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The Church of Harry

The prince’s waning religiosity, and the decline of Episcopalianism in America

Maggie Phillips
January 12, 2023
Religious Literacy in America
Tablet talks about Judaism a lot, but sometimes we like to change the subject. Maggie Phillips covers religious communities across the U.S.—from Christians to Muslims, Hindus to Baha’i, Jehovah’s Witnesses to pagans—to find out what they’re talking about.
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Justin Tallis - WPA Pool/Getty Images
Harry at Westminster Abbey, 2016Justin Tallis - WPA Pool/Getty Images

The intimate personal details Prince Harry reveals in his new memoir Spare were the subjects of speculation, incredulity, and mockery ahead of its Jan. 10 release. Now that it is out and can be read in all its 400 pages, it may also be worth considering what he doesn’t mention very much: religion. The Church of England, and its American cousin, the Episcopal Church, were once nearly synonymous with the establishment in their respective countries. That the royal describes himself as “not religious” means he is like many of his fellow millennials, who are more likely than previous generations to cite their religious affiliation as “none” in surveys. In this respect at least, he is also more like his fellow Brits than his father, King Charles, the supreme governor of the Church of England. Harry’s disaffiliation is also something he has in common with American Episcopalians, who fall under the global umbrella of Church of England-derived autonomous churches known as the Anglican Communion. Both denominations have experienced sharp decline in recent decades.

The two churches, Episcopal and Anglican, are a kind of theological symbol of the U.S.-U.K. special relationship. Harry’s American wife, Meghan Markle, was baptized and confirmed into the Anglican Church shortly before her wedding. And the head of the Episcopal Church, Bishop Michael Curry, achieved star status when he delivered a conversational, American-style homily at their royal wedding in St. George’s Chapel, Windsor. The Anglican Church developed from King Henry VIII’s decision in 1534 to split with the Roman Catholic Church, which would not release him from his marriage to Catherine of Aragon to marry Anne Boleyn. Today’s U.S. Episcopal Church is descended from the Anglican clergy who arrived in America before the Revolution (Anglicans tended to be loyalists during the war). In the aftermath of the Revolution, with Bishop James Madison of Virginia in attendance, a group of Anglican U.S. bishops declared the institution of an independent U.S. church, which would use a modified version of the Church of England’s Book of Common Prayer, the liturgical basis for Anglican liturgical rites and prayers.

The Sussexes would have a couple of worship options should they decide to depart from their $14.7 million Montecito pile for a Sunday morning service. In nearby Santa Barbara, there are All-Saints-by-the-Sea and Trinity Episcopal churches, both of which state their progressive credentials on their website while displaying high-quality photos of their ornate neo-Gothic architecture and interiors. This blend of tradition and contemporary politics is not uncommon in many mainline Protestant churches, which tended to constitute the religious establishment for much of American history. Santa Barbara is also home to Church of Our Saviour, which belongs to the Anglican Province of Christ the King (APCK). The APCK and the Anglican Church of North America (ACNA) are groupings of churches who have broken away from the Episcopal Church in the U.S., taking a more conservative view of church teachings, and usually prefer a more traditionalist form of worship. Moreover, they are not recognized by the Anglican Communion leadership in Canterbury, England.

Episcopalians form part of America’s so-called ‘mainline’ Protestant tradition, which accounted for over half of the population in the early 1950s, but had declined to 12% by 2018.

But given that Harry describes wondering in his memoir what happens to people after they die (“Could there really be Nothing after this?”), and Meghan meeting his grandmother while she was returning from church, where the couple had evidently not been, we can assume he, at least, is not observant. This would track with most of his fellow Anglican Communicants in the United States: Baptized members have declined from over 2 million in 2012 to 1,678,157 in 2021, a decline of nearly 20%. As for attendance, the median average at a Sunday service in 2021 was 21, a decline from an average of around 50 in 2020.

These numbers are a sharp contrast from when Episcopalianism was the default for most American WASP elites. God is no longer “an Episcopalian from Boston.” Statistically, most people from Boston these days would probably describe themselves as either Catholic or unaffiliated. Once the religion of presidents and what Tom Wolfe would call Masters of the Universe, Episcopalianism was as de rigueur as a country club membership or a Lacoste shirt.

