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Worshipping the princess

International | But a century after his birth, author C.S. Lewis's "Mere Christianity" is alive and well in Britain

Issue: "Midterm elections 1998," Nov. 14, 1998

in London - London pigeons patrol the skies above Hyde Park at low altitudes, ignoring the drizzle and watching the visitors. A steady stream of this gray and single-minded sort (the visitors, not the pigeons) tromps in wellies and windbreakers through the broad mall of Kensington Gardens to the gates of Kensington Palace. Here the pilgrimage ends at the ad hoc Temple of Diana. The gates-strong black iron and shining gold plate-are fast approaching the Tower of London as the most-visited site in the city. Kensington Palace is an appropriate place (much more so than the rarely open Ashton, the site where Princess Diana is buried) to begin a search for spirituality in C.S. Lewis's England. As the centennial of his birth (Nov. 29) approaches, what is the state of "Mere Christianity" here? The new Cult of Diana appears dangerously close to what Lewis described in that book as "Christianity-and-water"-"the view which simply says there is a good God in heaven and everything is all right-leaving out all difficult and terrible doctrines about sin and hell and the devil, and redemption." Most of the visitors on this drab Thursday are women, though there are plenty of dutiful dads and husbands along. Boys don't seem to ever make it this far; the rolling hills and sturdy trees of the Gardens draw them away from the pilgrim path. It's more than a year since Diana's death in a Paris car wreck, but the pilgrims keep coming, leaving tributes and gifts and flowers. Once a day, a well-tailored manservant emerges from the palace to collect the cards and such, which are then catalogued and stored. "She was so beautiful," says one American retiree to another (they're part of a tour group from New York). "What a waste." In the background and in the hills, underdressed but determined Frisbee-players aggravate each other with bad throws and apologies ("Sorry, man, the wind got that one"). Slowly ambling up the path is an older woman. She wears a camel-colored coat that covers her own hump; she leans on the arm of a young woman who is clearly her granddaughter. The granddaughter is a bit of a "rocker," as she later describes herself-she wears black tights and "Docs" (Doc Marten combat-type boots). She has multiple piercings. "I've come before," says the granddaughter, 20-year-old Elizabeth "Bette" Moran. "And you've been, ha'n't you, Gram?" Gram-64-year-old Mary Dorsey-nods. "Such a tragedy." These Londoners are a friendly pair (in fact, that's one reason Bette says she likes to come here-"We can share our feelings about it all"). Bette volunteers that she offered a prayer at the gate. Gram smiles mildly, but Bette is caught off guard by the question that comes next: What sort of prayer was it? Was it a prayer for Diana? If so, to whom? Was it a prayer to Diana? A prayer through Diana? "No, it was ..." Bette pauses. "Just a prayer. For her, I suppose. To ... well, not to anybody, really. I guess the prayer was really for myself." And, she admits, "to myself." The new Cult of Diana, as Anglican clergyman Peter Mullen observed to Reuters, is "an outpouring of unschooled, immature emotionality. The Diana thing is a fixation." Last summer, the Archbishop of York, David Hope, warned Brits, "We should be careful she is not worshipped.... We need to beware of clinging to the icon." But it's even more dangerous to question the icon. In August, a Sunday school teacher's remarks created a minor tempest. "The princess's lifestyle was, on the evidence, immoral, antibiblical, and not one of Christian principles or one that a believer in Jesus Christ would live," charged Jeffrey Jones of the Bethany Christian Fellowship in the West Midlands. One boy's mother, Sarah Bailes, was outraged. She told the London Times that her 8-year-old son kept a photo of Diana by his bed, and believed (because of what his mother told him) that Diana was now "a star in heaven." She left the church, asking, "How dare they pick on [Diana]?" A few days later, a former Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Coggin, expanded the criticism. "Along came this false goddess and filled the gap for a time," he said. "The British people identified with someone who had pretty loose morals and certainly loose sexual morals." Not surprisingly, liberal clergy members came to her defense; her death was declared to be "the most