I was sad about the passing of Queen Elizabeth II, although to me she was mostly just a profile on the money in Commonwealth countries as well as the interesting central character in all four seasons of The Crown. She is succeeded by the much less popular Charles, literally in the same week a very unpopular Liz Truss becomes Prime Minister, replacing the feckless Boris Johnson, all while Britain struggles with an energy crisis and 10.1% inflation. One of the main contributions the Queen made was overseeing the dismantling of the Colonialism of her predecessors. We’ve gone quickly from an era in which “the sun always shines on the British empire,” to an increasingly isolationist nation whose economy is roughly the size of Romania’s.
Given all of that, I couldn’t help but think about the ways in which our own Church leadership, a gerontocracy designed to lead people to follow Christ, is similar to the British constitutional monarchy, and the ways in which it is different and could be better if it took a page from that other model.
Apolitical Leadership. The Queen worked with 15 different Prime Ministers in her lifetime. The Prime Ministers held various politicial views and were from different ideologies and parties. Through all that, the Queen understood that her duty was to remain apolitical, to represent the nation and Commonwealth as a concept, not to direct its policies or constrain its government. She worked with Wilson, a liberal whom she liked, and Thatcher, a conservative whom she disliked, but she found a way to refrain from political commentary, to stay above the fray. This is something our own church leaders have been increasingly unable and unwilling to do eroding their own long-standing stated political neutrality to the point of its being meaningless. Their preference for conservatism has driven many people out of the Church, and they are continuing to double down on it. It’s hard to tell the difference between the GOP and the Church at this point. The Queen has been at her most successful when her response to events is so blank that anyone can assume she agrees with them, even if they are on completely different sides of an argument. This is a quality I have sometimes seen from Church leaders, but not all of them, and not always successfully.
The Commonwealth. Under Queen Elizabeth II, she oversaw the dissolution of an Empire into a Commonwealth in which many ethnically, culturally, and economically distinct Republics met as peers in a council of countries, allied under the Crown, yet each different. Some of them have chosen to leave this Commonwealth, removing the Queen’s image from their currency. Others have remained while continually asserting their own independence. The Queen particularly angered white South Africans in her acceptance and friendship with post-Apartheid leader Nelson Mandela. She respected and admired these nations, treating their national interests with equanimity, fostering trade and cooperation between them.
In our own global Church, we are more like a proprietary chain of Churches with centalized control and oversight rather than local input and variety. We are very top down in structure, to the point that local needs and interests are sometimes trampled in the process. Our approach still feels like Empire, not Commonwealth. To be a Church member means to align with interests at HQ, not to be asked what is needed locally. To be Mormon means rougly the same thing wherever you live in the world. You will be assimilated. Resistance is futile.
Sense of Humor. The Queen was famously known to have a great sense of humor. Her bodyguard recounts a time when he and the Queen were walking the grounds near her Balmoral estate when they passed two American tourists hiking. One hiker asked her where she was from, and she said London, but that she had a childhood home nearby that she’d been visiting for 80 years. The tourists asked if she had ever met the Queen. She answered, “No,” then pointing at her bodyguard, “but he meets her regularly.” The hiker asked the bodyguard what the Queen was like, and he replied, “Oh, she can be cantankerous, but she’s got a lovely sense of humor.” The tourist was impressed and asked for a photo with the well-connected bodyguard, so the Queen took the photo per requested. Then the bodyguard took a photo of the hikers with the Queen. Later that day the Queen remarked, “I’d love to be a fly on the wall when he shows those photographs to friends in American and hopefully someone tells him who I am.”
Humility. The Queen grew up during WW2, and as many of her age group, she was frugal and practical. She entered the WAF at age 18 as a mechanic, and insisted on equal treatment. She was known as a young girl to keep wrapping paper for re-use. She also used tupperware to keep and reheat leftovers.
