Sunday, April 08, 2007

"The Queen" and The Easter Story

Last weekend I watched Stephen Frears' film “The Queen”, for which Helen Mirren justifiably won an oscar for her portrayal of Queen Elizabeth II. As it was intended to do, the film brought back vivid memories, not just of that Sunday morning, ten years ago at the end of August, when we woke up to discover that the Princess of Wales had been killed, but also of the exceptional week that followed, when a great wave of grief and mourning swept over the nation.

Of course, the saturation coverage of her death on the BBC was only to be expected, but many people soon got tired of that and by the Sunday evening audience figures had already dwindled to a fraction of their normal size, as viewers turned over in droves to ITV. What took many of us by surprise was the huge banks of flowers which soon built up outside Harrods, Buckingham Palace, Althorpe and Balmoral, and the long queues of people who went to sign books of condolence, not only in London but all over the country and in other countries too, often queuing for an hour before they could pen their own personal tributes to Diana. All of this is vividly recaptured in the film.

There is no mention, however, of the clamour for services of remembrance in churches up and down the land, which also came as a surprise. The mother of one of my younger son's school friends said to my wife, "We don't normally go to church but, of course, after what happened to Lady Diana, we shall be there on Sunday."

I remember a local clergyman asking me what we were doing in the Methodist circuit to mark Diana's death and I had to admit, somewhat lamely, that we weren't doing anything special. By coincidence we had moved house only a few days before. "Everyone knew we were moving," I told him, "So I expect they didn't want to bother me."

What was it about Lady Diana's death that made such an impact on the popular imagination? First, I think many people were stunned to think that someone as young, healthy and well-connected as Lady Diana could so easily fall victim to an untimely death. Of course, we all know that, tragically, young people often do die – from Aids, or cancer, or in war, or in car accidents, or in random acts of violence, and quite often they leave behind children to grieve for them. But Diana was one of the beautiful people. Her life had been touched by pain and sadness, but in many ways she had led a privileged existence. She even had a bodyguard. Only a few weeks before, she had been comforting mourners after the sudden death of another famous person, Versace. People never imagined that it would be her turn next. The fact that she was actually as mortal as the rest of us was a harsh reminder of something which people in our society generally prefer to forget, that none of us knows the time or the manner of our death. We must all live as if this moment might be our last, savouring every experience, cherishing every relationship, and preparing ourselves for what might lie beyond this life. The question which the events of that week forced upon the nation was this, are we prepared to meet our Maker?

Second, there was the uncomfortable awareness, reinforced by her brother Earl Spencer, that the Princess of Wales had been, almost literally, hunted down by the press. Although she had seemed so privileged, in fact she spent much of her life hiding from photographers. Ironically, a pack of paparazzi on motorcycles were giving chase to her when she died. And although it turned out that they weren't responsible for her death, they certainly took photographs of the accident.

The editors of the tabloid newspapers were, quite rightly, barred from the funeral. They had, after all, bought pictures of Diana which had often been taken through powerful lenses, from the backs of fast motorbikes and speed boats, or even - in one case - through a spy hole in a gymnasium wall. But ordinary people had bought the papers and still lap up the pictures.

Perhaps even the rich and famous have a right to be protected from intrusive reporting of their private lives. Stephen Frears' film gives us a powerful impression of the kind of pressure which the royal family was subjected to after Diana's death and reminds us that they must have felt an almost unbearable sense of strain. It puts the viewer in their shoes and makes us feel sorry for them.

I had my own glimpse of what it must be like to be in the public eye when the July 7 bombers attacked the London public transport system in 2005. When it turned out that several of the bombers had come from Beeston, the world's media descended on this little community in their hundreds. I was the minister of the local Methodist congregation, and the company secretary of an inter-faith charity run by Muslims and Christians. For a short while my phone rang constantly, almost night and day, and afterwards a TV producer harassed me and other residents of Beeston as he made plans for a docu-drama about the Beeston bombers which would not have been dissimilar to Stephen Frears' film. Other journalists infiltrated themselves into the local community to write undercover exposés. Afterwards, in a radio programme looking back at the events of the year, I gave a bitterly critical account of the way the media had behaved. In a democracy people need to hear what's really going on around the world, and to learn the inside story. But, nonetheless, journalists often behave badly. People, even famous people, have a right to privacy. Stephen Frears' “The Queen” is a powerful reminder of this, even though it too seeks to pry into the inner workings of Buckingham Palace and 10 Downing Street.

However, a third thing brought home by the film is that, despite being a victim of the media, Lady Diana brilliantly manipulated the media herself, in order to carve out a new public role following her separation from Prince Charles. "I should like to be a Queen of People's Hearts," she famously said in a television interview. That she succeeded is underlined by a second famous quotation, from Tony Blair, who said - in an emotional statement that is portrayed in the film, "She was the People's Princess."

