There will be no sermon this week, since I will be traveling to New York City. However, I offer this personal essay instead.
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Peter Morgan, creator and screenwriter for the Netflix series, The Crown, was interviewed recently on Fresh Air by Dave Davies. The interview was a fascinating look inside a program which has captured a sizeable following in its first two seasons.
Actress Claire Foy plays the young Queen Elizabeth. Her life takes a sudden turn when she, as Princess Elizabeth, learns of her father’s death and her ascension to the throne. The series, thus far, has plotted the early years of her reign – basically, 1952 through 1964.
The series is, of course, “informed speculation” of what transpires in the royal family, since no member of that family would speak to outsiders of the dynamics within the palace. Morgan, the creator, has a team of researchers which seeks all the bits of information they can find, from historical records, royal archives, and people who were close to the events themselves.
Many of the episodes focus on the dilemmas which the young queen faces as her reign moves through personal and public trials. Royal decorum and precedent restrict what the sovereign can do and say in specific circumstances. So, we see, in the program, the internal and external turmoil which weighs heavy on the Queen (“Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown.” William Shakespeare, King Henry the Fourth).
Davies, Morgan’s interviewer, posed a question which assumed that Elizabeth would have preferred a quiet, country life, outside of public life. The question acknowledged that Elizabeth’s life would have been much more simple and uncomplicated if she had not been Queen.
Morgan responded by saying that his opinion is that life would have been more simple for Elizabeth, who he describes as shy and modest and not desiring the limelight. He added to that sentence: “But that says nothing about her sense of duty… In a sense, you never hear people talk about duty.”
Duty. It is a potent word – and an important one in the life of Elizabeth II. I recall the Bishop under whom I served as Canon to the Ordinary for 14 years mentioning duty repeatedly during a series of presentations he offered around the Diocese of Mississippi in 2001 and 2002. Duncan Gray III spoke of his father’s generation as being strongly motivated by a sense of duty. Thus, we had their responses and historic actions during World War II, along with their Herculean efforts to build a strong, prosperous, just, and safe institutions. Hence, the Greatest Generation.
My father taught me those same lessons. Late in his life, I thanked him for inculcating in me a strong sense of personal ethics. He was typical of his generation in response: modesty. Much later, after reflecting on the Morgan interview, I realized what he had actually bequeathed to me was a strong sense of duty.
I will readily admit: I have frequently fallen short of doing my duty. That is clearly obvious to me “looking back in the rearview mirror.” But the call of duty – genetically and culturally implanted within me – explains both my discomfort and comfort over the years.
I am able to see how my previous vocation – as a lobbyist – was so unsatisfying to me (except for my earliest position, which involved what I called a white hat organization). Later, my sense of discomfort would rise as my job required me to articulate positions which were not resonant with my spirit. I did not like a large, faceless entity telling me what to be or do, regardless of conflicting personal values or principles.
It becomes clear to me – again, in hindsight – that it was a sense of duty, as much as anything, which drew me toward seminary and the ordained ministry. As I articulated to the Commission on Ministry in January 1984, I wanted to relate to people on a different level – one that was less ambitious and manipulative and more fully genuine, human, and humane.
Let me be clear: I am not equating myself with the Queen of England. But I can sympathize with the difficulties that she has faced in confronting some dilemmas. Her sense of duty has caused her to do some things and take come actions which were enormously painful (at least according to The Crown). A point that Peter Morgan made in his interview was this: The public has assumed that she took certain steps out of preference instead of out of duty, when the actual process may have reflected precisely the opposite.
That dilemma confronts many of us. It is hard to follow the call of duty in those circumstances, when people’s emotions or vocations are at-stake and the personal price is high. The easy thing, the most expeditious thing, is frequently contrary to what should be done, based on duty.
I can look back at my vocation – both before and after ordination – and see when those conflicting values have clashed. There have been times when I have responded to the call of duty and done things that might have been very painful or difficult for me (and perhaps painful and difficult for others), but they were ultimately the right things. As the series The Queen has insinuated, there is occasionally a personal price for doing the right thing.
At the same moment, I can reflect and see other, different decisions. There have been times when I have pulled punches or not said what I knew to be the full truth out of concern of how those words would be received or interpreted, or the price I would pay for my honesty. In those moments, I have betrayed my inheritance and my personal integrity. Likewise, when I have failed to be completely frank in certain situations, I have denied the person to whom I was speaking the chance to hear the truth and to make changes which might be helpful.
In those moments of less-than-honesty, I probably convinced myself that I was doing the right thing. However, such evasive decisions were a chimera of duty, and not the real deal.
The call of duty is a high calling, and requires one to be unflinching in its service.