Icon or idol?

Hugh Baker was not distracted by the royal wedding on 9 April. In today's open world, where no secrets are hidden from our gaze, it was impossible that it should fulfil its iconic role

 

In the end the sun shone, the guests came and all passed off happily enough, but the preparations for the Prince of Wales’ wedding to Camilla Parker-Bowles were not merely plagued by bad luck; they were also marked by a cynicism and lack of enthusiasm from large swathes of the general public.

Two dusty old religious words – ‘idol’ and ‘icon’ – have made a quiet come-back into our language in recent years, and it might be as well to ponder why.

‘Idol’ signifies something essentially false. It is a place of inappropriate, self-deluding, self-harming worship. If there is a reality behind an idol, it will be dark and exploitative, and those who worship it will be like butterflies to a candle. Its essence is superficial glamour, and we all know it. Therefore, when the idol is found to be such, the gutter press does God’s Kingdom a service: like a true prophet, it shows us the consequences of allegiance to Baal.

Doors to a hidden world

An ‘icon’ is a different matter. It, too, is the public door to a larger, hidden reality, waiting to be explored as we engage with it and turn its handle. On the computer screen in front of me as I write are a whole series of icons, opening the way to hidden empires within the whirring box containing the electric wotsits that make it all work. With some of those empires I am now familiar: others remain unexplored and, so far, unfathomable. What is true of them all is that, to understand and live in them, I have no alternative but to enter through the icon.

Christianity is an iconic religion: its Saviour says of himself, ‘I am the door: by me if any man enter in, he shall be saved’ (John 10: 9, KJV). To get to the Kingdom of God, you have to go through him. I remember, when young, reading John Robinson’s Honest to God, and thinking (though I knew not why, then) ‘That doesn’t sound right.’ He had described Jesus as ‘a window into God’s kingdom.’ With the wisdom of hindsight, what was wrong is obvious: a window only gives you ideas of what God’s kingdom is like.

If all you want are truths, a window is fine, but the only difference between you and the devil is that he has been looking longer. A window leaves you freezing in the snow outside the snug, warm house: you have not changed kingdoms. Jesus came, physically, to our world in order that we might enter, physically, psychologically and spiritually, into his.

The two kingdoms

A society as confused as ours inevitably blurs the difference between icons and idols, since it fails to understand that everything we see represents one of two kingdoms, one of unadorned truth and one of deceptive artifice. ‘Pop idol’ is correct: ‘fashion icon’ is incorrect, since fashion is, quite literally, a cover up.

To succeed in this world, you must take iconography seriously. Past monarchs, once they were shed of their power, understood that their function, without which they would be redundant, lay in being an icon to the nation of ‘whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just.’ They were aided in this task by respectful and non-intrusive media, servants you could rely on not to tell, and iron-bound hypocrisy. Hypocrisy may not be listed among the virtues, but the likes of Edward VII and Alice Keppell understood its utility. It kept the feet of clay from the public gaze, and helped one perform one’s function in society.

Our own time affords more mundane examples of iconographic wisdom. In the Eighties, soccer was in trouble. Its games were increasingly perceived as being places where the uncivilized gathered to create mayhem. The perception was a gross distortion of reality, but the Football Association understood the image’s importance. One of the unheralded success stories of the end of the last century was the police and FA’s determined efforts to stamp out hooliganism at football matches. The icon of the national game was cleaned up, and the Premiership – despite the ruinous prices one has to pay to watch it – is attended by unprecedented numbers of women and families, and is very nearly a sell-out.

The price of privilege

Today’s royals do not enjoy the privacy of their predecessors. The atheistic journalistic claque, knowing only too well that the King of Kings they wish to remove from our consciousness can be iconised through earthly kings, is determined to bring the monarchy down. Charles may doubtless feel the whole thing is unfair: he may come from a dysfunctional family background, but he is not a bad man, and should be afforded the respect due to someone who, like the rest of us, is playing as good a game as he can with the cards that life has dealt him. Even so, he needs to realize that being an icon is unfair.

It is a privileged position he has been afforded, and anyone ordained priest will tell you that there is a price to pay for it. The morning congregation in my last church had two distinct halves: there was the Women’s Fellowship on one side of the aisle, the rest of humanity on the other. I used to think ill of the Fellowship: their lofty expectations of their clergy seemed to me to be a device to ignore their own mediocrities. It was they, though, who would congratulate me after I had given the congregation both barrels in a sermon. They accorded the Right to Nag to those whom they felt deserved the privilege.

Though I wish His Royal Highness and his new wife all the very best for the future, I hope he will understand it if I, and so many others, responded so coolly to their wedding. We are (whether we know it or not) wanting to be the Bride of Christ, and are looking for icons which will become, for us, doorways into the divine. His marriage to Lady Diana Spencer gave us such a picture and, had they remained faithful to each other through all their human difficulties, would have done so still. A marriage where a bridegroom sticks with his bride despite their unhappinesses says to us ‘God will be faithful to his bride, however unfaithful she may to him.’ His present marriage gives us no such picture of Jesus and his Church.

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