What the royal furore can tell us about cultural differences in the church

The whole royal debacle, with the Sussexes leaving the royal family, continues to roll on. I suspect it is getting more media attention because there really isn’t much going on right now. Then, of course, there is a Oprah Winfrey interview with the Duchess of Sussex who is trying to explain why they didn’t want to stay in the role. At the same time, there have been bullying accusations made against Meghan by at least three people who no longer work at Buckingham Palace. This has been denied and suggested that it is a smear by the palace. They deny any such knowledge but have called an investigation into what went on.

There are several questions that make the whole thing intriguing. First, you have the question of whether it is acceptable for those born into the royal family to step away from royal duty. Second, you have a clash of international values; American (and a little bit of British) republicanism standing against British (and a little bit of American) monarchism. Third, you have the clash of new world and old world values; being true to oneself and speaking one’s truth vs diffidence, duty and service. Fourth, there are the questions of “double standards” (though exactly what double standards are in question isn’t wholly clear).

For my part, I’ll lay my cards on the table and admit to having a preference for abolishing the monarchy, I have absolutely no problem with any member of the royal family deciding to walk away and do their own thing. It’s not as if Edward VIII didn’t already do that before anyway. I do have a bit of an issue, given that we have a monarchy and there are certain privileges and responsibilities that go along with it, with people walking away from the responsibilities but seeking to keep most of the privileges. Edward VIII didn’t attempt to do that. My next Evangelicals Now column digs into that a little bit more, so I will say no more about it here.

The particular thing I wanted to look at a bit more here is the clash of cultures. It isn’t that surprising that most Americans commenting on the situation don’t get it at all. That’s entirely to be expected. They have no monarchy and much of their constitution was written in the context of seeking escape from rule by monarchy. It is interesting that right-wingers in the UK (with exceptions, of course) tend to be pro-monarchy whilst right-wingers in America tend to be vehemently anti. I suspect that is something to do with totemic issues. For old-fashioned Conservatives in the UK, the monarchy represents something of old values that they want to preserve. For right-wingers in America, the totemic issue tend to centre on freedoms around gun ownership which exist specifically because of their view of when they were British colonies. As totemic issues go, monarchy is quite an interesting one when comparing British and American right-wingers because of the underlying values that push them in their respective directions.

But the other value that lies behind the culture clash is that of old world vs new world values. If two countries are emblematic of that, it is Britain and America. British culture – particularly that which would be pro-monarchy – values duty and diffidence. The royal family’s motto is telling: “never complain, never explain.” Into that steps Meghan Markle, a wealthy, privileged actress who is steeped in new world values of being true to oneself and speaking one’s own truth to be key virtues. It was, therefore, telling that when Harry had his privileges rescinded by the Queen, the statement from the palace spoke of them stepping down from a life of service whilst the Sussexes insisted that everyone can live a life of service. The clash of worldviews and values was evident.

I am not going to insist one of those is right and the other is wrong necessarily. You can decide for yourself who is right. As I’ve already said, I think anybody should be free to step away from whatever roles they want. I equally think that, if you do step away from them, you can’t realistically expect to keep all the privileges that come with the position nor to be able to trade upon the name commercially for your own ends. But whose values are right or wrong – well, take your pick. There are good and bad things about both sets, no doubt.

What is playing out in the royal household is a little snippet of how different cultures sometimes rub up against each other in the church. The fact is, there are always clashes of culture in churches. Even in ostensibly monocultural churches, there are different families in membership. Every family has its own particular culture. You could take two families, from the same area, of the same class and ethnicity and still find that there are differences of values between them because even families have their own culture. When we then factor in that, in many churches, people are not from the same area, or country, are from different ethnic and class backgrounds, the potential for rubbing up against differences of value and culture is obvious.

That is not to say one culture is right and others are wrong. There is good and bad in every culture. Whenever two people come together in a marriage, both people will come into it with a particular set of values. In ethnically mixed marriages, or in mixed class marriages, those things become more pronounced. What should give the Christian an advantage is a shared set of values around the gospel. If we can agree with our Christian values, that transcend all cultures, we should be able to work from that to how those things ought to work its way out in our marriage. But so often we just take lots of things as read, things that are cultural that we assume are necessarily biblical, and it is only as we rub up against other people who apparently share our core values who don’t take those things to be quite so self-evident that we begin to recognise that maybe these things are not so directly biblical after all.

The same is true, to some degree, in the church. So often the cultural outworking of our biblical values are things that we deem to be self-evidently biblical of themselves. It is only when we begin to rub up against other people who are clearly committed to the same biblical values as us, but who don’t find our cultural things quite so obvious, that we begin to really see it. When we do see it, we are forced to start addressing the thorny question of how we hold together different cultures and allow those cultures to be properly expressed in the life of the church. We have to think through which things are properly biblical, what is cultural and what is appropriate in the life of the church from any given culture (including the majority one)?