THE immemorial focus of Britain’s communities, urban and rural alike; the cement of local fellowship; the place of celebration in times of rejoicing and of solace in tragedy; welcome for the newcomer and lonely; leveller of social distinctions, with room for everyone, however difficult, shy, or awkward; and yet, now, facing dwindling support and unprecedented financial pressures, causing closure after closure, a grim and uncertain future in prospect.
Archdeacons up and down the country, longing for a magic elixir to turn around the fortunes of our parish churches, will have eagerly tuned in to Saving Britain’s Pubs with Tom Kerridge (BBC2, Thursday of last week). The parallel between pub and church struck me again and again, as Kerridge sought to find ways to transform three contrasting examples in deep rural Cornwall, outer Stroud, and inner-city Peckham.
All had energetic publicans working day and night, all utterly committed to their hostelries; all faced exhausting long-term decline, barely making ends meet. Kerridge proposed the radical rethinking familiar with such makeover programmes: knocking down walls; banishing to a side bar the noisy locals who stay all evening with one drink; reforming the generosity that leeches every hope of profit by underselling the drinks.
All seemed poised for success; but, as the episode drew to a close, Covid-19 struck, capsizing everything. What crumbs of comfort and example will clergy draw from the remaining series, as we, too, cope with lockdown, partial thaw, glimmers of hope — and then lockdown again?
There was meaty intellectual fare from 21st Century Mythologies with Richard Clay (BBC4, Monday of last week). The French philosopher Roland Barthes revolutionised the range of subject-matter deemed appropriate to his profession: there was, he insisted, vital meaning in the most popular cultural artefacts. And he pushed his concept of myth, whereby the powerful can exercise control over the masses by promoting ideas whose relation to reality is, to say the least, tenuous; you will immediately see how close to home this idea might be to the Church.
Clay explored a succession of contemporary themes — plastic, money, the Madonna, race — and demonstrated to his satisfaction that buying into their myths constrains our thinking and imagination. Subversive artists offer the way forward, debunking myths: for example, making artworks by defacing banknotes. We must embrace the liberty of challenging everything; for there are no fixed points.
Well, perhaps; but it all seemed to me somewhat self-indulgent, in our times when instant fake news deals life or death.
Glorious myth-making is wonderfully realised in the second series of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials (BBC1, Sundays). The Magisterium’s disgusting machinations give Christianity its ritual kicking, and the plot doesn’t really make sense; but it is a triumph of sustained imagination and creativity, by turns terrifying, awesome, tender, and moving.