Memories of Diana flooded back in magnificent church
Published 06/08/2011 | 08:00
Last Sunday I attended morning service in St Paul's Cathedral in London, almost 30 years to the day from when Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer were married there on July 29, 1981.
It was poignant for me to return to that vast and beautiful church where I had reported on the Royal wedding for this newspaper three decades ago. The only other Irish-based journalist there, amid the large media throng, was Maeve Binchy of the Irish Times.
Thirty years on, my memories were still vivid of that glittering occasion, when some of the crowned heads of Europe and leading figures from around the world had joined the vast congregation to celebrate what was then regarded as a fairytale wedding.
I recall particularly the wonderful church music, as well as the timeless wisdom from St Paul about "faith, hope and charity".
I also recall the beauty of Princess Grace of Monaco as she took her place alone near the altar, and Nancy Reagan, then America's First Lady, who was seated well down the church.
As well as the magnificent music and Bible readings, there was a memorable sermon from then Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Robert Runcie, a warm and friendly man who had been most helpful to me in the past.
The New Zealand/Maori soprano Dame Kiri de Kanawa sang live for worldwide television, and on her way to the cameras mounted on a large gantry she trod heavily on my foot because of the crowded conditions in the Cathedral. No reporter ever forgets a thing like that.
Overall it was a splendid occasion and one of the highlights of my career. It seemed to me, on the day, to be a happy ceremony for the young couple. But all too soon the relationship turned into tragedy.
After Diana was killed in the Paris underpass with her Arab lover and, as her mother-in-law the Queen looked after her grandsons in the UK, there was a huge outpouring of national grief.
I happened to be in London later that week and I remember asking a policeman outside St James's Palace: "Is Diana's body inside there?" He pointed and said: "It's just behind that stained- glass window."
In the intervening years much has been surmised about the collapse of the marriage. The truth, as with every marriage, is that no one really knows, and what goes on behind closed doors is apparent only to those most intimately involved.
As the service in St Paul's proceeded in all its grandeur last Sunday, I thought of these things. I was also aware that a large proportion of the congregation had not even been born when that Royal wedding had taken place.
My thoughts had an added poignancy as I had visited only the day before the Princess Diana Fountain in London, where scores of children and not a few adults, myself included, had been cooling their feet in its running water in the midst of a heat wave.
Despite earlier developmental problems, the fountain has grown into one of the fitting memorials to Diana, which thousands of ordinary people can enjoy - and no doubt she would have been pleased by that. Quite rightly, there was no reference to Charles or Diana at the St Paul's service last Sunday and this in itself was a significant reminder that time has moved on.
What was most encouraging to me was the freshness and the sheer timelessness of the service itself. The Church of England has many problems, but it can run these set-pieces magnificently.
The Anglican liturgy was at its most impressive, as was the music, with a superb ladies choir and an orchestra performing pieces by Schubert and Liszt. There was also a challenging sermon from a Canon in Residence exhorting people to offer their talents to God for the greater good of all.
The memories of the past, and the atmosphere of worship in that special building last Sunday, reminded me that while St Paul's is a repository of national history, it is first and foremost a living church.
That's how it should be.