Andrew Brown for John Price
There is a story about Lord Coggan and his predecessor as Archbishop of Canterbury, the saintly Michael Ramsay, which is so wicked that it must be true. Coggan decided that the nation was ignoring the great truths of Christianity, and pulled all the strings available to an Archbishop to issue a "call to the nation" across the BBC. Ramsay listened closely to his successor speaking, and when he was done remarked "I always said that Donald had nothing to say — and now he’s said it."
Last week Lord Coggan had something more to say: he told a newspaper that Diana was "a false goddess" with "loose sexual morals." There is no doubt that he was telling the truth from a perspective of traditional evangelical Christianity. The most charitable Christian way to describe what happened after her death was that she was venerated as a saint should be; and Lord Coggan comes from a tradition that has no truck with saints of any sort, let alone saints with a succession of dashing boyfriends.
But I think that sainthood had nothing to do with the cult of Diana. Her funeral was the largest outbreak of spontaneous pagan sentiment that his country has seen since Westminster Abbey was built; and this means that her memory makes enormous difficulties for the Church of England. The religious, or mythological role of the Royal Family is intimately bound up with the church’s function. When the Archbishop of Canterbury anoints King Charles with oil and crowns him, he is not only proclaiming that this man is the rightful King of England, but that the Church is the right body to recognise and proclaim this fact.
So what is an Archbishop to do if he suspects that the Prince he is crowning, or marrying, does not believe a word of it? Lord Runcie, who succeeded Lord Coggan, determined that loyalty to the institution overrode any private scruples he might have. He married Charles and Diana knowing something of Charles’s history and believing, as he told one biographer, that Charles had "pretty much given up on the Church of England by 1980." Still, this is no worse than any vicar does every Saturday of the year. It’s not as if most couples marrying in church are devoted Christians whose marriages will certainly succeed. A priest nowadays is only surprised if a couple give him separate addresses when they ask to be married.
But at least a priest in that situation is calling down blessings on a couple’s future conduct, not sanctifying their past. The difficulty for the Church of England is that it cannot honestly ignore Diana’s past however much it would like to pronounce confidently on her eternal future. Lord Coggan was right to see he had something to say — but a wise man would have said nothing.
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