spiritual event of the past 25 years" and she was credited with "bringing a lot of people back to church," according to the Bishop of Kensington, Michael Colclough. That may be true, observes British writer Sara Maitland in the new book After Diana, but real Christianity is "a million ecclesiastical miles away from the weird post-Christian semi-Pagan carrying-ons" at Diana's funeral and at the new shrine in Kensington Gardens. The train to Salvation Place, a gypsy encampment south of London, pauses at the stops C.S. Lewis writes about so fondly in Surprised by Joy: Waterloo Station, Great Bookham, Leatherhead. Bookham, he wrote, was where his beloved teacher W.T. Kirkpatrick, "the Great Knock," lived (Lewis lived with him for three years). It was in a Leatherhead bookshop he first encountered the writings of George MacDonald, which he says "baptized" his imagination, preparing him for his eventual conversion. Leatherhead is a suburban community about a 40-minute commute (by train) from Victoria Station. It is an increasingly upscale town; the actor Michael Caine has just moved there. At a small substation (total daytime staff: two), a Surry policeman's wide face grows perplexed when asked about Salvation Place. "Yes, I know where it is-I'll even take you, if you can wait a moment for my sergeant to arrive back," he says. Salvation Place is the site of an intriguing revival. Gypsies-the Romany people, or Travellers-are coming to Christ and changing their ways. The Surrey cop says he's slowly becoming a believer that something real is taking place there. "It's in our nature not to trust them," he confides. "And I would also say it's in their nature-has been-to lie to us, the police. How many times would I chase someone into the camp, and suddenly, he would disappear. Every window on every trailer would be open; no one would have seen anything. Everyone's name was suddenly 'Smith,' and no one knew a thing." But things began to change when Tom Wilson-"Old Tommy," the cop calls him-converted to Christ about 10 years ago. The change wasn't community-wide, nor was it very drastic, but it was noticeable. The gypsies started paying their automobile taxes, their television licensing taxes, and even "poll taxes," the British equivalent of our property taxes. "There were-and are, to an extent-still fights and thefts and such, but it started getting better," the cop explains. "You could see it." The camp is not what you would expect-it is immaculately clean, with modern camping trailers and mobile homes, not the horse-drawn gypsy wagons seen in werewolf movies. At the entrance is a sign reading "Salvation Place." This used to be "the Young Street camp," or just "Young Street." But two years ago, city officials in Leatherhead renamed it at the gypsies' request. The only permanent structure here is the church; it's a doublewide mobile home on cemented cinderblocks. Old Tommy's still preaching there, the cop explains, but his son, Young Tommy-"who was a bit of a ripper in his younger days, weren't we all"-is taking more and more of the pastoral responsibilities. Old Tommy emerges from his trailer, smiling, as the police car parks in front. He's a stout man, red-faced and white-whiskered, wearing a freshly ironed shirt, open at the collar. "I was a con man," he says with a grin after the introductions. "Worst kind. My specialty was jewelry-fake gold, fake diamonds. How I loved cubic zirconium! But no more. I still deal in jewelry, but that's just tentmaking. And it's real. Nothing fake, nothing chorie." Chorie is the gypsy word for stolen, he explains as he invites his visitors inside. "This place was a nightmare for police," Old Tommy acknowledges. "No one here would talk to the police; if anyone did, he would only give a wrong name, anyway. If we got into trouble, we would just up stakes and go, there's the end of it." But after hearing of other gypsy revivals, Old Tommy says he listened to a Pentecostal preacher one night, and believed. "God has been moving sovereignly over our [the gypsy] nation," he explains. "And he has brought about great things. I started the church here with only two other believers; now the whole camp is saved. And we're bringing the gospel to all the Romany throughout Surrey, Essex, Oxfordshire." Of the 50,000 gypsies in England, Scotland, and Wales, Old Tommy says, about 20 percent are Christians. "John Wesley preached here in Leatherhead in 1740, during the Great Awakening," he says. "I suppose we're having one of our own. Just a little later."

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