Many of our Church leaders have shared similar stories of their own frugality and practicality, a trait that is an endearing good exmp
Scandals. Laugh / cry. Yeah, both the Church and the Royal Family have had their share of scandals. These things go hand in hand with power and public scrutiny. When Prince Andrew was credibly accused of sexual impropriety, he was immediately summoned to the Queen to explain himself. She then made it clear to the press that she stood with her son, and she even gave him additional honorific titles. When his disastrous BBC interview later revealed his connections to Jeffrey Epstein, he stepped down from Royal duties within two days. This misplaced nepotismal (new word I’m trying out) forgiveness feels familiar if you’ve seen how the Church handles its own favorite sons, people like Brad Wilcox and various leaders throughout time or Mormon-famous families. The first impulse is to downplay the scandal, and only if and when it is no longer tenable to do so is there accountability. By contrast, though, repurcussions are swift and merciless toward those deemed “enemies” of the Church.
Christian Devotion. She also took seriously her role as head of the Church of England in terms of her own devotion to Christianity, and her dedication to those principles, even when they were clearly not working in her own family. This was both a failure on her part to embrace reality and modernity, as well as a success in terms of modeling duty to traditions and norms (if self-denial is actually a success). I can’t really say I understand this perspective when the Church of England was literally formed so that Henry VIII could divorce his faithful but unsuccessfully fertile wife to marry his already pregnant mistress Anne Boleyn. Given that origin story, why it was impossible for Princess Margaret (who wasn’t even next in the line of succession) to marry the divorced Peter Townsend is beyond me. How much of this was Christian duty and how much was just unwillingness to move with the times? Basically, the royal family had less freedom than any British citizen did. I suppose in that sense, there’s a sort of Spiderman “great power / great responsibility” self-denial going on that is noble if untenable and unnecessary.
Anointing. The Queen’s coronation ceremony was the first one to be televised which made her feel much more accessible to citizens of the Commonwealth. The one part of the ceremony that was not televised was the anointing with oil, which is always hidden from view, a private moment for the monarch to reflect on their duties. This is called the Act of Consecration, in which the priest anoints the monarch’s hand, breast and head in the sign of the cross, using an oil made from orange, rose, cinnamon, musk and ambergris. The priest states: “Be thy head anointed with holy oil: as kings, priests, and prophets were anointed. And as Solomon was anointed King by Zadok the priest and Nathan the prophet, so be you anointed, blessed and consecrated Queen over the Peoples, whom the Lord thy God hath given thee to rule and govern.” This process transforms the monarch into a divinely appointed sovereign, with the full force of divine duty and approbation behind her. Winston Churchill was famously appalled that any part of the coronation would be televised “as if it were a theatrical performance.”
This ceremonial anointing, linking the monarchy to religious predecessors from the Bible, should be familiar to many church members. What doesn’t make any sense to me, given that all who are endowed are also consecrated and anointed in this way, is that we colloquially refer to “the Lord’s anointed” in a way that only means “church leaders,” as in prohibiting “evil speaking of the Lord’s anointed.” We are all anointed, but nobody thinks twice about talking crap about one’s fellow ward members. Once again, we seem to have an unclear theology at play.
Longevity. The way out for apostles is through natural death, not term limits, which is the same for the monarchy. While it may seem that the Queen’s reign, dying at 96 (just 4 days older than my dad in fact), is an example of a gerontocracy as the Church is (even Charles is no spring chicken, starting his reign at age 73), there is a key difference. She ruled for almost 71 years, the longest of any British monarch and any female head of state in history. Our Church leaders may be part of a quorum of apostles for a decade or more, but the top job is seldom held for more than ten years because that role goes based on seniority (calling, not age), so anyone elevated to the Presidency is going to be near death at the time they take the helm.
Accessibility. Prior to her reign, the monarch’s interactions were primarily limited to members of the aristocracy, particularly titles members of the nobility. Queen Elizabeth II changed this by instituting “walkabouts” in which citizens from various working class backgrounds could meet her personally. Honeslty, this effort at accessibility reminded me of some of the Kids in the Hall sketches with Scott Thompson playing the role of the queen.
Obsolescence. That brings us to our current inflection point. Britain has said that they have always flourished under female monarchs (both Elizabeths and Victoria, clearly). Now the far less popular, and more political, King Charles III takes the helm. There’s some sense that loyalty to Queen Elizabeth II and her personal success at filling the role were the only thing preventing the complete collapse of the monarchy, a system so many see as objectionable and outdated.