Just as an older generation remember where they were when they heard news of President Kennedy’s assassination in 1963, so a younger generation remember where they were when they heard of Princess Diana’s accident and death in 1997. In the various commemorations, documentaries and reflections on the twentieth anniversary of Diana’s death (who else in recent times has been remembered to this extent twenty years after their death?) nothing has been said about the impact of her death on religion. Some would argue that any impact was brief and superficial, but I would argue that it was significant – not least in the way funerals are viewed and conducted. For two reasons, now is a good time to reflect on Diana’s influence. First, over the last few days two iconic figures associated with Diana at the time of her death, the Blessed Virgin Mary (BVM) and Mother (now St.) Theresa of Calcutta, are being celebrated. Secondly, it raises questions about the British Social Attitudes Survey, which states that over half (53%) of the British public describe themselves as having no religion.
Princess Diana’s untimely death had a phenomenal affect not just in the UK, but also further afield. Wayside shrines sprang up across the country at telegraph poles and lampposts where flowers and symbols of Diana were left. Millions of tons of flowers were laid in London and across the country by countless people who had never met Princess Diana. Over 35.5 million people watched the funeral on television in the UK (and that does not take into account those who travelled to London or the funeral) and one billion watched it world-wide. Three quarters of the adult population of Australia watched the funeral on television. A few days after the funeral I was in Seoul, South Korea, and I was told how the central square was filled with people who watched the funeral on a large screen. Clearly Diana’s death – and life – had touched a chord in people’s hearts which no other event in living memory has done. The Prime Minister described her as the Queen of Hearts. Princess Diana was almost sanctified. Even the editor of the Spectator at the time confessed to praying to her.
The symbols, flowers, pictures and cards identified Diana with two other iconic figures: primarily with the BVM, whose birth the Church celebrates today, and also with Mother Theresa, who died just a few days after Diana. Diana’s identification with BVM was particularly interesting. Even as the hearse was transporting Diana’s body out of London, flowers were thrown in front of it, reminiscent of medieval processions when petals and flowers were thrown before the statues of Mary being carried around the streets. Such processions still take place.
In a subsequent exhibition at Liverpool’s Tate Gallery, artist Luigi Baggi sculpted a statue of the BVM using the face of Diana. While some found this deeply offensive, the Bishop of Liverpool, the Rt. Revd. James Jones, commented, ‘It reflects our culture and shows the huge gaps between traditional beliefs and the spirit of a new age.’
So, what are the similarities between the BVM, Mother Theresa and Princess Diana?
First, both Mary and Diana were called to be mothers of somebody special – future kings – and both suffered in fulfilment of their calling. Mary suffered in seeing her son die and Diana in feeling out of place and betrayed. Secondly, both posed threats to the established order. For Mary this was characterized in the words of the Magnificat which sang of the powerful being brought down from their thrones, the lowly being lifted up, the hungry filled with good things and the rich being sent away empty. Diana posed a threat by her unwillingness to be overwhelmed by the establishment and modelling a different form of royalty.
The link with Mother Theresa was in her concern for the outcast and marginalised. Mother Theresa was well-known for forming a community of sisters who cared for the poor and dying, taking them off the streets and nursing them so that they did not die alone or unloved. Diana will be remembered for spending time with those shunned by society and for advocating the need to ban the evil of landmines.
Princess Diana became a cultural icon who was taken into the hearts of many people. At her death, she was viewed by many as a religious icon. She was a woman who, despite her suffering and against all the odds, showed deep compassion. In many ways, Diana belonged to the people: she was the ‘People’s Princess.’ Mary and Mother Theresa are both cultural and religious icons also taken into the hearts of many people, though they are seen as belonging to the Church. Nevertheless, all three are popular because they address and fulfil deep cultural needs. They modelled a willingness to display vulnerability, compassion (regardless of the personal cost) and an ability to challenge those in power.They were popular because they displayed the best of qualities which showed the best of humanity. One of the legacies of Princess Diana is to remind the Church of England, that, as the Church for the people of England, it needs to engage more deeply with the culture of society as well as with the culture of the Church.
French sociologist Danièle Hervieu-Léger argues that modern societies are not less ‘religious’ because they have no faith but because they are less capable of maintaining the memory that lies at the heart of their religious experience. In other words, when people are no longer aware of the stories at the heart of religion, then religion, which will remain, becomes less relevant and people will turn to something, or someone, else to meet the deep cultural needs previously met by religion. When religion is no longer important, we will not believe in nothing, but we are more likely to believe in anything.