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Even the Christian churches now want to follow the teachings of Diana, patron saint of victims, reports Brendan O'Neill

New religion for old?

'My mother lost her voice two years ago after suffering a stroke: she just went into a world of her own and everything we said went straight over her head. But as we were watching Princess Diana's funeral last year mother turned to me and said in a clear voice, "How sad", and then insisted that we send a card to the Queen. It was as if there had been an awakening'.

Diane Kabza from Iffield near Brighton believes her 94 year-old mother regained her ability to speak as a result of Princess Diana's 'compassionate spirit'. 'Diana was full of kindness in life', she says, 'and that kindness seems to have lived on after her death'. Like the local newspaper Diane thinks her mother's awakening was a 'Right Royal miracle': 'Diana was the great compassionate healer of our times. She had a wonderful soul which was freed after her death and was able to have an impact on people, including my mother.'

Beth Delaney from Milton Keynes was waiting to sign a book of condolence in St James' Palace when she was visited by the 'risen' Princess. 'It was almost my turn to sign the book', remembers Beth, 'when I started to get goosepimples down my back like there had been a cold breeze. At the bottom of one of the paintings Diana's face appeared. She was smiling so it made me feel much better: all I wrote in the book of condolence was thank you'. Reporting from outside St James' Palace last September, one journalist, Clare Garner, was approached by at least 10 people claiming to have had visions of Diana in the same room on the same painting.

Claims of healings and visions are only the most extreme examples of a religious aura which has been building up around Diana since her death. As with all religions, the Cult of Diana has its rituals, like the lighting of candles, the laying of flowers and the leaving of messages outside Kensington Palace, and the mass displays of public grieving before and during her funeral. Of course there was a fair sprinkling of devout cranks among the worshippers ('Thank God for Jesus Christ, thank God for Diana' read one message on the palace gates), but the new religion gained a hold among a much wider congregation.

Diana's status as a sacred object of worship has since been confirmed, with the Diana Memorial Fund behaving like a Vatican Council, deciding who can and cannot name things after the Princess and trying to stop people making films about her without permission. Perhaps the emergence of a new religiosity was most clearly demonstrated by Earl Spencer's announcement that he is to build a 'shrine' to his sister at Althorp House. Referred to by many (including those inside the Spencer camp) as a 'Temple to Diana', it was symbolic that the frenzied scramble to buy tickets for the shrine occurred on the same day that Peter Mandelson was embroiled in a row with the bishops over whether Christianity would be prominently featured in the Millennium Dome. In New Britain it seems Jesus is out and Diana is in.

Sure enough, the rise of the new religiosity mirrors the decline of the traditional Christian churches. The newly-published UK Christian Handbook 1998/99 shows that church membership and attendance is hitting an all-time low. In 1980 all the Christian churches had a combined 'committed membership' of 7 550 000; by 1985 this figure had fallen to 6 980 000; by 1990 it was 6 690 000; and by 1995 it was down to 6 300 000. By the year 2000 it is estimated that it will fall to 5 950 000. If present trends continue, by the turn of the century the Anglican and Catholic churches will have lost more than a quarter of their memberships in just 20 years.

'People do not want to go to church any more and be told how to grieve or how to pray and at which particular shrine', says Reverend Dr John Drane, director of the Centre for Christianity and Contemporary Society at Stirling University. 'They want to make their own shrines and pray in their own way. That is what we saw after Diana's death, people celebrating their own spirituality. For many Diana became a Christ figure, a means through which they could understand the world.'

Drane is the author of Creating Churches for the Next Century, a ground-breaking book which addresses 'the paradox between the burgeoning spirituality of the nineties on the one hand and the rapid decline in church attendance on the other'. According to Drane the response to Diana's death illustrates that while spirituality is alive and well the traditional churches are out of touch. 'There was a lot of unjustified euphoria, particularly in the Church of England, that the religious response to the death of Diana heralded a great return to the church. But I think it heralds the beginning of an age where people realise they can be spiritual without the church.'

The old-time religion has declined as part of a wider loss of faith in society's traditional values. Churches which relied on the idea that they alone were in possession of The Truth were never going to prosper in a post-traditional society where relativism holds sway, and there is no real consensus as to what should be considered right or wrong. What Drane calls 'people celebrating their own spirituality' is really a sign of an increasingly individuated society, where the collective institutions of yesteryear, from churches to trade unions, have lost their purchase on people's emotions. Diana is a natural figurehead for the church of self-obsession.

