As historians, history buffs and “The Crown” fans know, 83 years ago this month Edward VIII abdicated the throne of England, surrendering his power and stepping down from the monarchy. The reason? He had plans to marry a twice-divorced American socialite, and the Church of England, the British Houses of Parliament and the British people wouldn’t stand for it.
What relevance does that have for American Christians today? Bear with me.
One issue in 1936 was the way divorce was perceived by the prevailing culture and by the Church of England which strongly disapproved of the marriage. Another issue was the potential of a foreign socialite possibly inheriting the British Crown and all the properties and power associated with it. This was simply unthinkable to most British citizens.
Because of the controversy and the moral crisis it created for the British public, Edward chose to abdicate the throne in order to marry the woman he loved. For the rest of his life he barely set foot in England.
Edward’s brother, George VII, was pronounced king the day after Edward stepped down. George’s daughter, of course, is Queen Elizabeth II. Can you imagine a British king or prime minister stepping down today because of controversy over marrying a divorcee, or the Church of England not blessing such a union, or an outcry over a head of state being married to a foreigner? (I’m resisting any parallels in American politics.)
“I remember thinking, ‘Man, the people in this church wouldn’t have helped a pregnant Mary!’”
In some ways times have changed and in others they have not – perhaps in some ways for the better and in others for the worse. In many ways, rich playboys and heiresses still run the world, and with little consequence for their personal and public transgressions. The kinds of controversy that might have caused a king to abdicate the throne in the 1930s seem quaint today.
Edward lost much of the prestige of the monarchy, but continued to live out his days with the title “Duke of Windsor” and was named governor of the Bahamas. He walked away from the monarchy, but was still insulated and privileged by it.
Now, to our current moment in the United States. As Christmas approaches and Christians celebrate the coming of Jesus, the Messiah, Edward’s story serves to remind us of several things.
First, Christians too often place their hope and trust in worldly leaders and their promises of national prosperity rather than depending on God’s blessing and provision. Similarly, concerns related to the moral character of our elected leaders are sacrificed on the altar of political power and expediency.
In the current climate, moral character in the persons we are willing to place in power seems to matter less and less. (I wonder if a nation that didn’t care about character could have stood up to the test of Nazi aggression the way Great Britain did.) Our lack of concern for character in our leaders is impacting our ability to meet the great moral crises of our time. And, ironically, placing too great a hope in earthly leaders often contributes to the erosion of the character we may expect of them.
Second, the Gospel reminds us that God did not choose to come to the people of privilege and power in the palace of Caesar, but to a poor family who had little earthly means. Is the heart of God with the privileged who abuse their power and will still live a life of privilege no matter the outcome of national and political controversy? Or is the heart of God with the wandering shepherd tending a flock, the carpenter with calloused hands, the teenage mother pregnant out of wedlock and the refugee family on the run from a despot ruler? The hearts of our culture, our 24-hour news cycle and, tragically, many of our churches often seem far from the heart of God.
I recall attending a business meeting at my Baptist church when I was in college. Many members were upset because a local mission house, which the church funded, was opening a crisis pregnancy center to assist teenage mothers-to-be. I remember thinking, “Man, the people in this church wouldn’t have helped a pregnant Mary!” As often as we do it to the least of these, we do it to Christ, and by extension the holy family.
The author of Ecclesiastes was right – there is nothing new under the sun. As Christmas and another new year approach, may we place our hope in God and not in the leaders of this world. May we exhibit the loving heart of God instead of the arrogant and cold heart of many of our political leaders. After all, at Christmas we celebrate the King of Kings stepping down from his heavenly throne to come to earth to live as one of us.