have been caught in the nexus that the great historian of Christianity, Jarislav Pelikan, expounded: “Tradition is the living faith of the dead, traditionalism is the dead faith of the living.”
As Buckingham Palace has to ask the same questions—regarding what is essential to its identity, heritage, and mission in the world—I wonder if there is a living tradition that brings the best of what the royal family has to offer to serve our world today?
One proposal may be the Queen’s Speech on Christmas Day. Millions of people across the UK have an annual tradition to tune in to the BBC broadcast at 3 p.m. on December 25th. And over the last few years, Queen Elizabeth II has been the most reliable of witnesses—never failing to point the British population to consider who Christ is and what he has done for us. (As viewers of The Crown on Netflix will understand, the queen has played a pivotal role in the UK’s public life and her Christian faith has been enormously influential on her personally and professionally.)
Although I believe there is still a place for the royal family and some of the values and traditions its members espouse, I also believe there should be room for a younger generation to forge its own path and bring its own strengths—and indeed weaknesses—to a new form of leadership. Will it be possible for this new generation to use its talents to bring change, without having to face a crippling barrage of cruel criticism? Can that change hold onto the essence of the traditions, but recontextualize them for our day?
I for one am cheering Harry and Meghan on. This young couple with a baby are facing a media storm of criticism and invasion of privacy, as well as public disapproval from their family, and need refuge and all the support they can get. I sincerely hope they can find this in the church.
And I look forward to seeing how their decisions might help the royal family progress, and perhaps how it might even encourage the church as we Christians wrestle with important questions, champion new causes, inspire racial inclusion, and engage the new generation to lead our ancient institution into the future.
Krish Kandiah is a UK-based speaker and author and founder of Home for Good, a fostering and adoption charity.
Speaking Out is Christianity Today’s guest opinion column and (unlike an editorial) does not necessarily represent the opinion of the magazine.
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