The death of Diana – a cultural watershed

640px-Diana's_funeralThe death of Diana marked a watershed in our culture, an event so visceral in nature that it shook our British life to the core. Some ‘earthquake’ events change a nation’s life because a key figure is gone: Abraham Lincoln, Queen Victoria, Chairman Mao, or, most obviously, JFK. When they are the person whose power drives the nation’s life, their passing changes everything. Diana was different. She had no power, and yet she became a defining character of the 1980s and 90s, a fairly blank canvas onto which people projected their own hopes, dreams, and ideologies. Whether Diana herself believed half of what is claimed for her now is so hard to know. She died young and so she became the stuff of myth and legend, though not ‘the stuff of which fairy tales are made.’ While much will be made of Diana over the next few days, allow me to draw attention to that culture shifting week between her death and her funeral. It tells us little about Diana herself, but so much more about British life now, as it flowed from that watershed moment.

The watershed of paganism

The way the public responded to tragedy was extraordinary. Flowers and candles spread from Kensington Palace down to Kensington High Street, and they extended out from the railings of Buckingham Palace and up Constitution Hill. As Diana’s coffin was carried from Westminster Abbey out of London up the Edgware Road onto the M1, people stood on bridges to drop carnations onto the hearse, and the undertakers had to use the windscreen wipers to clear their view. This seems normal now, but at the time it was still quite a new phenomenon (perhaps only having been seen previously after the Hillsborough disaster).

What did those evenings of candlelight and weeping in Kensington Gardens really signify? Neo-paganism came of age that week.  You could read it in the inscriptions on the flowers, describing Diana as an Angel and a gift from ‘heaven’. The spiritual ignorance and folk religion on display was extraordinary. Paganism worships created things, and begins to attribute to the chosen god such powers as they never had. The actual facts don’t matter. In those days all the flaws and failures of Diana’s character were ignored and she was elevated to sainthood by public opinion. Chatting with a friend a few weeks later, she said ‘I want to draw attention to the fact that if she wasn’t gallivanting round Paris with a very dodgy boyfriend, she might still be alive, but I’m not allowed to say it.’ The Diana cult expressed itself in the funeral service in two ways: in Elton John singing Candle in the Wind (still the best selling UK No 1 single ever), and in Earl Spenser’s tribute, which stands as one of the great speeches of the twentieth century, both for what it said and for what it tells us about the way we live and feel now. 

So how could we have responded to this tragedy? What should you do in extreme and dire circumstances? In a society where the Christian worldview is still the most dominant cultural framework, you pray to the living God. That is what happened in May 1940 as Britain’s army faced obliteration at Dunkirk. A national day of prayer turned people to God, and the ‘miracle of Dunkirk’ followed as the fleet of little boats carried an army across a millpond sea (a story conveniently airbrushed out of Christopher Nolan’s otherwise excellent recent film). Look at a series of other events in the years since, such as the Aberfan disaster, or the funeral of Lord Mounbatten, and contrast that with the more pagan memorialising of the Hillsborough victims and the cult of Diana. The response of prayer, when people genuinely seek God and express their dependence on him and the promises of his Word, have given way to a more pagan memorialising. The focus is no longer on God but on those we have lost. When people no longer believe in God, they do not know how to handle death, and they cast about for some way of finding comfort. Instead of trusting in the immortal God, they desperately try to keep alive anything they can of the person who has died. Over twenty five years of pastoral ministry, this trend has been obvious to me in the funerals I have taken. It is tragic to observe those who grieve without hope.

The age of the image

Diana was more photographed than almost any other person in the twentieth century. Her eyes follow you around the room. Her hairstyles shaped a generation – though the 1980s was a dreadful time for hairstyles. She made the career of photographer Mario Testino. Without her, OK, Hello, Majesty and Royalty magazines would never have started. If there was one person who embodied the age of the image, it was Diana. No politician or film star ever achieved that. Could anyone have foreseen that she would die being chased by photographers? Paganism is concerned with the external and the visible, the tangible and the sensual. An ugly princess who cared for AIDS patients and visited a leprosarium would never make headlines. Diana was brilliant at managing her own image, and in her final years used it to huge effect in her battle with Prince Charles, who came across as aloof, bumbling and odd.

The Christian worldview sets it eyes not on what is seen but what is unseen, because the things that are seen are transient, but the unseen things are eternal (2 Cor. 4:18). That is why the Bible never gives us a description of God’s appearance, or indeed the appearance of Jesus. When Moses asks of God, ‘Now show me your glory’, God chooses instead to reveal his name (Ex 34:6-7). For it is in the name of God that we find his character and our only hope. That should be where we place our ultimate trust – in the character and promises of God. When we have to place trust in fellow human beings, it should be their character that matters above all.

