Moondust and Ministry

Derek Nelson

April 6, 2022

What does it take to keep a good early career pastoral leadership program thriving? Some provocative answers emerged from a seemingly unlikely place last year: the hit Netflix series The Crown, a behind-the-scenes dramatization of the British royal family. Queen Elizabeth’s faith was strong, but the Duke of Edinburgh, Prince Philip, was in despair before he was sustained — both as a public figure and private person — by the pastors at St. George’s House, a leadership program for clergy in the middle of their careers. What can we learn about our own work from theirs?

The episode was called “Moondust.” Here’s a synopsis. The year was 1969 and Purdue University’s finest (I never miss an Indiana reference, do I?), Neil Armstrong, had just walked on the moon. Prince Philip, himself a pilot, wondered if his great adventures were all now behind him. Overprotected by the bureaucracy of royalty, and feeling hemmed-in by his role as Queen-consort, Philip spins into a nosedive of malaise. On their way to church Philip asks his wife, “Why do we do this, week-in, week-out? What does it do for you?” Unpersuaded by Her Highness’s response, Philip mopes and grudgingly attends. “It’s not a sermon, it’s a general anesthetic,” he later whispers. He practices polo vigorously and drives fast cars to stem the tide of his increasingly maudlin mid-life crisis.

Queen Elizabeth relents and gently suggests a new dean be installed. The new incumbent, Rev. Woods, has much more energy and shares with Prince Philip his hope to build an academy for mid-career clergy. “My observation has been that you hit a certain age and you hit a ceiling. You lose perspective, get into a slump.” To visit Windsor and stay in its idyllic setting would be a chance for clergy to “recharge, reflect, raise their game.” Philip is more than unimpressed, he is hostile. Lashing out (perhaps out of jealousy of the courageous astronauts he admires), he insists, “You don’t raise your game through talking, but through action.” He allows the dean to start the program, saying “If one of those buildings is free and you want to fill it with hot air and thought, be my guest.”

The dean starts the program and invites the prince once it’s up and running. “Join your academy for blocked, mid-level priests?” Philip scoffs. He grudgingly attends, but offends everyone when he makes light of the disappointments and challenges the pastors face.  “I’ve never heard such a load of pretentious, self-piteous nonsense… Action is what makes a mark.” The astronauts should be their model, thinks Philip. “Not a bunch of navel-gazing underachievers infecting each other with gaseous doom.”

Well, then.

Philip comes to realize he’s got it all wrong, but not until he meets his would-be heroes Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins. He is so incredibly underwhelmed by them that his own mid-life driftlessness is intensified.  Even these incomparable doers of great deeds seem to be merely widgets turning in the cogs of an unrelenting march of time. He struggles even to articulate his question of them, because of course it’s not really astronauts that he needs to talk to in order to understand his own disappointment, his still-nascent hopes and ambitions, and the meaning of his life.

The very traits that make the astronauts excellent choices for their mission – their reliability, modesty, attention to prescribed protocols – make them disappointing to Philip as human beings. If even those men haven’t “gotten” it, what chance does Philip have? Then for some reason he is drawn to his deceased mother’s old room. She had become an Orthodox nun and her crucifixes and breviary are still in their places. Something happens to Philip. He is compelled to apologize to the priests he has offended and he reflects on his own malaise. He confesses to having…”that kind” of crisis, not even able to say “mid-life.” His mother had noticed that something was missing in her son — faith. And Philip begins to understand himself and the real source of his struggles.  “The loneliness, and emptiness, and anti-climax of going all the way to the moon, to find nothing but haunting desolation…” this is reason for true fear.  After reflecting on his painful disquiet, hemming and hawing and struggling to express it, Philip finally states his thoughts in a single word.

“Help,” he says.

In real life, Dean Woods became a very close friend and confidant of Prince Philip.  His sponsorship of the early-career program, St. George’s House, made it a vibrant center of learning and renewal for over 50 years. Its self-description reads like one of ours in the Early Career initiative: “It is a place where people from right across society who are in a position to make a difference might gather together to grapple with issues pertinent to our contemporary world.”

While much could be said about this moment of attention on an early-career program on an international stage, consider just two things. First, the issues with which we’re grappling in our programs are by no means limited to clergy at a certain point in their careers. The challenges of seeing one’s next steps, of coping with disappointment in a way that leads to fervor instead of resignation – these are shared widely by others in related fields of human endeavor. And so our work can both learn from but also offer insight and hope to those other constituencies.

And second, I really admired the sense of conviction with which Dean Woods pursued the Prince’s support. He was steadfast in his devotion to the cause because he had seen the promise, but also the struggles, of his clergy colleagues. He did not know of Philip’s own parallel crisis, but he trusted that Philip would want the good of a flourishing clergy. He had a finite and modest but also significant request to make: would the prince support the program by supplying a meeting space, access to the grounds and access to the crown’s many contacts in government, business and culture?

We don’t all live in the backyard of a wealthy prince having a convenient mid-life crisis! But there is much to learn from and be inspired by in the success and unique mission in “Moondust.”

Leave a Comment