A royal legacy

FROM A DISTANCE - Veronica Pedrosa (The Philippine Star) - April 13, 2021 - 12:00am

The United Kingdom media have carried wall to wall coverage of the death of Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh and husband to Queen Elizabeth for 74 years. So much so that the BBC has received complaints, with some viewers  upset that MasterChef was cancelled.

I was in a car listening to Radio 4 when normal programming was interrupted a few minutes after Buckingham Palace announced at midday on Friday that Philip had died. I think we listened for about an hour before tiring of the repetition. I am house hunting, which is one of the permitted reasons to travel out of your neighborhood, so I was in the Cotswolds, one of the most beautiful areas of England, when the news broke. There’s a royal connection because Prince Charles lives close to Tetbury, a particularly lovely ancient market town there. A friend who lives in the area rang the bell at the small church in their valley 99 times at noon on Saturday, as had been suggested by the Church of England to honor the Duke, though she said she wasn’t sure anyone had heard.

The Church of England has a fundamental link to the English monarchy. The Church of England was among the churches that broke with Rome during the Reformation. Famously, one of the causes was the pope’s refusal to annul the marriage of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon, but there was also a Tudor nationalist belief that authority over the English Church properly belonged to the English monarchy. It’s a kind of English exceptionalism that is echoed in the recent decision to leave the European Union.

Henry VIII’s decision was followed by a time of brutal sectarian turmoil. During his son Edward VI’s reign, the Church of England underwent further reformation. It was driven by the conviction that the theology being developed by the theologians of the Protestant Reformation was more faithful to the teaching of the Bible and the Early Church than the teaching of those who continued to support the pope.

In the reign of Mary Tudor, the Church of England once again submitted to papal authority. She was a devout Catholic, married to Philip II for whom the Philippines is named.

When Protestant Elizabeth I became Queen in 1558 the decision was reversed again. The Church of England’s official website skims over the number of people who were killed in the political and religious violence.

The religious settlement that eventually emerged in the reign of the first Elizabeth gave the Church of England the distinctive identity that it still has today. It consciously retains a large amount of continuity with the Church of the Patristic and Medieval periods, but also embodies Protestant insights. This is often expressed by saying that the Church of England is both ‘catholic and reformed.’ 

Because of that history, the monarch, now Queen Elizabeth II, is Supreme Governor of the Church of England, the titular head of the Church of England, but with his death I was surprised to learn that Prince Philip was worshipped as a deity in his own right.

Two villages on Tanna, an island in Vanuatu, have revered him as a god-like spiritual figure for decades. No-one really knows how or why the movement began, though there are various theories. One is that villagers may have seen his picture along with the Queen’s on the walls of British colonial outposts when Vanuatu was still a colony. Another is that it emerged “as a reaction to colonial presence, a way of re-appropriating and taking back colonial power by associating themselves with someone who sits at the right hand of the ruler of the Commonwealth,” according to a journalist Dan McGarry.

The Prince Philip Movement is a form of cargo cult. The principle behind the idea of cargo cults is the “ritualized building of infrastructure and subsequent acquisition of European colonial trade goods as a way to accumulate wealth,” as an article on the Learn Religions website puts it.

“For instance, a remote village on an island might build an airplane runway in order for European colonists to arrive with cargo, or gifts from Western civilization. A small community with no electricity or running water might build a mock airplane out of straw and sticks, in a form of sympathetic magic, as an attempt to bring more airplanes to their area, bringing cargo,” it continues.

The Duke of Edinburgh is seen by these devotees as a “recycled descendant of a very powerful spirit or god that lives on one of their mountains,” says anthropologist Kirk Huffman who has studied the tribes since the 1970s.

The villagers live a simple life in Tanna’s jungles, much as their ancestors did. Wearing traditional dress is still common, while money and modern technology such as mobile phones are seldom used within their own community. Though they live only several kilometers from the nearest airport, they have made an active choice to disavow the modern world. “It’s not a physical distance, it’s a metaphysical distance. They’re just 3,000 years away,” says McGarry, who has frequently met the villagers.

To mark his death, they will likely conduct a ritualistic dance, hold a procession and display memorabilia of Prince Philip. This will culminate with a significant gathering as a final act of mourning. There will be a great deal of wealth on display, which would mean yams and kava plants and many pigs would be killed.

It seems very different to the way Philip is being mourned here but there’s cargo cult thinking in the modern world. People do imitate behaviors without understanding how they work in the hope of achieving the same results. A Business Digest article about business processes says “imitating practices without shifting underlying principals – i.e., mindset, leadership style and culture – isn’t just as useless as an airplane made of straw; it’s also extremely counterproductive.”

Prince Philip’s legacy is far wider and deeper than you might think at first glance.

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