The longing for a Saviour

To many people, Diana seemed like a Saviour. As the Royal family struggled to move beyond its public reserve, she went out of the way to reveal her compassion, through the British Red Cross, AIDS hospices, and hundreds of other charities. She was very tactile, and had an uncanny knack for putting people at ease and making them feel as though they had 200% of her attention – a skill shown by JFK and Bill Clinton. To many people she was a Saviour. Finally, she died a violent death. As her coffin left Kensington Palace on the way to the Abbey, people cried out to her as though she was indeed their Saviour, though they had never known her.

This longing for a Saviour figure will not go away. It is rooted in a deep discontent with the human condition and the state of society. Someone must be found to turn everything around, to give us hope. This is right and good, because it is the healthy desire of fallen human beings to want a Saviour. If you deny the claims of Jesus, as a secular world has done for so much of the past century, other saviours will have to take his place. But they will always be sinners, flawed image bearers rather than the true image himself, and therefore they can never satisfy. The only Saviour is the one who came down from heaven to do his Father’s will, to live the life of the perfect hero, not in some tacky, glamourous way but in humility and service, washing his disciples’ feet and then spreading his hands and being nailed to a cross. The only Saviour who will ever fill our longing is the one whose death was not a meaningless tragedy but his great work. ‘Christ’s death was Christ’s deed, and he was never more doing than in his dying’ (R A Finlayson). We will only find our longing for a Saviour satisfied in the one who fulfilled all righteousness and made full satisfaction for human sin.

Trusting in our good works

It has become a commonplace today that when someone dies, we recite their good works. Why? It is good to thank God for the good that men and women do. This is part of his common grace. But the message runs deeper, and it is applied it to most celebrities, not just Diana: look at all this person did for charity. Look at the way they gave away money, and campaigned on so many issues. Surely they must be welcome in heaven. How could God possibly close them out? That is the argument being made, and it is the old fashioned gospel of good works.

This is the stuff of which reformations are made. Five hundred years ago this year Martin Luther ignited the movement that became Protestantism, because he protested against the doctrine of the Catholic Church that said doing penance was the way to pay for your sin, and a papal indulgence could buy someone out of purgatory. On the contrary, said Luther, ‘the just shall live by faith.’ We do not rely on the things that we do. We look in faith to what Christ has done, and our best works of mercy and compassion, of charity and generosity, will never pay the price of our sin. Only the death of Christ can do that. It is a good thing to be merciful and generous, but our standing before God does not depend on it. However good or bad we have been, whatever our achievements, we are saved by grace alone.

Divorce and the blame game

Diana’s childhood story was a tragic one. Her mother left the family home as the Spenser marriage broke down, and her teenage years seem to have been insecure. Her brother, Earl Spencer, described her in these words in his funeral oration:

Diana explained to me once that it was her innermost feelings of suffering that made it possible for her to connect with her constituency of the rejected. And here we come to another truth about her. For all the status, the glamour, the applause, Diana remained throughout a very insecure person at heart, almost childlike in her desire to do good for others so she could release herself from deep feelings of unworthiness of which her eating disorders were merely a symptom. The world sensed this part of her character and cherished her for her vulnerability whilst admiring her for her honesty.

Those are revealing words, and they fit with the story we know too well.  The cycle of breakdown continued – a most public marriage watched incessantly by the press, incapable of taking the strain placed upon it, which broke down in 1992 and led to a messy divorce, compounded by a media battle that continued over the final five years of her life.

What makes my heart ache the most twenty years on is that this cycle of rejection and insecurity was never broken, so far as we know, by the power of God’s redeeming grace. Family break up is the ache of our age, experienced by so many, and leaving children scarred well into adulthood. Many choose to avoid it by never committing to an exclusive covenant marriage, preferring short-term relationships which can never give security. But Christians have a better story. God’s redeeming grace can break the cycle of insecurity and rejection. So often we hear the word ‘redemption’ being used as something we do for ourselves. The biblical idea of redemption is different. It means admitting we are completely helpless and unable to free ourselves from our predicament. Instead a redeemer pays the ransom to set us free. In the Exodus that redeemer was the Passover Lamb, paying the price to spare the firstborn and redeem the Israelites from Egypt. They were redeemed from Egypt, and redeemed for a new life in the Promised Land. Jesus has performed a greater redemption through his death, redeeming from the curse and guilt of sin all those who trust in him. He redeems us from our past, and he redeems us for a new destiny. Broken lives, ruined by the effects of sin do not need to continue the cycle of despair, but by God’s power can be transformed.

In response to the extreme mourning that followed Diana’s death, Graham Kendrick wrote a deeply poignant song, contrasting the scenes in Kensington Gardens with the cross of Christ. It is still, I believe, the best response to such an event.

No scenes of stately majesty

for the King of kings.

No nights aglow with candle flame

for the King of love.

No flags of empire hung in shame

for Calvary.

No flowers perfumed the lonely way

that led him to

a borrowed tomb for Easter Day.

I long for scenes of majesty

for the risen King,

for nights aglow with candle flame

for the King of love.

A nation hushed upon its knees

at Calvary,

where all our sins and griefs were nailed

and hope was born

of everlasting Easter Day.


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