Faith & Reason: A `royal peculiar' and not good for nothing

Elton John's performance at the funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales was only part of a growing tendency to secularise services in Christian churches. But, asks Andrew Brown, has the trend now gone too far?
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The Independent Online
A private member's question has been put down for the next meeting of the General Synod asking whether the funeral service of Diana, Princess of Wales in Westminster Abbey was in fact legal.

This looks like pure mischief- making, especially when you consider that it comes from one of the leaders of Forward in Faith, a body which plans eventually to erupt to freedom from within the Church of England like the creature in Alien. But, like all the best jokes, the question illuminates a serious point more sharply than any amount of seriousness could do. In this case, the serious question behind the frivolous one is whether the Church of England did not sacrifice too much of the Christian content of the funeral.

This was epitomised by what one might call the Elton John problem: the Church of England may be running short of many things, but surely it is still self-sufficient in gay organ players, and probably even in agnostic gay organists. Why should it have imported one for this most solemn and public ceremony? The answer, of course, is that Elton John appealed far more directly to the emotions of the audience than any of the magnificent art that the Church can draw on. It should be said in his defence that his performance was certainly not the most offensive piece of kitsch on display: even the extraordinary writhing snivel he used to deliver his song was far less artificial and off-putting than the smarm of the BBC's announcer inside the abbey.

Elton John's performance, then, however little it had to do with any Christian message, was surely the right choice for the Church of England to make. If the authorities had tried to stop it they would not only have appeared unfeeling and out of touch, they would have been so. Outside of a theocracy, any funeral (or wedding, or baptism) is going to be full of natural, unchurched sentiments: a friend of mine once took a funeral at which one end of the chapel was occupied by a floral arrangement, five feet long, which spelt out the single word "bollocks". At another, he found himself confronted by a three-foot-high floral model of a packet of Embassy and a cup of tea: doubly fitting, since cigarettes had killed the departed.

All these seem to me to be perfectly legitimate examples of the way in which the Church must expand its traditional language in order to communicate with the world outside, or only partially inside. But there must be limits. If someone is to have a funeral in church, rather than at Stonehenge or down the crem, he must also speak some of the church's language, and the argument, made by a large number of people who wish the Church of England well, and not just by its enemies, is that too much was conceded in the Westminster Abbey service.

There was no sermon, for example. Earl Spencer's magnificent piece of score-settling was much better theatre than anything the Archbishop of Canterbury might have said; but it was not very Christian, and in one passage it was directly unchristian. Diana, he said, was too human to have been a saint. But the whole point about saints is that they are human, too.

The argument, then, is not that Lord Spencer should not have spoken; only that there should have been some recognisably Christian message delivered after his. This turns out to be a matter of manners rather than law: Westminster Abbey is a "royal peculiar": one of those churches directly under the control of the sovereign. So if she wanted the service she had, or if Prince Charles decides he wants a homeopathic coronation, it is all legal, and the Dean remains as powerless against the Royal Family as the Crown Appointments Commission is against Tony Blair.

There are sensible justifications for what was actually done: it is difficult to argue that the Church of England would have gained more respect if Dr Carey had preached than it gained by his staying largely silent. Those parish priests whom I have asked about the issue mostly think that the splendours of the ceremonial carried to the general public the message that the Church was good for something; and say that, even if the public did not quite gather what that something was, it was still better than supposing the Church good for nothing. But others were shocked, and will remain so.

Still, worse things happen at other funerals every week: one priest remarked that at least the coffin had not left the abbey, as one of his had left the crematorium, to the strains of "The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas".

`Faith & Reason' is edited by Paul Vallely