- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 25, 2004

And how are the so-called “Christmas wars” going on this side of the water? Badly, I think. If the atmosphere in America is full of unseasonal strife, thanks to the ACLU’s quest to close down every Nativity crib on the eastern seaboard, there is a very different tone to the religious vs. secular debate in Britain. If the mood seems much quieter, it is because the battle is more or less over, at least as far as Christianity is concerned.

Let me give you a small example. Driving into the West End last night, I had plenty of time, while sitting in traffic to look at the billboards. The most common of them, by a large margin, was an advertisement for a TV comedy series called “Shameless,” a raucous show about a spectacularly dysfunctional underclass family. “Shameless” is something of a cult hit over here (“Packed with sex, drugs, gratuitous violence, love and scams,” declares the publicity material, which makes the program sound more like a night at a Democratic convention).

In the billboard publicizing the special festive edition, the characters are depicted in a parody of Leonardo’s “Last Supper” set in a cheerless pub. Drunken mayhem has broken out. In the center of the picture the bearded head of the family, his head adorned with a tinsel halo, is sprawling across the table.

As for why the “Shameless” team associate the Last Supper with Christmas, I don’t have an answer. They can’t really be that uninformed, can they? I find it less depressing to assume that they are trying to be ironic. All I can say is that this image, ridiculing the most important event in the Christian calendar is plastered all over the capital at the moment. Yet hardly anyone seems to have noticed. It would be nice to think that this was a symptom of Britain’s tolerant attitude towards the satirical classes.

The melancholy truth, though, is that most of the population doesn’t really care about religion in the first place. As many a church leader has observed in the last couple of years, Britain is well on the way to becoming post-Christian. There’s no question that the religious impulse is still alive — the burgeoning interest in the supernatural and the occult is proof of that — but Christianity as a public force has been almost completely marginalized.

At one point on my journey last night, I saw the “Shameless” poster standing next to one plugging a popular BBC show, “The Vicar of Dibley”, a comedy about a (female) Church of England vicar marooned in an apathetic Home Counties community. Every week, the long-suffering vicar confronts yet another little local misunderstanding, and somehow triumphs in the end. But religion, as opposed to manners, hardly comes into it: She might just as well be running a small catering firm.

The Church of England has done its best to hasten its own demise. Desperate to be “relevant”, church leaders have stripped services of ancient ritual in favor of bland committee-speak. The playwright Alan Bennett summed up the results in one of his wonderfully Eeyore-ish diary entries 20 years ago: “In the new form of service God is throughout referred to as You; only one Thou left in the world, and the fools have abolished it. Of course, they can’t do away with the vocative, which is every bit as archaic, so we still say ‘O God’. It’s a good job God doesn’t have a name or we’d probably be calling him Dave.”

Is this how future will look? Most members of the country’s elite are quite content with the new secular landscape. But not everyone seems to agree. Last week in the country’s second city, Birmingham, we had a reminder that other, stronger religious sentiments are very much still with us. When the city’s main theatre company staged a play “Dishonor” — written by a young Sikh woman, Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti — depicting rape and murder in a Sikh temple, hundreds of protestors descended on the playhouse, smashing windows and attempting to force their way onto the stage. Two days later, after failing to reach a compromise with the campaigners, the company decided to cancel all remaining performances.

I feel torn over all this. On the one hand, the attempt to intimidate the theater’s management was appalling and unacceptable. Judging by the reactions of some of the “community” leaders (who may, in fact, only speak for one faction among many) the play aroused disapproval as much by its efforts to wash linen in public as by its alleged blasphemy.

“Courageous writers sometimes cause offence,” Ms Bhatti declared in a statement. “But perhaps those who are affronted by the menace of dialogue and discussion need to be offended.”

Absolutely. And yet I feel reluctant to side with the advocates of art for art’s sake if it means that I have to agree with the right of TV companies to use the Last Supper as a crass advertising tool. There is something to be said for the argument that the inexorable demeaning of religion in general, and Christianity in particular makes a multiracial society more not less fractured. As the London Times correspondent Anthony Browne put it this week in an attack on what he calls the “Christophobes”: “By stripping Britain of its culture and traditions, they are causing a dangerous rising tide of anger. It prevents social cohesion and integration — who would want to integrate into a society that is committing suicide.”

That is a fair question. There has to be reasonable common ground somewhere. I’m just no sure how to find it.

Clive Davis writes for The Times of London. His weblog is at clivedavis.blogspot.com

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