CONSIDERING HER financial predicament (£4 million in the red and rising), and the unhappy state of her emotional life, no one can have been at all surprised to learn that the Duchess of York had been acting on advice from a Greek clairvoyant who receives messages over the ether whilst seated under a blue plastic pyramid. What is surprising is the number of others who put their faith in such practitioners.

The great (and those who think themselves such) are hugely prone to the same affliction. Poor Alexandra Fedorovna’s dependence on the insanitary Rasputin is well chronicled. And Hitler’s paralysis of will without a recently cast horoscope is equally well known. Julius Caesar can be excused the entrails of a recently slaughtered chicken on the grounds of mere social convention; and the prevalence of the Ouija board in the heyday of Newport, Rhode Island probably has the same explanation. But still – as they say – there is a lot of it about.

For my money the most fascinating revelation in Humphrey Carpenter’s biography of Robert Runcie (alas largely ignored in the press furore) was the enthusiasm of the notoriously independent-minded Rosalind for astrology.

And then – as always – there is Mervyn Stockwood.

Stockwood was serviced, in a Witch of Endor capacity, by a clairvoyant with the improbable name of Ena Twigg. His autobiography, On Chanctonbury Ring, lists numerous claims to paranormal experience. Some involve his own mother and father, with whom he claimed to have had numerous conversations after their deaths. Others, as befits a prince bishop, were altogether more glamorous. One features Michael Marshall, Keith Sutton, the recently deceased Norman Hartnell, a luxurious house in Ascot and a jade ornament. Another relates to a Canon of Southwark, killed in a motor car accident, who briefly abandoned the Isles of the Blessed for 38 Tooting Bec Gardens in order to berate Mervyn on the quality of his funeral oration. But the most fascinating of all involves the wife of the Bishop of Woolwich – no lesser person than John ‘Honest-to-God’ Robinson – who ‘endeared herself to Mervyn one day in Cambridge by getting out the Ouija board’. What a world of theological absurdity that conjures up!

They were a blasé bunch, those purveyors of South Bank religion. ‘My God!’, said Hugh ‘Jesus-was-probably-a-homosexual’ Montefiore to Robert Runcie on the publication of Honest to God, ‘John Robinson’s written a book which is going to cause mayhem – he’s going to tell the world the sort of things we believe!’ It would be hard to imagine anything more offensively elitist; but that is the way they all behaved. Runcie describes the Cuddesdon ethos, around which so much of this revolved, as ‘detached slightly amused liberalism’. One is inclined to agree with his brother-in-law Angus: ‘I don’t really trust people who are funny, who mock the things they are actually doing’.

The clever world of ecclesiastical scepticism seems rather jaded now; and it is somehow comforting to know that whilst John and Hugh and David Jenkins were courageously pursuing ‘religionless Christianity’, Mrs Robinson, Lindy Runcie and Mervyn Stockwood were indulging in a little Christianity-less religion. And they, as it now appears, were the real pioneers of the new religious sensibility. Re-mythologization not de-mythologization is the game of the moment. John Robinson’s New Reformation has been overtaken by something altogether more primitive.

Who would have thought, in the rational atmosphere of the reasonable sixties that ‘detached liberalism’ would one day be replaced by willing superstition and that the noticeboards of Cuddesdon would sport advertisements for Druidic-Christian-Wiccan dialogue? But you do not have to look far in the Anglican Church these days for the inanities of Inanna, for an eco-eccentrism which makes of nature and the world a rival to the God and Father of Our Lord Jesus Christ, and for the ‘creation spirituality’ which marked the Nine-O’clock Service.

Poor Mervyn Stockwood was a generation too early. Fate condemned him to keep company with all that rather earnest intellectualism, when his natural talents and inclinations might have turned him into something of a Chris Brain: the self-indulgent guru of an extravagant sect. (Judging from Michael De-la-Noy’s entertaining biography, he already had, in Michael Mayne, Donald Reeves, Munir Abul Elhawa, Martin Coombs, Derek Watson and the rest, a ‘Home-Base Team’ which was never short of recruits, and which he treated with a mixture of hauteur and familiarity which probably added a certain welcome frisson to the relationship.)

When faith grows dim, superstition runs riot. At the heart of Christian Faith is a notion of the orderliness and coherence of all things created. The Law of the Conservation of Miracle (a little-known principle which you will find operating in Christian literature from the first to the nineteenth century, and in every literary genre from gospel to hagiography) dictates that even supernatural intervention is subservient to plot and meaning. A miracle is a metaphor which takes its assigned and inevitable place in the coherent pattern of imagery which goes to make up what Reynolds Price has called ‘the one short story we feel to be true’. Wherever miracle is detached from meaning we should look for those other attendant dislocations: loneliness and self-indulgence.

It is not hard to see, on a personal level, why Mervyn Stockwood and Sarah Ferguson should find comfort in mediums (and the media). But there is more to it than maudlin self-indulgence. Alcohol-dependence, superstition and living beyond one’s means are all symptoms of the retreat of meaning. Sadly perhaps the well-intentioned Bishop Robinson, in trying to tailor faith to an age of unbelief, was unwittingly instrumental in driving his wife to the Ouija board and his boss to the bottle.

Geoffrey Kirk is Vicar of St. Stephen’s, Lewisham in the diocese of Southwark