Episcopalians form part of America’s so-called “mainline” Protestant tradition, which accounted for over half of the population in the early 1950s, but had declined to 12% by 2018. According to sociologist Stephen Bullivant, who cites these statistics in his book Nonverts: The Making of Ex-Christian America, the term comes from “a cluster of specific denominations, with long-standing roots and influence in and around the Northeast by the start of the 20th century (the eponymous ‘main line’ being the Pennsylvania Railroad, terminating in Philadelphia, site of the 1908 founding of the Federal Council of Churches).” This grouping included not only the U.S. Episcopal Church, but Congregationalists, Baptists, and Presbyterians (descendants of the New England puritans), and Methodists.

“All shared a basic common ground of moral and social outlook,” Bullivant writes. “And, for the most part, a commitment to a certain set of (liberal) Protestant principles.” This broad agreement united them against Catholics and fundamentalists, in Bullivant’s telling, which allowed the disparate denominations to “project an outsized vision and voice of ‘American Christianity’” in society and the culture by forming what he calls “an ecumenical Power Rangers.” They were “ordinary, respectable, mainstream Christianity,” he said. The mainline became the lingua franca in American discourse, according to Bullivant, a “civic religious language and space” within which even Catholics and Jews could operate.

Citing the old ad adage “Nobody ever got fired for buying an IBM,” Bullivant describes mainline affiliation as the cultural equivalent for most of the 20th century: a generally safe, conventional choice. Even today, one nonreligious woman he interviewed said she will say her parents were Episcopalian when she needs to “pass as a Christian” at her job in the Bible Belt. “Episcopalians are a really very rational folk, they are pretty liberal,” she said.

Commentators and royal watchers wonder what effect Spare’s level of unprecedented tea-spilling will have on the monarchy. With so much hollowing of trust in institutions in modern society, will the House of Windsor be next? But this question overlooks a central fact: The monarchy is, at its core, a religious institution. Comedian John Mulaney appeared to grasp this reality. When Harry and Meghan’s exit from the monarchy was in the headlines in 2020, he asked late night host Seth Meyers whether Markle had ever considered the ceremonial obligations of her role. “You thought rolling with these dorks in church clothes was going to be fun?” he asked. After all, where was Harry’s brother, Prince William, the night that the Harry & Meghan Netflix series dropped? At Westminster Abbey, quoting from their grandmother’s 2012 Christmas address about “peace and love at the centre of our lives in the person of Jesus Christ.”

Stripped of its ceremonial trappings and values of duty to God and country, Harry’s post-royal chapter seems to whittle royal status down to little more than yet another platform for self-promotion. To whit, critics accuse him of swapping out one set of aristocratic values, embodied by the Royal Family’s churchgoing patriotism, for another: the self-improvement culture of West Coast American celebrity elite. But Anglicanism and Episcopalianism are losing their luster with royalty on both sides of the Atlantic. In Britain today, Christians are now a minority in England and Wales. Now stateside, Harry may not go to church, but in his memoirs he visits a psychic, and follows the advice of an ayurvedic doctor for his wife’s delivery of their first child. Reminiscences in his memoir of footmen bringing him dinner on a literal silver tray, and horseback riding with his brother in Lesotho, “capes blowing behind us,” may make Harry seem out of touch. But he is a true man of the people in one respect. By dabbling in other traditions, and distancing himself from the faith of his father and grandmother, he is simply falling in line with the trends of his fellow millennial “nones,” his secular countrymen, and increasingly, Americans, who even as they retain their religious belief, are less likely to associate with a denomination.

No longer the status symbols they once were, the Church of England and the Episcopal Church both are a bit like Harry: They have name recognition, and a historic legacy. Now, untethered from their traditional influential roles, they seek to redefine themselves, and are telling their story to new audiences, hoping to win them over.

This story is part of a series Tablet is publishing to promote religious literacy across different religious communities, supported by a grant from the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations.

Maggie Phillips is a freelance writer and former Tablet Journalism Fellow.