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Religion for 900 million

14 June 2013

Last week, the Sandford St Martin Trust, which promotes excellence in religious broadcasting, awarded its first trustees' award. The recipient was unexpected: the Olympic opening ceremony. Here, Caroline Chartres explains the trustees' thinking. Frank Cottrell Boyce, the writer who worked on the ceremony with its director, Danny Boyle, responds


MOST of the Sandford St Martin Trust awards are for outstanding radio or television programmes, and are chosen by juries of distinguished judges. This new award is to re-cognise the most significant contribution towards raising the profile of religion in broadcasting in the past year, and is chosen by the trustees. The year 2012 provided such an outstanding example of what we were looking for that the decision was immediate and un-animous. . .

In brilliantly depicting what it means to be British in the 21st century, the 2012 opening ceremony skilfully wove religious threads into a tapestry depicting our national life and character: it acknowledged and celebrated the beliefs that have helped to make us who we are.

Political extremism should make us increasingly aware that we cannot embrace and celebrate other cultures if we are uncertain, insecure, or apologetic about our own. The opening ceremony showed us not only who we are, but, in the words of William Blake's prophetic poem "Jerusalem" - his vision of a more just and caring society - what we could be.

In his blog the day after the opening ceremony, the Dean of Durham, the Very Revd Michael Sadgrove, wrote: "There is more to 'spirituality' than when it surfaces and becomes explicit. It has an in-tuitive side that doesn't get ex-pressed in words, but is still alive in most people's experience of life.

"Perhaps, in the joy and exuberance of [the ceremony], some-thing more about life and about God was hinted at. Perhaps some may have experienced it as a kind of liturgy. Perhaps, even, the sight of thousands of people of every age, background, and ethnicity, throwing themselves into this genuinely democratic celebration, offered a glimpse of Jerusalem and of the kingdom of heaven itself. . .

"I believe there was spiritual truth to be glimpsed in what we saw and heard. Yes, it was a performance, and a great one. But the trick was to make it more than a mere per- formance, to enable it to say some-thing intelligent and interesting, even profound, about how we are to ourselves and to our world. And, the ceremony seemed to be saying, how we are before God, too."

Caroline Chartres, trustee


I'm inordinately proud of having played a part in creating the opening ceremony. I'm especially delighted that you found Christian resonances there. Some of them - such as the hymns - we knew about and planned. Some just seemed to visit themselves upon us - like Thomas Heatherwick's beautiful cauldron, with its tongues of fire and its unexpected but overwhelming echoes of Pentecost.

I would sound a note of caution, however. When we look at a work of art, we all tend to see our own reflection first. You saw Christian witness. The MP Aidan Burley famously saw "multicultural crap". Boris Johnson saw - in the figure of Mary Poppins vanquishing Voldemort - an image of Margaret Thatcher defeating the miners. I came across one website that saw the whole ceremony as a satanic ritual ushering in a New World Order. I quote: "It opened with Elgar's Nimrod. Nimrod was the world's first dictator, the builder of the Tower of Babel. . . The moment when the Queen leapt from the helicopter was OF COURSE meant to recall Isaiah 14.12: 'How you are fallen from Heaven, O Lucifer.'"

In a sense, it was all these things - well, not the satanic ritual, and not "crap". But it seemed radical and progressive, while at the same time containing one of the most affectionate portraits of the mon-archy we've ever seen.

It contained contradictions, and so do we - as individuals and as a nation. True tolerance is about appreciating and accepting our dif-ferences, and not about manufac-turing a superficial equivalence.

Michael Sadgrove says that "some may have experienced it as a kind of liturgy." In fact, I did several times overhear the volunteer members of the choir referring to it as "the liturgy". Many of the volunteers were, of course, from faith groups. They excelled for the sake of their country, for friendship, for fun.

You have very kindly said that the ceremony seemed to "say how we are before God". But, to me, the amazing thing was not what it said, but what it was. Those volunteers worked for no pay. They rehearsed in the torrential physical rain, but also in the constant drizzle of a terrible press that warned it would be rubbish. They "kept the surprise" for months. To walk into the stadium in the few days before the show itself - to mingle with people of every race, creed, ability, and class - was to walk into a temporary utopia.

You kindly said that Danny Boyle offered a "vision of a more just and caring society" - but what you saw was not a vision. What you saw was a more just and caring society. It may have existed only for a few weeks, and only for one purpose, but exist it did. All utopias - even the most temporary - reveal how we are before God. Therefore they all contain the promise of the possibility of Jerusalem.

One of our inspirations for the ceremony was that living contradiction, G. K. Chesterton. The ceremony's title, "Isles of Wonder", came from one of his most famous aphorisms: "The world is not perishing for lack of wonders, but for lack of wonder." So I'll end with a different quote from him:

We have all forgotten what we really are. All that we call common sense and rationality and practicality only means that, for certain dead levels of our life, we forget that we have forgotten. All that we call spirit and art and ecstasy only means that for one awful instant, we remember that we forgot.

If the opening ceremony helped us to remember who we really are, then it did its job.

Frank Cottrell Boyce

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