What was it about Diana Spencer that gave her the common touch? As the royal family grumpily note in the film, she spent a lot of time with stars of film, television and popular music, with dancers, musicians, clothes designers and other assorted members of the jet set. Immediately after her death television viewers had to endure endless repeats of their trivial reminiscences, and no doubt they were well rewarded for every TV and radio "appearance" they made. There were also endless replays of her programme about the casualties caused by mines in Angola, which was very powerful the first time you saw it but got rather tiresome on the fourth or fifth repeat.

But then a different sort of reminiscence emerged. By the Tuesday after her death, I remember hearing a disabled man talking on the radio about a visit he had made to Kensington Palace several years before. The Princess had wanted to know what it felt like to be paralysed and confined to a wheelchair. He talked to her for an hour or so, and then gave Prince Harry a ride around the garden on his lap, to show him how his motorised wheelchair worked. There had been no journalists or photographers present to record their meeting, and absolutely no publicity.

There were also handmade plaques and signs which started to appear among the flowers left outside Kensington Palace. One had been made by a security guard called Vincent Seabrook, then aged 27. It read, "Diana, I will never forget you. I met you twice and, at the time, I was homeless. You came to me and asked how long I had been on the streets. You then went and got me something to eat and drink. It was very cold and wet that night. The next time I saw you I remember you saying to me, "I will get you somewhere to live." And you did. You asked me about my life and I told you about the abuse I went through as a kid, and I could see you had tears in your eyes. You have a very caring heart, and I will never forget you."

Another card had read, simply, "Diana, thank you for treating us like human beings, not criminals – the lads at Dartmoor."

Diana wasn't a conventional Christian. Like a great many modern people, she picked and mixed different spiritual ideas. She had a personal mystic to advise her, who clearly wasn't much good at predicting the future. She also believed in reincarnation and one or two other unorthodox ideas. But, if we died to morrow, would there be tributes to our kindness and generosity like the ones which poured in from countless needy people whom she had helped in some way or other?

Jesus' death provoked profound grief and mourning too. His friends and followers felt a similar sense of shock that someone so young and charismatic could be betrayed and put to death. Jesus wasn't one of the beautiful people, but his followers did believe that he had been chosen by God for a special mission to save the Jewish people. On Good Friday, fear and disbelief engulfed them.

Like Diana, during his ministry Jesus had been hounded and harassed by friend and foe alike. His very public miracles and teaching had been seized upon by his supporters as evidence that God's grace and power were working through him, but to his enemies they seemed to prove only that he was a dangerous and unscrupulous rabble-rouser. The enormous catch of fish is a miracle which is performed out of the limelight. This time Jesus cannot possibly be accused trying to win friends and influence among crowds of onlookers. It is intended not to bring people to faith, but only to affirm the faith of those who already believe, or think they believe.

Perhaps, in order to be sure of the truth about Jesus, people had to meet him behind closed doors, in the privacy of their own homes or lodgings, or in lonely and deserted places like the seashore at dawn. That was certainly the experience of Thomas and Peter, and of Cleopas and his companion on the way to Emmaus. It was only in a moment of very intense and personal encounter with Jesus that they finally knew they were in the presence of their Risen Lord.[1]

What are the hallmarks of people who have met Jesus face-to-face and found the strength and newness of life which he alone can offer? Not just the profound gratitude felt by the people who were helped by Lady Diana. For the followers of Jesus there was much more than this – there was a sense of peace, of forgiveness and of spiritual power that has gone on eddying and surging down the centuries.

The week which followed the end of Diana Spencer's life changed our nation and made it much more acceptable for people to make public displays of their grief. A few weeks ago, two young women from Hemsworth were killed in a car accident just outside the village. The railings and trees near the scene of the tragedy were afterwards festooned with flowers and messages in a way very reminiscent of the death of Diana – though, of course, on a much smaller scale, and similar wayside shrines to those who have died now cover our land.

The week which culminated in the resurrection of Jesus changed much more than the lives of his friends and followers, and much more than the land of Palestine. It changed history, and it changed the world. It changed the past and it has changed the future. But how has it changed you and me? And how has it shaped the churches to which we belong?

Are we prepared to encounter the Risen Lord as we go about our daily lives? Would we be ashamed or reassured to find him standing by our side? Are we ready, like him, to face harassment and opposition for the sake of the Gospel and our witness to it? Do we, daily, take up our own cross and follow him? And, finally, if we – or our churches – were being described by other people, such as our families and neighbours, what would they say about us? Would they pay glowing tributes to our kindness and compassion, to our witness for the truth, to our Christlikeness?

I saw another film last week, called “Stranger Than Fiction”. It wasn't quite as good as “The Queen” but it contained this memorable thought. Let's imagine that you met someone who knew they were going to be killed if they tried to save someone else from dying, but who nevertheless was so heroic and caring that they went to their death willingly to save that other person; wouldn't you want them to overcome death? Wouldn't you want them to live?

A great many people wanted Lady Diana to go on living, and they mourned her loss. But she didn't die in order to save others. Jesus, however, did die to save others. His friends desperately wanted him to triumph over death but they thought that he had failed. And yet they were to find out they had been mistaken. He was not defeated on Good Friday. He still lives.

[1] John 21.1-19

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