The old church hierarchies have been trying to adapt to the new, alien circumstances for some time by playing down their claim to absolute moral authority. So the Church of England has given up believing in hell as a place of damnation, while the Catholic Church holds 'consultation meetings' with its members to find out what the 'Catholic in the street' really wants. Both churches have latched on to the death of Diana in a desperate attempt to boost their standing by associating themselves with the new religion.

In his New Year message to the nation George Carey, Archbishop of Canterbury, spoke of how the response to Diana's death pointed the way towards a more 'caring society': 'Here was someone who, though intensely human, and fallible like all of us, expressed kindness. She was, in the deepest sense of the word, a "caring" person. And perhaps that amazing outpouring of grief last September arose partly because we recognised in Diana some of those unfulfilled hopes for a more "caring society".'

Meanwhile Cardinal Basil Hume assured Britain's 5.7 million Catholics that Diana 'is with God' - in case anybody was worried that the Anglican Princess would have to pay her dues in purgatory, as any ordinary Catholic who was self-indulgent, extravagantly rich and unfaithful to their spouse would. More recently the Catholic Church has opened a drop-in 'spiritual centre' which, according to the Catholic newspaper The Tablet, can play an invaluable role in the post-Diana age.

The fact that those who once spoke with 'the authority invested in them by God' now have to evoke the spirit of Diana to get their message across is a striking testimony to the changed times. Journalist John Vidal summed it up in an article which 'set an agenda for Saint Diana' months before her death: 'Given the political and moral vacuum, confusion in the churches, reluctance in business and the dreadful absence of international responsibility in Britain today, there is plenty of room for someone, however expensive their clothes, to star in the moral firmament' (Guardian Weekly, 26 January 1997). So what is it about Diana that makes her the perfect focus for this new religiosity?

'Diana identified with victims and they identified with her', says Reverend Tony Lloyd, director of the Leprosy Mission. He recalls accompanying Diana on a visit to refugees with leprosy in Zimbabwe. 'Before we knew it she was crouching next to one of the frailest refugees who had been too weak to join the others and who no one else had spotted: it was just Diana and this patient, one woman in pain talking to another woman in pain. Of course neither woman knew a syllable of the other's language but there was some kind of communication between them. We just stood back and watched: it was truly amazing.'

Passing swiftly over Reverend Lloyd's apparent equation of bulimia and leprosy, the notion of Diana as a victim in solidarity with other victims - 'one woman in pain talking to another woman in pain' - is a popular image. She is seen as somebody who was as 'fragile' as the rest of us in her life, who has become patron saint of the unfortunate after her death. This is where we can begin to see what is really being worshipped in the new religion.

'People can see something of themselves in Diana and that is important', says Dr Peter Brierley, director of the prestigious think-tank Christian Research and co-editor of the UK Christian Handbook 1998/99. 'She wasn't perfect, she had problems like the rest of us. People could identify with many aspects of her life: her divorce, her illness, her loneliness, and in a sense they could take some comfort from seeing this ordinary woman in an extraordinary situation experiencing many of the same problems they experienced.'

Brierley thinks it is significant that people responded differently to the death of Mother Teresa than they did to the death of Diana: 'People could not identify with Mother Teresa who was often described as a "living saint". She seemed flawless in many ways and she had an unstinting and unquestioning faith. Not many people can relate to that. But Diana was flawed, she was only human: she had been through the same experiences and the same pitfalls as the rest of us.'

Reverend Donald Reeves, rector of St James' Church in Piccadilly in central London, agrees: 'It was Diana's fragility as a human being which made her so appealing.' Reverend Reeves was one of the first to hold a service in memory of Diana, expecting '30 or 40 people to turn up but in the end there was something like 1500 and the service went on for over three hours. It was like Christmas Day, Good Friday and Easter all rolled into one'. After speaking to his congregation and to mourners on the Mall, Reeves came to the conclusion that it was Diana's self-proclaimed victim status that made her so popular: 'She had so many faults and failings and it is in the midst of that fragility that something rather special is glimpsed.'

