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What really makes a nation Christian

25 April 2014

The Great North Passion was more accurate than celebrity atheists, argues Paul Vallely

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, and neighbours.

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 national character.

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