After the Ball

AS MRS PARKER-BOWLES jets off, none too discreetly, to a holiday in the Aegean with the entire future of the British monarchy, one question ineluctably presents itself: whatever happened to Diana? The nation’s grief for England’s Rose now seems no more than a fevered dream. It is the tawdry side of it all which endures. Hers is a memory destined to be forever entangled with the fraudulent stratagems of an Egyptian arriviste: a mere prelude to a passport. Even the fairy-tale wedding about which Robert Runcie preached has been spectacularly superseded by Posh Spice, David Beckham and the handsomely remunerated (but curiously attired) Bishop of Cork.

The monarchy, once said to be dowdy, irrelevant and tottering, appears sturdily resilient. The Queen Mother’s centenary and the pre-pubescent adulation of Prince William are all it needs to bolster its popularity. Retention in Australia (which seems likely, despite a vigorous republican campaign) can only increase pride and affection at home.

So what was the Diana event about? What was it that the pundits chewed over (and the House of Bishops of the Church of England solemnly reflected upon in the cavernous wasteland of the Adelphi Hotel) ?

One thing is certain: that, for the British monarchy, at least, Diana was not the way forward.

Her attempt was a brave one; to cut loose from ‘The Firm’ and strike out in a new and modern vein, severing the institution from the panoply of a history which most people have forgotten (and which in, any case, is no longer taught in schools). But we can now see that there is little or no future for a ‘Hello!’ monarchy.

Paradoxically the very people who buy the magazines and drool over the glossy photographs recognise the world which they portray for the shallow travesty that it is. They know entertainment when they see it; they know that it is essentially transient; and they look to the Royal Family for a stability and continuity which mere glamour cannot and does not provide.

Diana was the ultimate post-modern experience. She was the frocks. She was the spin. And she managed to be famous for a little more than the statutory fifteen minutes. But there was no more. She was, in the profoundest, saddest sense, insignificant. And that is why she must not be forgotten. Like a distant embarrassment suddenly remembered, she must come back to haunt us.

Among the remaindered Diana memorabilia in a bookshop the other day I came across the memento mori of another half-forgotten non-event: Rowland Howard’s book about the Nine O’clock Service.

I had forgotten it all, and yet it all came flooding back: the neurotic good looks of ‘rave priest’ Chris Brain (where is he now?); his fast track to ordination; his obsessive desire to get hold of the very cotta worn by Robert de Niro in ‘The Mission’; the gushing account of the origins of the catastrophe at the end of Robert Warren’s excruciating book ‘In the Crucible’; the lycra-clad ‘post-modern nuns’; the enthusiasm of Matthew Fox; the ambivalent involvement of Stephen Lowe. I remembered, too, how at the time, I had said to myself that this also was an event not to be forgotten: an emblem of Anglicanism at its trendy worst.

In what amounts to a delicious parody of all those evangelical paperbacks of naive self-advertisement (cf. Carey, G. ‘The Church in the Market Place’, New with Study Guide, Kingsway, 1984, etc., etc.,etc.) Howard tells the tale of the collapse of a dream.

The important thing to remember is that it was, for a while at least, a widely-shared dream. Brain had the uncritical support of older and wiser men (who have gone on to greater things). He fed the general ecclesial neurosis about numbers, and about failure with ‘youth culture’, by packing them in. It all had glamour – with trips to Grace Cathedral, San Francisco on the side. But it was, sub specie aeternitatis, insignificant.

The truth is that in the image-led post-modern world which Diana and Chris Brain inhabited, institutions like the monarchy and the Church are ill at ease. They cannot and do not lend themselves to instant fame. Rather they are ideas which have to be learned. To stand with them you have to stand in their history. Dry ice and an off-the-shoulder number by Versace are no substitute for Thomas Aquinas and the Battle of Agincourt.

Diana mistook the fame of the British monarchy (which echoes down the centuries and is indivisible from the nation’s own story) for mere adventitious celebrity. She foolishly supposed she could enhance it by a dance with John Travolta, an evening with George Michael and a song from Elton John. Chris Brain identified religious images and themes in the kaleidoscope of popular culture and foolishly mistook enthusiasm for the image as a concern for what it signifies. In this they were both uncompromisingly children of their own time. History as fashion accessory is the great discovery of the post-modern.

The monarchy has had a narrow escape. What if Diana had lived? What if the doctors and nurses at La Poissonnerie had been successful in their nocturnal battle? The mere prospect is terrifying. Instinctively we can see that tragedy was the appropriate, the only unravelling.

Has the Church of England (has Anglicanism) also escaped? The answer must be hardly, or not yet. The patrons of Chris Brain are still in positions of influence, and the post-modernist spirit which once brought incense and plainchant to St Thomas’s, Crookes is alive and well. The gothic splendours of Grace Cathedral still shelter the United Religions Initiative of Bishop Swing, and with the grim determination of a medieval prelate at an auto-da-fe, the Bishop of Newark, New Jersey is still denouncing his fellow Christians for believing what the Church has always maintained.

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