A royal bridge-burning

"Harry might ruffle our polite Anglophile sensibilities, but he holds up a mirror of sorts to us and our institution," writes the author. Photo: Lev Radin/Shutterstock
By on January 18, 2023

What should the Commonwealth hear in Prince Harry’s tell-all—and what does it mean for the church?

The response to Prince Harry’s tea-spilling hasn’t been as widely sympathetic as he might have hoped, although his offerings have topped the various sales charts. Whether it is the Netflix documentary, Harry’s new book Spare or the interviews he is doing to promote that book, what I keep hearing from the people I talk to is that the family’s “dirty laundry” shouldn’t be aired in public, that it’s too much information. Still, while a lightly muttered “TMI” might be our reaction to anecdotes about his frost-bitten “todger,” it is pain we feel most of all—mingled with horror and grief—in seeing the possibly irreconcilable breakdown of relations between two brothers in whom the global public has set such store.

The pain we feel and see reflected in Harry’s disclosures is exactly what we should hear, because of what it tells us about ourselves, our own relationships, and the institutions which hold power in our lives. The monarchy’s primary offering to modern democracies is in locating our unity not in documents or philosophies, but in a person—in a family. And that unity is healthiest when its figurehead offers us not some whitewashed assurance of unblemished perfection, but rather holds a mirror up for the public it represents to consider what is and isn’t working in the lives and communities we seek to build.

If the UK press were doing its job, it would be using Harry’s revelations to offer the British public some rigourous soul-searching. The racism that Harry identifies as being at the heart of what drove the Sussexes out of the country—both the press’s blatant racist and xenophobic targeting of Meghan, as well as the family’s thunderous silence in response—should not be ignored by the country that has arguably benefited from colonialism more than any other on the planet and which leads the predominantly non-white Commonwealth.

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We, as Canadians and as subjects of the Crown, should also be taking to heart what Harry’s story says about systemic racism and our responsibility not just to tolerate otherness but to support, learn and grow in response to diverse voices. So too should we learn from both Harry and Meghan’s admissions of life-threatening mental illness, even in the midst of their enormous financial privilege, and what it might unmask about the mental health crisis before us. If even the Sussexes found barriers to being able to access help, how much more do ordinary, or disadvantaged, people struggle to get the resources they need when mental illness strikes?

Meanwhile, mainline Christians, and particularly Anglicans, dismiss or demean Harry’s story to our own detriment. There are inextricable ties between the monarchy and our church—not just in the British monarch’s being the titular head of the Church of England, but also in both institutions’ involvement in colonization, their perception as being irrelevant to the modern world, their vast institutional weight, and their life and decisions being shaped by an ongoing threat to their very survival.

Running as a thread through Harry’s allegations, as well as through most other scandals that have unsettled the monarchy in recent memory, is an up-close-and-personal look at how institutions typically behave when their survival is threatened. For decades, the institutional machinery of the royal family has needed to court popularity and appear relatable as it makes a case for its own survival. Yet there is visible and frequent confusion about the monarchy’s role and purpose, or how to respond to the sins of a racist and colonial history on which its privilege is based and which refuse now to be left unaddressed. Public image is, arguably, the whole of the royal job, and the family has significant resources to devote to image management; yet its public-relations choices convey an institution driven by anxiety, insecurity and infighting. Public statements are made when photos are printed of a topless Kate, but not when racist slurs are made against Meghan. Racism is addressed when it affects soccer teams but not when it involves a Black member of the family perceived to be difficult. Protection is extended to Andrew, accused of sexual assault against a minor; protection is removed from the Sussexes, whose own public relations choices elicit so much debate and consternation and yet whose value would have been assured if they had been serving an institution that understands its role in providing a sign of unity, dignity and identity to a racially diverse and global Commonwealth. The battle lines are not hard to see: there are those who are offered protection by said institution in return for their willingness to uphold the party line, as well as those who find themselves trampled, ejected, or making tough decisions to leave because they don’t fit the mould or because they refuse to keep silent.

This is where our own soul-searching is needed. These fearful dynamics seen so clearly in a monarchy anxious to assure its own survival find parallels in the life of the church. It is no secret that we are often driven by a ravenous obsession in seeking the magic bullet that will fix our popularity problem. We also know that this fear and anxiety can cause us to “ostrich” or to feel paralyzed. Leaders across our church carry heavily both the hero worship and scapegoating that can exist in congregations, depending on how those congregations are or are not bucking the trend of decline.

Given these realities, where do we see health, and where do we see struggle in our leadership and in our institutional structures? How do we attend to critical voices in our decision-making forums? Are they welcomed as necessary for good and faithful discernment, or are they seen as threatening and disloyal? How are we not just making room for diverse voices, but listening and learning? Is there a sense of collaboration and prayerful listening as we consider what needs to change, or do we also have clear lines about who is in and who is out, what is protected and what is dispensable? Where do we see our leadership structures adapting to reflect what is happening, and where do we have our heads in the sand? We are quick to make lofty statements about our progressive values, but what is the actual experience of women, BIPOC and 2SLGBTQ+ people leading in our church? When gaps are identified between what we say and what we do, are we humbled and called to action, or are we defensive and inert? What about when the gaps are more serious, when it is clear that we have fallen short—either in our colonial past or right now in our present—in protecting the vulnerable or in welcoming different voices: is repentance our way forward, or do we become more entrenched and self-protective?

All of us leading in the midst of decline are susceptible to being ruled by fear. And God is best revealed where things are falling apart, not where we pretend to have it all together. Neither the church nor the monarchy is being taken to task for having their survival threatened. We are in a time of accelerated change and upheaval for even society’s most staid and successful institutions. Within this reality, the church’s offering is found in embracing change as not just inevitable but also liberating. We can listen carefully to the voices of BIPOC and 2SLGBTQ+ people, women, survivors of sexual abuse and others who have been hurt within the structures of our institutional life and who believe that the church can be better. We can see critical voices as integral to how we discern our way forward. We can value authenticity over relevancy, celebrate non-conformity and take accountability with abandon. We can be honest about grief, loss and what is no longer working, as well as hopeful in discerning our way forward collaboratively. We can offer refuge to a world feeling beaten up and anxious about the shifting sands on which it feels impossible to build our lives—not because we deny what is happening, but because we understand it and because the way of Jesus has opened to us a bravery and strength that we wouldn’t otherwise know.

Harry’s revelations might elicit our disapproval and discomfort. If we are willing to dwell in the discomfort though—to ask where our disapproval might actually be located and what it might say about us—there is much to gain in taking what he has to say with the utmost seriousness. Harry might ruffle our polite Anglophile sensibilities, but he holds up a mirror of sorts to us and our institution. And it’s built into our DNA as followers of Jesus to insist that that mirror not be dismissed, demeaned or disparaged. Harry’s bridge-burning must be heard as a piercing call to our own journey of self-reflection, repentance and reconciliation.

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Author

  • Martha Tatarnic

    Canon Martha Tatarnic serves as the rector of St. George’s Anglican Church in St. Catharines, Ont. She is the author of The Living Diet: A Christian Journey to Joyful Eating and Why Gather? The Hope and Promise of the Church.

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