I AM writing this column early to meet the Church Times deadlines, but, so far, Easter does not seem to have surfaced in the secular press — unless you count mild controversy over hot cross buns, that is. Since I buy the comestible only on Good Friday — I am that kind of punctilious person (blame my Catholic upbringing) — even though they have been on display since Christmas, I had not really been aware that you can get a whole range of bun taste sensations these days. According to Monday’s Times, you can now buy rhubarb-and-custard flavour, cheddar-and-onion, chutney-and-chilli, or cheese-and-Marmite, each sounding more ghastly than the last, even from the most reputable stores; but I think we can agree that the supermarkets are more than ever commercially dedicated to reflecting the true message of Holy Week.
When I was The Guardian’s religious-affairs correspondent, a decade and a half ago, one could always be sure that the paper’s star columnist, Polly Toynbee, would commemorate Easter — and sometimes Christmas, as well — the week before by fulminating on the evils of organised religion. She may well do so again this week, of course, but she was slightly put off her stride one year by a correspondent in the letters column remarking to the effect that “I see Polly’s off on one of her rants again. Must be a major Christian festival coming up. . .” Will anyone follow her lead this year and write a piece about Easter?
Perhaps a compliant bishop might help. As a young reporter on the Oxford Mail, many Easters ago, I once overheard the paper’s ageing churches correspondent, John Owen, ringing up the then Bishop of Oxford to ask for his paschal message to readers. The conversation went something like this: “Bishop, can you manage 700 words?. . . What about 500?. . . 300? Oh, forget it, I’ll write the bloody thing meself. . .”
Those were halcyon days. Perhaps, in a world of chaos, division, and terror, the Easter message of redemption and hope is hard to preach, or to read. We’ll see who has a stab at it over the coming weekend. As Juliet Samuel noted in her column in last Saturday’s Daily Telegraph, perhaps it won’t be one of those hard-line preachers of the US religious Right who have previously praised Vladimir Putin as the Lion of Christianity, allegedly sent by God to turn the tide against “globohomo” — a term that I had not heard before — liberals corrupting the world. It has taken some a while, but the irrefutable evidence of atrocities against ordinary people in the Ukraine may be finally placing him beyond the pale.
Marine Le Pen, in France, and Viktor Orbán, in Hungary, both defenders of supposed white Christian values and both fulsome secular recipients of Russian largesse, have found President Putin embarrassing during their recent election campaigns, and are both also — rhetorically, at least — distancing themselves from their benefactor. Even Donald Trump apparently no longer thinks that the Russian President is a “genius”. As Samuel noted: it all adds up “to an awkward picture for the pro-Putin religious Right. At some point, surely, you have to ask: who is really most responsible for promoting nihilism, fascism and downright evil? It’s true that Mr Putin would never hold a gay pride parade. But he would happily preside over ruthless civilian massacres in Europe, as he has before in Syria and Chechnya. I suppose Mr Putin’s fans will have to pick their poison.”
IN ALTOGETHER more dignified mode, the Royal Family chose to commemorate the first anniversary of Prince Philip’s death last Saturday by reissuing the poem that the Poet Laureate, Simon Armitage, wrote to commemorate the Duke’s death. It is, perhaps, not one of his best efforts — writing such poems to order, even for a small honorarium, no longer a butt of sack, must be difficult — but The Guardian carried a chunk of it which paid tribute to his naval career: “On such an occasion / to presume to eulogise one man is to pipe up / for a whole generation — that crew whose survival / was always the stuff of minor miracle”.
The Guardian article quoted the the Dean of Windsor, the Rt Revd David Conner, as saying that the Duke could be “abrupt in a robust conversation, forgetting just how intimidating he could be”, which was certainly the experience of clergy summoned to preach before him and the Queen. A friend of mine found it somewhat unnerving to look up from the pulpit and catch the Duke peering beadily up at him from the front pew. Prince Philip was a great fan of poetry, particularly of the work of T. S. Eliot: “Don’t tell anyone, though,” he used to confide. I wonder what he would have made of Simon Armitage’s tribute?
Stephen Bates is a former religious-affairs and royal correspondent of The Guardian.
Andrew Brown is away.