This is as close to a confession as we will get.
Queen Elizabeth II (Imelda Staunton) sits dejectedly at her vanity, preparing her 1992 “Annus Horribilis” speech while suffering through a cold. Her castle at Windsor has burned to the ground, her children are at different stages of divorce and remarriage, and the monarchy’s popularity is at an all-time low. “It has been, by some margin, the worst year of my reign,” she says to her aged mother (Marcia Warren). “Quite possibly my life. I'm happy for people to know . . . that I'm made of flesh and blood. And that perhaps I . . . we . . . have fallen short in our duty as a family, and owe them an apology.”
Season 5 of Netflix’s The Crown is a whirlwind of frustrating drama. It’s a season of stories being wielded as weapons. It’s a season of back-stabbing testimonials and messy humanity. It highlights the British royal family during the height of their infamous scandals in the 1990s. This is a group of privileged, powerful, grudge-obsessed people who are more-or-less willing to recognize their mistakes, but aren’t willing to lay down their power and privilege in order to address the brokenness of “the system,” as Elizabeth’s husband, Prince Philip (Jonathan Pryce), describes the monarchy. It's extremely evident, especially in this season and within this family, how cyclical human nature can be. Depicted here are the same problems, the same arguments, and evidence that no one is really learning their lesson.
This reminds me of how necessary the repetitive act of confession is in the Christian life and in Christian liturgy. Every time we gather to worship, we are called to make our sins known to God and to go to one another and confess all that we have “done and left undone.” 1 John 1:6-9 highlights this important, faithful act: “ If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.”
Season 5 is full of confessions. Prince Charles (Dominic West) confesses on television that he had an affair with Camilla Parker Bowles (Olivia Williams) while he was married to Princess Diana (Elizabeth Debicki). After their divorce, Diana and Charles confess how they have hurt one another and apologize in the kitchen of Kensington Palace. Prince Philip admits that the “system” is harsh on him and, contrary to his wife’s wishes, he needs friendship and companionship elsewhere. The Queen confesses on the 40th anniversary of her reign that the royal family hasn’t lived up to the moral standards the public expects. “No institution is beyond reproach,” she acknowledges. “And no member of it either. . . . If we can't admit the errors of our past, what hope for reconciliation can there be?”
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However, true confession cannot simply be words. True confession must be followed up by action—by reconciliation, as the Queen declares. Later in 1 John we read, “Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.” In Season 5, the royal family’s confessions are just speeches. These characters do not attempt reconciliation, because there is no attempt at reforming their actions. When Diana appears in an interview to reveal all the wrong the family has done to her, she doesn’t mention her own multiple affairs. Charles and Diana’s apology session quickly turns into an argument about who deserves the most blame for the downfall of the marriage. Prince Philip claims that the “system” is silencing him, yet he attempts to intimidate Diana into compliance and conformity. The Queen confesses she and her family have not been ideal moral figures, but litters her conversation with guilt-inducing comments to her children about their choices, driving them to frustration and resentment. She also gaslights Diana by insisting that “the enemy you imagine I am . . . the hostility you imagine we all feel is a figment of your imagination.” Her words ring hollow since we as an audience know that the royal family treated Diana horribly throughout the previous seasons of The Crown. Because of this unmended brokenness, I don’t believe the nature of these characters’ confessions are true, lasting, or reconciliatory.
In traditional Christian liturgy, the movement that follows confession and assurance of forgiveness is the passing of the peace. Our confessions to God and one another of things we have “done and left undone” should move beyond our inner thoughts and manifest a gesture of love towards our siblings in Christ. “We love because he first loved us,” 1 John 4 insists. “The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.” When we refuse to repent and resist heartfelt, transformative confession, the consequences are grim. Our fractured relationships continue to break; our communion with God becomes distant due to our pride; we isolate ourselves in our shame and guilt; we become numb to our own sin and attempt to assign blame. While watching Season 5 of The Crown, I found myself wondering what the consequences will be for the royal family for all their pride and hypocrisy. What will it take for them to realize, truly, what they have “done and left undone” and intentionally change the way they live, work, and build relationships with people?
Although we will have to wait until Season 6 to discover if any of my questions will be answered, I will reiterate this hope for us sinners in the meantime, given to us in 1 John 2:1: “But if anybody does sin, we have an advocate with the Father—Jesus Christ, the Righteous One.” With that assurance of forgiveness we are equipped, empowered, and commanded to walk in the newness of life. So let us take up the practice of authentic confession and follow our speeches with actions, with hope that these broken systems, relationships, and hearts will experience true transformation—a transformation that outwardly reflects the love God has toward all his children.