HERE is a modern mystery play. The Great North Passion
used shipping containers, instead of medieval guild carts, to tell
the story of the death and resurrection of Christ. The Passion did
not come to you; you had to move to it. That was apt; for ours is
now a culture where religion is chosen as much as inherited.
BBC Television masterminded the event on Good Friday, placing 60
containers in a park in South Shields, in a cathedral-sized
cruciform. A dozen of the containers had sat for the past month in
towns across the north-east, where people had worked with artists
to create 12 Stations of the Cross.
They aimed to reflect the whole community. The third Station,
Jesus Falls for the First Time, was the product of a
street graffiti artist, Mohammed Ali. It combined Islamic art with
the aesthetic of the Lindisfarne Gospels to explore with people
from Sunderland the theme "Exhaustion and being alone".
It rather jarred, after this multicultural experience, to hear
50 celebrity atheists complaining about the Prime Minister's having
written in this newspaper that Britain is still a Christian country
(Comment, 17 April).
The secular luminaries - who included Terry Pratchett, Ken Follett,
Nick Ross, and A. C. Grayling - failed to register the irony of
their letter's being published on a national public holiday to mark
the feast of Easter.
Nor did they appear to realise - in their complaint that the PM
was fostering "alienation and division in our society" - that the
only ones "needlessly fuelling enervating sectarian debates" were
themselves. Muslim leaders said that Britain's "deep historical and
structural links" to Christianity were part of "a sense of the
sacred [which] is to be cherished". Hindu leaders said they were
"very comfortable" with the idea.
To Pilate's question "What is truth?", the container produced on
the North Tyneside Fish Quay offered a variety of answers from
locals. They echoed what David Cameron acknowledged when he wrote
last week: "Being more confident about our status as a Christian
country does not somehow involve doing down other faiths or passing
judgement on those with no faith at all."
In Station six, Veronica Wipes the Face of Jesus, South
Shields schoolchildren celebrated the kindness of strangers, which
for the PM was embodied in political commitments such as honouring
the pledge to give seven pence in every £10 of our national income
to the world's poorest people.
Mr Cameron said more in a speech to Christian leaders in Downing
Street. What the nation needed, he said, was more faith into action
- in prisons, in foodbanks, and on schemes to help excluded
children and family breakdown. He also spoke of the support that he
had been given within the Church, when his disabled sondied five
years ago. "Ivan would have been 12 yesterday," he said, "which has
had me pause to think."
There is a peculiar pity in a parent's grief. The community in
Sunderland showed this in Station four, Jesus Meets his
Mother, in which the artist Julian Germain filmed women
looking through photos of their dead children. It was profoundly
moving, particularly if, like me, you watched it standing inside
the container alongside a mother who was watching herself on the
screen - and doing it in the supportive company of family, friends,
Bandying about Census numbers how many churchgoers and believers
there are in the UKcan never determine the depth of this country's
religious heritage. Seeing communities that are still grounded in
values integral to that Christianity tells a different story.
Whatever atheists insist, faith is still at the foundation of our