What do the royals and a Rorschach test have in common? Both provoke reactions that tell us more about the attitudes and beliefs of the beholder than about the object of their gaze. This is not to say that the royals, particularly British royals, are a neutral topic—far from it. I only mean that at this point I find it hard to trust the reviews, tabloid stories, or even high-production value Netflix shows like The Crown, for reliable information or unbiased perspective on the royals. I also find it hard to talk about the royals with others, despite my long-time interest in them. Team Harry and Team William aren’t as polarized as U.S. Republicans and Democrats, but loyalties and opinions can still be fierce.

I came away from Spare not a convert to Team Harry, exactly, but absolutely more sympathetic to him and the choices he’s made. It’s an explainer for why he married Meghan Markle, left Britain and the life of a “working royal” and ended up on Oprah. This is “Harry’s side of Harry’s story,” as my favorite royal-watcher Elizabeth Holmes of So Many Thoughts reflected.

By now, the hoopla surrounding Prince Harry’s biography, Spare, has died down, although at the time of writing it’s still in the top 10 bestselling non-fiction books. Upon release, the book broke sales records for non-fiction titles. Harry has been in the news lately as the first royal to testify in court since the 19th century. He was in the news the prior month as his father Charles was crowned King of England. (One thing all readers of Spare probably have in common is our lack of surprise that Harry got demoted to the third row obstructed view.)

Sermon Quotes on Worship

Spare begins with a disclaimer, “Landscape, geography, architecture, that’s how my memories roll. Dates? Sorry, I’ll need to look them up. Dialogue? I’ll try my best, but make no verbatim claims.” In other words, our guide to royal life in Britain self-identifies as an unreliable narrator. This is partly intentional. A major theme of this story is the way that deep grief twists one’s sense of reality. The most poignant example is how Harry believed for years that his mother Diana had disappeared rather than died and would be returning for him. Another example is Harry’s core belief that the press, all press, serves no purpose other than to devise new torments for and lies about him and his family. Harry’s sense of living in a fishbowl, unprotected by anyone save his late mother, starts very early.  

Reading Spare, the drumbeat goes like this: “I found happiness…the press took it away.” And truly, there are sad and shocking moments, such as particular press who made (and keep making) racist remarks about his wife and young children. Aggressive photographers and reporters do seek him out at each high and low point. He has no privacy. Skeptics counter with examples of how he’s capitalized (literally) on his celebrity. Lack of privacy is the price some pay for extraordinary wealth and status, they argue. Maybe Harry deserves it.

Yet the formative years he describes do sound terrifying and, as he says, traumatic. He has so little control, reading third-hand media accounts about his true and false exploits, being labeled “Prince Thicko,” unable to trust most people around him to keep his confidences. Harry admits that in his pain he used drugs and adrenaline as a way out. I remember him from the 1990s / 2000s as the “Party Prince.” Yet, his impressions of royal life are so very lonely. As much as he loves his grandmother, he also recounts that to hug her was “out of the question.” He’s always seeking shelter from the storm.

Moments of grace and freedom come in unlikely places, such as safari tents in Botswana, the North Pole and even his deployment in Afghanistan. The tours of Africa and the Artic are of course, examples of his extraordinary privilege. (It’s a valid criticism that Harry has barely begun to grasp this fact.)

The deployment and his military service are something else. War (and training for war) gives him his first taste of “normal.” He reflects, “For the first time I was just a name, a random name, and a random number, no title. And no bodyguard. Is this what other people feel like every day? I savored the normality.” War gives him not just normality, but also purpose.

While reading Spare, I came across and article that compared the experience of British “spares” to those in other European countries. Turns out, Britain is one of the only places where anyone is still expected to wait alongside a sibling or relative just in case the country needs another crown-bearer. In most places, a “spare” can now study and have a career—in other words, be normal and have purpose.

The obligations and limitations are lighter from the beginning. Watching the coronation of King Charles III, I was struck with how little of the ceremony makes sense in a reality where the king is a figurehead and a king’s spare is….what? A shadow of a shadow. A young man seated behind a hat in the third row.

Interior of church

Scripture was written in a world shaped by kings. Scripture also shaped the medieval world of kings and the culture where a firstborn matters more. For many, the passing of that order is a welcome change. The idea of a “spare,” a person whose worth is determined by forces outside himself and whose status is doubtful, is one of those twisted ideas we must release in order to see each other rightly. In the Bible, any story with two warring sons and a parent who chooses between them contains tragedy. This story is no different.

In Spare, Harry describes himself as “not religious,” and certainly doesn’t seem to embrace any orthodox faith. Yet he talks about his love of nature and of his mother as guiding stars. He is looking for signs and holds a conviction that death is not the end. Perhaps also, he has a longing for resurrection. As the book ends, Harry reflects on the death of his Granny, the Queen, and his family receives an unexpected houseguest in the form of a hummingbird. “Some cultures see hummingbirds as spirits…Visitors, as it were. Aztecs thought them resurrected warriors. Spanish explorers called them ‘resurrection birds.’” The message the bird delivers to them is this: “You’re free, fly away.”

Considering Spare, I have hope that as this second-son finds his way in the world, he might come to know his true worth. I’d encourage us to pray for the famous and anyone who feels they can never really be known or loved for themselves. We can lift up anyone, particularly children, whose grief feels too heavy to bear. We can pray for the end of old orders and power structures, and look for the kingdom coming, where no one is a “spare.”

Mark Brewer

Colleen Strachan is a Contributor with The Pastors Workshop. She is a Spiritual Formation professional who works in the non-profit space. She enjoys Anglican worship and has served churches in New Jersey, Colorado, Washington and Pennsylvania. She holds a BA from Wheaton College, an MDiv from Princeton Theological Seminary and a current student in the Renovare Institute for Christian Spiritual Formation.

Colleen is married to TPW founder Stu Strachan, and they are on the shared adventure of raising two children.

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