I began watching The Crown the weekend before my nation was to elect its next president. I strained beneath the load Christians carried, which felt heavier than it had in previous elections. I knew the evangelical vote would speak loudly, and I prayed that it would speak loudly for the oppressed, for the vulnerable, and for the marginalized. I prayed it would speak loudly against the misogyny, racism, and xenophobia Republican candidate Donald Trump has perpetrated.
It did not. And in the days following this crushing blow, I found myself on the receiving end of Christian rebuke—hollow calls to unity and self-righteous tongue-clucking at anyone who descended to opine on such earthly things as politics. I disagree with this notion, but I understand it. As our nation and the U.S. church walk through a divisive, dangerous time, Christians feel compelled to point to a hope unswayed by earthly turmoil—to a throne immune to the democratic process of one nation. Perhaps sullying our hands with the happenings here seems to undermine such hope and sovereignty.We have remembered our kingdom’s crown but have neglected the example of our king.
The Crown echoes this conundrum. It is a beautifully crafted mini-series that spares no expense, and yet it does not fall prey to the temptation to pack cheap thrills and overstated drama into its 10 episodes. Rather, it strums the tense cord that stretches between a nation’s monarchy and its minister—the fragile tendril that ties a kingdom’s form to its function. The resulting drama is subtle but breathtaking, and it frames a balance nearly every public system must strike: the one between public perception, which we have traditionally preferred to be static and pristine, and forward movement, which often requires dirty hands and lose-lose decision making.
The Crown achieves this by highlighting Queen Elizabeth II’s relationship with Prime Minister Winston Churchill. Perhaps like many American viewers, I began The Crown assuming that, because the monarchy holds no constitutional sway, its symbolic purpose is void of any function—an understanding the series slowly but surely subverts. While at first the queen’s relationship with Churchill seems to present a dichotomy between form and function, by the series’ end there is so much overlap between the two that the viewer can scarcely tell who is meant to be function and who is meant to be form. As Prime Minister, surely Churchill’s role is one of function. But then, much of his function is rooted in the perception of strength he earned during World War II. Likewise, Queen Elizabeth is meant to be a placeholder in a symbolic role. But the sovereign serves a functional purpose too; the crown stands like a bright beacon in a dense night, a transcendent hope by which the country can navigate untidy decisions and an unsure future.
As the queen’s estranged uncle, Edward, describes it while watching the coronation from afar, “Who wants transparency when you can have magic? Who wants prose when you can have poetry? Pull away the veil and what are you left with? An ordinary young woman of modest ability and little imagination. But wrap her up like this, anoint her with oil, and hey presto, what do you have? A goddess.”
The crown’s wearer answers a lofty call to disappear that the crown might shine, to remain silent that the crown might speak confidence to its kingdom. Of course, answering this call does not come without cost. Indeed, while Elizabeth and Churchill ultimately strike an awkward efficiency, the royal family fractures beneath the weight of the crown, which would see its wearer an inanimate, plastic thing—an existence incompatible with a moving and breathing family.
As the series progresses, Prince Philip becomes increasingly disillusioned with his family’s role. The queen’s personal relationships become brittle and increasingly at risk of breaking. I watched through my fingers as a bond between sisters turned into one between a kingdom’s princess and its queen. While Elizabeth is duty-bound to serve the crown, her sister, Margaret, is not. Perhaps that is the dynamic that informs the stark difference between the duo’s approach to royal life. Princess Margaret whispers doubt into the long-accepted establishment while Elizabeth is meant to be the establishment: Do the people really want a plastic queen? Would they be better served by one who is willing to spoil the illusion? Perhaps this would undermine the confidence the crown instills—but in doing so would it create a figure that the people can relate to?
The Crown strikes this bell of doubt steadily throughout the series, until ultimately an audience spellbound by the royal family, having peeked behind the curtain, is dissatisfied with the illusory still shots traditionally rendered. If viewers think this thirst will be alleviated by Prince Philip’s introduction of video cameras during the coronation—a technology that quickly becomes an unwelcome fixture in royal life—they are mistaken. Within the series, video broadcasts do not serve to disrupt the illusion but to continue it. Ironically, The Crown instead utilizes an unpopular painted portrait of Winston Churchill to cast ripples in the distorted reflections of government and monarchy. It is not the lens of a camera that succeeds in stripping away the façade, but rather the inquiring human eye of an artist. He depicts Churchill not as a proud, senatorial official, but as a man ripe with age and all that comes with it.
In the end, Churchill burns the portrait, which many now count a national loss. And again, the viewer is left to wonder if Princess Margaret is right—perhaps the people want a queen, not a crown.
The 2016 presidential election has shown the church to be a Queen Elizabeth. We have interpreted our duty to point to Christ as a call to be unconcerned with earth’s happenings. We have convinced ourselves that the highest service the church might offer is to keep its hands clean of the dirty work of earthly function. By being the manifestation of neutrality, we assume the church a blank slate onto which anyone can project himself.
Ironically, we accomplish the opposite in this pursuit. When we point to an unshakeable kingdom without advocating for the earth’s poor and oppressed, we ostracize the suffering. When we speak of future redemption but turn away from present injustices, we make one point moot with another. We have not been given the gift of the cross so that we might ignore our neighbors. We are not given the treasure of hope that we might put it on display as an inanimate beacon. Christ delivered hope and redemption to us not via a voice in the sky but by inhabiting human flesh—that he might walk with us, break bread with us, see and heal our ailments, and ultimately lay down his life for us.
The church was not meant to be a pretty gesture for others to gaze at. It was meant to roll up its sleeves and do the sweat-inducing work of communion. We have forgotten this charge in pursuit of a worthy goal. We have remembered our kingdom’s crown but have neglected the example of our king.
The Crown ends with this quote and the flash of a camera as Queen Elizabeth poses for a portrait:
All hail Sage Lady, whom a grateful isle hath blessed. Not moving. Not breathing. Our very own goddess. Glorious Gloriana.
During this scene we can see breath drive the steady rise and fall of Elizabeth’s chest: a silent contradiction to this notion, a wrinkle in the illusion the church would do well to note.
Image via YouTube