It is impossible to watch the first episode of the fourth Netflix ‘season’ of The Crown without being appalled at the prospect of going further.
That episode alone, especially for those who have lived through those same years, is both moving and horrifying. It relates the appalling atrocities of 27th August 1979 in Ireland, at Mullaghmore, in Sligo and Narrow Water, Warrenpoint – but without visual images of the second event (where eighteen British soldiers were killed in two carefully planned explosions). That absence of image is understandable, given the utterly bleak and endlessly reverberating experience that must have been for anyone who witnessed and coped with the aftermath.
What was shown instead by The Crown – relentlessly – of the suffering of one famously imperfect family that same day should make the rest of us eternally grateful for the privilege of obscurity.
I remember that day well. I was driving, with some of my own children, from Galway to Coleraine but did not take the Sligo to Bundoran route, past Mullaghmore and the easily visible Classiebawn Castle to the left. Driving eastward from Enniskillen, we crossed the border at Blacklion – where an unusual police presence made me wonder but not inquire.
Netflix imagined a last letter written by Lord Mountbatten that day – sunlit and calm as I recall instead of overcast and breezy as on the day of the Netflix filming – a letter to Prince Charles, to hurry his search for a suitable young wife. Now that I know that what followed soon after was the entrapment of the utterly fragile young Diana Spencer in the same historical cage, I am struck yet again by my own far more fortunate family history. (My youngest son had been born earlier that same month.)
Diana was apparently doomed by the same fairy tale of the lives of princes that Christian monarchism had felt obliged to propagate over centuries and that Disney still flourishes on.
No one who knows any history can be unaware that Christian state monarchy was always a deeply problematic burden for any individual to bear – and that exposure of the human inability to bear it is the dominant theme. Very, very few Christian kings or queens come well out of the historical record. Were Netflix to commission detailed reconstructions of that few, it is likely that none whatever would.
Pope Francis, another kind of monarch, saved himself from the dangers of ‘iconic status’ at the very start, by declaring himself a sinner. Warned by reviews of the whole of season four of The Crown of what is to come I prefer to pray for the ongoing plight of the family at the centre of it than to watch it. I am certain that Pope Francis would agree that The Crown has already gone too far.
I am not a monarchist but a believer in the strict equality of dignity of all of us, under God. As a committed Christian I am instead convinced that there never has been truly more than one truly Christian king, and that Christian state monarchy, after 312 CE, was always hugely hypocritical and bound to fail.
It is simply not possible to be socially and materially privileged, to be politically powerful, and also conspicuously a living Christian icon. The model one is supposed to be emulating deliberately walked away from privilege, status and possessions and rejected entirely the option of sovereign power over anyone else. He was therefore a one-off – utterly human yet mysterious, and always best followed by those who preferred simplicity, powerlessness and obscurity to public celebrity and high command.
Kings of nations could not offer equality. Kings were also supreme commanders in chief of armies, demanding the vertical chain of command. A king stands or sits above everyone, and always below there is a hierarchy of ranks. This is a pyramid of deference, whereas in scripture it is repeated that ‘God has no favourites’ (e.g. Romans 2: 11)
The historical record of Christian state monarchy proves beyond question that those who seriously attempted the informality and equality of Jesus were bound to suffer agonies of contradiction, and to prove this could not work.
Complete breakdowns of relationships were inevitable also. No one can live as an object of daily worship without proving that all of us are but clay when it comes to it, which is what the word ‘human’ means.
It followed that the Christian church model that propped up the notion of Christian state monarchy was always bound to fail the Gospel also, by pretending that social privilege and power was compatible with the Gospel. In Ireland we are living among the shattered ruins of that pretence. To preserve their own unaccountable authority, bishops concealed scandalous failures everywhere, including a failure to prevent abuse of children by priests. This was a formula for collapse as soon as the dam of secrets burst.
It was the Christian monastic and mendicant orders – and the mystics, like Francis of Assisi – and Protestant and Anabaptist seekers of simplicity – and other defenders of the suffering – that best followed Christ. To be trapped from birth in the obligation of being conspicuously perfect – the fate of all state royalty – is a fate that none of us should want, The fascination with royalty as such was always hugely dangerous for all such families – for that very reason.
Lingering Irish resentment of Lord Mountbatten’s liking for Classiebawn Castle was a different kind of fascination. The appalling toleration by the PIRA of the inevitable deaths of innocent children, as collateral damage in their ‘coup’ at Mullaghmore, and the grotesque triumphalism that followed, can be no part of the spirit that shaped the Good Friday agreement or the making of one mutually respectful community, eventually, of the people of Ireland. The odious whataboutism that characterised the PIRA justification for that day was predictably ready for recycling by loyalist murderers of even more Catholics in response – and on and on forever.
But the Tory party of Margaret Thatcher and Boris Johnson is as responsible for the present plight of the Windsors as the relentless media. Depending as it does upon the monarchy to legitimise its own pyramid of preferment, entitlement and ‘honours’ – as enticement to party financial support from people at home and abroad who see Ascot and morning dress and Buck House and meringues as their only possible horizon – the Tories must keep that long-suffering family in their own Tory illusional cage to preserve their own Tory magical thinking and their own party funds.
As there is also deep and genuine Christian wisdom in the Church of England, does it truly want to go on supporting that obvious fallacy – that Christian state monarchism is feasible – when those entrapped in that are suffering so? Is it not time to call that theatre-of-cruelty out as simply unChristian and inhumane – when the NHS is wobbling now as never before?
All Christians, whatever their politics, know that the Windsor family are as dearly beloved by the Father as the rest of us, despite all of our sins – for Jesus insisted we are all but one family in the end. The Windsors need our prayers just now, and our sympathy, not our continuing absorption in the minutiae of their failings. We, the non-iconic majority were, and are, the truly privileged ones, entirely free of media persecution and the need for public perfection. We should thank God for that, not gloat over the shaming of others by a global media giant – for the shaming of anyone whatever was where Jesus of Nazareth never went.
It is futile to claim that media fixation on royalty is a protest against privilege. What is happening is the abuse of moneyed media privilege to victimise the easiest and most well known targets. It is those upon whom media giants now focus for global shaming that are now the victims, and it is the viewers of mass TV they are turning, or trying to turn, into voyeurs and victimisers. It is time to shout ‘STOP THERE’.
Intrusion of media into the private grief of all living families should become an international crime and no place to go. If Netflix were now to turn to that cause, our subscriptions would be worth it.
If Netflix doesn’t see that, and soon, I’ll be stopping ours. What Christian family anywhere could be other than horrified by what Netflix is doing to the most vulnerable of us now, simply because that family is famous. Netflix itself is proving that fame is the worst deprivation one can have – the loss of true freedom, the right to be ungawked at – above all in the most private and terrible grief.
Endless recycling of the sins and family woes of the long dead Tudors is one thing. Monetisation of the stalking of the ongoing misfortunes of another living family is something else. Are not living children suffering in that process, right now, too?
Sean O’Conaill, 17th November 2020