Reverend Pooter and the Royal Family

The Carey version of priestly duty involves serving up privileged information for a book
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The Independent Online

Eagerly scattering soundbites as he goes, the man who once was Archbishop of Canterbury has this week provided a useful insight into the Church and the Crown. Promoting his memoirs, he has also reminded us that the very contemporary disease of publicity-addiction is not restricted to the young, vain and pretty. Being only one of those things, Lord Carey has nonetheless found himself in the news with the help of some light indiscretions from his book, goosed up by a bit of headline-friendly opinionising.

Eagerly scattering soundbites as he goes, the man who once was Archbishop of Canterbury has this week provided a useful insight into the Church and the Crown. Promoting his memoirs, he has also reminded us that the very contemporary disease of publicity-addiction is not restricted to the young, vain and pretty. Being only one of those things, Lord Carey has nonetheless found himself in the news with the help of some light indiscretions from his book, goosed up by a bit of headline-friendly opinionising.

Carey's big story is that when, in 1991, the marriage of the Prince and Princess of Wales was reported to be in trouble, he asked himself, "What can I do, and what ought I to do?" The answer he came up with was that, since he was "the Royal Family's parish priest" and because the future of the monarchy was in jeopardy, it would be irresponsible not to get involved.

With the hilarious self-importance of a Reverend Pooter, Carey then recounts how he had "conversations" with each of the unhappy couple, bringing pastoral help and a Christian perspective to the problem. Although he disapproved of the fact that they had both committed adultery, he bravely decided that speaking out would have been "a betrayal of my pastoral duty". No such problem seems to have occurred when it came to writing the book, which includes some low-grade gossip about the Prince ("more sinned against than sinning") and "the darker side" of Princess Diana.

Years later - what a surprise - he was "dragged into the controversy" involving Camilla Parker-Bowles when, after the death of Princess Diana, he blabbed to a journalist that a constitutional crisis would be caused if Prince Charles remarried. "I knew with a sinking heart that this was the news that would speed round the world."

As recently as 2002 - coincidentally the moment when he must have been writing his memoirs - Carey "began to worry about Mrs Parker Bowles" and wrote to her suggesting that they meet. The royal girlfriend agreed on the condition that the meeting was strictly private. Sure enough, here it is, reproduced in the strict privacy of his lordship's memoirs.

This Carey version of priestly duty, which seems to involve meddling in an unhappy marriage, prating about his Christian perspective and then serving up privileged information for a book, should perhaps come as no surprise. It is the autobiographical money-shot, the ecclesiastical equivalent of Glenn Hoddle revealing what went on in the World Cup dressing-room with the England football squad, or of Jordan sharing with her public details of how she took the virginity of Gareth Gates.

The Church will worry little about Carey's book: Rowan Williams, who has already proved to be considerably brighter yet less puffed up than his predecessor, has helped the Church of England recover a degree of seriousness and moral authority. The effect of this tittle-tattle will have a more serious effect on that other establishment institution, the Royal Family.

The return of Prince Charles and his girlfriend to the headlines, thanks to the Carey memoirs, has offered a sharp reminder that, in their way, they have become as marginalised and ludicrous as the show-boating former archbishop. Just as Carey once managed to face two opposing directions at the same time, disapproving of royal adultery and yet too wet to voice any criticism, so Prince Charles has been managing a similar trick in his public life.

The man who one day will be head of the Church and defender of the faith openly breaks one of its moral precepts. The heir to the throne takes open comfort in a relationship, yet has not the grace to acknowledge it. He has made Mrs Parker-Bowles part of his public life, yet requires his press office to dismiss questions about her as "a private matter".

There is nothing wrong in a couple of middle-aged ex-marrieds shacking up together, but the presence of an unofficial semi-royal in the heart of the Windsor family is distinctly odd. Is she public or not? If who Prince Charles sleeps with is a private matter, then why does she appear at his side when he is doing his official duty?

It is almost as if a process of gradual, passive abdication is under way. After the traumas of divorce and death, these two people appear to have decided to give up playing their parts in the royal soap opera. Their personal relationship to one another is, they have made clear, more important to them than any public duty.

For those of us who believe that, at best, the Royal Family should take on a reduced role, embodying a non-political Head of State without the expensive, stupid, class-ridden claptrap, these are hopeful developments. For if those at the centre of the Windsor dynasty turn out to be a sincere, slightly dull country-living couple, the tabloids will quickly lose interest and millions of royal subjects can start growing up. Take away the glamour and sub-showbiz nonsense that excites people like Lord Carey, and leave in its place a constitutionally useful institution, and the country will be in a healthier state.

Unfortunately, the challenge of breaking his own mood of vaguely arrogant, fatalistic drift may take more strength and courage than Prince Charles appears to possess.

terblacker@aol.com

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