The new religion is a worship of victimhood, one which holds up 'fragility' and 'failure' as the common experience that is supposed to hold people together. At a time when society has lost direction and the institutions which cohered it have lost authority, leaders both political and spiritual are desperate for anything that can create the impression of national unity and purpose. They have attached themselves to tragedies like the Dunblane massacre and especially the death of Diana, which provide them with a rare opportunity to speak with authority and one voice on behalf of the nation.

'It was extraordinary watching Diana's funeral', Dr Peter Brierley told me, 'to see Archbishop George Carey leading everybody in prayer. And by everybody I mean 2.4 billion people. When does George Carey ever get to lead so many people in prayer? In a sense he was, at that moment, the High Priest of the nation: he spoke for us all'.

The churches have not only been opportunistic in their response to Diana's death: they have positively embraced the values of the new religion developing around her. According to Reverend Richard Harries, Bishop of Oxford, one 'insight to be derived from the impact of Diana's death is that so many people's lives are in a mess, particularly people under 35, and the way to communicate with them is by being vulnerable, by sharing something of our own dilemmas and pain' (The Tablet, 20 December 1997). In other words it is about time church leaders admitted that they are just as screwed up as everybody else.

The Christian churches have always considered our spiritless lives to be 'in a mess'. But in the past Christian leaders were confident about their message and their mission, and would try to show us the road to redemption by self-improvement. Those days are long gone: today's churches are more interested in emulating Diana by communicating with us through their own 'vulnerability and pain'. The Anglican Church in particular appears to be more interested in spreading the gospel according to Diana than the gospels according to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

There is nothing to defend about the old religions. Educated as a Catholic I know only too well how traditional Christianity views people as degraded and flawed. But I also have a vivid memory of being confirmed by Cardinal Basil Hume when I was 14, welcomed into the church as an 'adult' capable of choosing between right and wrong. Today, as the Bishop of Oxford points out, Christian leaders are more interested in lowering themselves to what they see as our level, admitting that they feel the same pain as the rest of us. Probably the only equivalent of confirmation in the new religion is to take part in some humiliating public confession, preferably on TV, or to wear your emotions like a badge: to confirm that you too are a victim in the image of Diana.

As an awe-struck teenager I remember Cardinal Basil Hume standing over and above the congregation, instilling his values into the next generation of Catholics, a man with no time for the petty pursuits of the rest of us, like sex, relationships, alcohol, money and so on. He had cut himself off from the real world and set himself the arrogant task of saving humanity from itself. But today Cardinal Hume appears to spend half his time apologising for the misdemeanours of the child abusers and perverts that seem to make up the Catholic priesthood. Gone is the image of the church as a superior institution setting a Godly standard for the rest of us to aspire to. These days Christian leaders are at pains to point out that they are just as bad as, if not worse than, the rest of us. It is a striking illustration of today's degraded view of life to see the old churches virtually giving up on the Christian project of saving humanity, and instead succumbing to the worship of Diana the victim and joining us all to wallow in our alienation and inadequacies.

Since rejecting Catholicism I have seen religion as something which flourishes where society fails, the 'heart in a heartless world' as somebody once called it. Today the most backward of religions is flourishing, one which does not even pretend to have the answers but encourages us to celebrate our flaws and failures. Who will speak out against it? 'I have been worried about some of the response to Diana's death', says Robbi Robson, Chair of the British Humanist Association. 'I don't know why people feel the need to turn it into something religious. Human beings have rites of passage such as birth, marriage and death, and the funeral of Diana should have been seen in that way.'

Robson claims to have a 'practical and rational outlook on life'. 'Humanism is an approach to life based on reason and our common humanity', she says. 'We don't believe in God but in the power of science and reason to make sense of our lives.' But towards the end of our conversation Robson said in hushed tones: 'Not all Humanists believe there is a spiritual dimension, but I do. If there is anything to be said about Diana's death it is the fact that it brought to the surface a deep spiritual bond between people. Diana appeared to have the ability to touch people emotionally when she was alive and her death gave rise to something spiritual.'

A belief in the 'spirit of Diana' can now unite everybody from the Catholic Church to the non-religious Humanists. Those of us who want more from life than to emulate her victimhood need to develop a vigorous atheism against religions old and new.

'Thou shalt have no other gods before me' - mourners in Hyde Park during Diana's funeral

Reproduced from LM issue 108, March 1998

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