The ordination of Sinéad O'Connor symbolises the degradation of Christianity and the deification of rock'n'roll, says Andrew Calcutt
Henceforth she shall be known as Sinéad, Mother Bernadette Maria O'Connor, MA. And on stage she shall wear a dog collar (clerical, not punk).
In April, the singer Sinéad O'Connor was ordained as a Roman Catholic priest by the rebel Irish bishop Michael Cox, a member of the breakaway Latin Tridentine movement. Is this the same foul-mouthed, shaven-headed Sinéad who once tore up a picture of Pope John Paul II ('the real enemy') on American TV? Back in the days when rock'n'roll was the anti-Christ, her ordination would have seemed miraculous (it did take place at Lourdes, in the marvellously named Hôtel de Grotte). But O'Connor has not undergone a Damascene conversion. Unlike Jerry Lee Lewis, who went down the road to hellfire, or the Reverend Al Green, who crossed his river in the other direction, she will not have to choose between the devil's music and the gospel - nowadays there is little difference between them.
Pop music's iconography used to be self-consciously heathen. Where Christians preached about sin, suffering and resurrection, pop's pagans emphasised joy (dance/drugs), suffering (beat and blues) and death (black has always been the cool colour). But priorities have changed on both sides.
For Christians, sin is too difficult to deal with and resurrection is becoming impossible - even for God (discussing Princess Diana's legacy on radio with two prominent clerics, I had to remind them that their religion is based on the resurrection). For popsters, meanwhile, the drugs don't work and playing with death is now considered too risky. By default, in this year Post-Diana 02, the holiest sacrament in both catechisms is suffering, and St Sinéad has that in spades.
O'Connor claims to have been abused by her mother 'from the moment I was conceived'. When she became famous with the million-selling Prince cover 'Nothing compares 2 U' (1990), the defining moment of the video showed a single tear rolling down her cheek. There were more tears in life than in art: disastrous relationships, reported suicide attempts, breakdowns, custody battles, the trauma of being misrepresented in the press.
A few years back, O'Connor claimed to personify the sufferings of Ireland since the Famine with her own sense of being abused. Now she sees all her previous experience as preparation for holy ministry. As she told Mick Brown of the Daily Telegraph, 'I can now look back on it and see that my soul was being bounced left, right and centre so I could learn compassion'. O'Connor's new move into the bosom of the church is not without precedent. In Neil Jordan's film of Patrick McCabe's novel The Butcher Boy (1998), she appeared as the Virgin Mary. In the Observer Sean O'Hagan noted 'the singer's uncanny resemblance to a particular iconographic image of the Madonna - the one where she hovers above a rock, hands joined in prayer, draped in light blue garments, head tilted to one side, enigmatic smile in place'. O'Connor explained that 'my birthday is on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception so I feel a kind of bond with her, anyway'. 'To paraphrase the late John Wayne', O'Hagan concluded, 'Sinéad O'Connor is truly the mother of God'.
In the canon of cool, St Sinéad the Sufferer is keeping alive the tradition of Jack Kerouac, the Beaten One, and Kurt Cobain, who was and always shall be in Nirvana. O'Connor has also aligned herself with latter-day saints such as Princess Diana and Paula Yates. 'To me Diana was - is - a goddess', O'Connor said, six months after the death of the princess. If, as she claims, 'to mock people for being emotionally vulnerable is just the epitome of evil', we can assume that Diana, Paula and Sinéad are the epitome of saintly virtue since all have been mocked by an 'evil' press.
Until recently, the collective sufferings of this girlie trinity would have been considered insufficient qualification for the elevated position of Christian martyr, previously reserved for those put to death for proclaiming their faith. But in recent years a host of clergy has spoken of Diana's iconic significance and church leaders have made favourable noises about Kerouac, the 'holy idiot'. Current Christian notions of what constitutes saintliness seem to have more in keeping with Sinéad's self-proclaimed trauma than with the burning zeal of traditional martyrs and their mission to convert.
Whereas previous recruits to the priesthood saw themselves entering into the service of God, O'Connor regards ordination as a kind of personal therapy. After giving up her three-year old daughter Roisin to the child's father, Irish Times journalist John Waters, she became suicidal but was saved by the prospect of becoming a priest: 'I had the date for ordination set for June, but I begged the bishop to do it earlier. I said to God that I wanted to feel I had died and been born again. And I do feel like that.'
O'Connor underwent a rebirthing experience, and has found what she calls 'my truth'. In this she is following the path laid down in 1963 by John Robinson, the Anglican Bishop of Woolwich. In his book Honest To God, Robinson offered 'a new mutation in Christianity', which discarded the traditional 'image of God' and invited believers, helped by their priests, to construct their own. At the time, Honest To God outraged many Christians. In Encounter, Alasdair MacIntyre described Bishop Robinson as an atheist. Daily Telegraph columnist TE Utley charged him with the abolition of God as a person, and wondered where it would all end: 'what will ultimately be left except a belief in the need for bishops, if only to...talk to pop singers on television?' In the intervening years, Robinson's once-outrageous outlook has become the new orthodoxy, but there is hardly any need for reverends to talk to pop singers on the TV, because, as O'Connor says, 'these days the singers are the priests'.
Sinéad O'Connor's ordination signifies that DIY spirituality has spread beyond the deracinated Church of England. Of course, Sinéad, Mother Bernadette Maria O'Connor, MA, has not been ordained into the official Roman Catholic and apostolic church; nor is she likely to be. But her beliefs are not fundamentally different from those of the church today, and the conventions which separate them (women priests, celibacy) are increasingly hollow - and likely to become more so once the orthodox and ailing Pope John Paul II passes over. Issued in October 1998, the thirteenth encyclical of Pope John Paul II formally rejects postmodernism, where 'everything is provisional and ephemeral', yet even he goes on to praise the Danish existentialist Sören Kierkegaard, along with Buddha, Confucius and the Hindu Veda. Maybe the Singing Nun will get to perform the Elton John role at his funeral.
Andrew Calcutt is the son of a retired Anglo-Catholic priest, and author of Arrested Development: Pop Culture and the Erosion of Adulthood, available to Friends of LM at a reduced price. Phone (0171) 269 9224 for details
Reproduced from LM issue 122, July/August 1999