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International Herald Tribune: Britain's Unholy War Over Christmas

International Herald Tribune

23rd December 2006

Cover picture


Strolling through the Covent Garden piazza this week, the air was sharp and cold, the sweet smell of roast chestnuts filled the air, and the Salvation Army brass band played Silent Night beneath a huge Norwegian pine. It was a scene that2006 Dickens might have recognized right down to the loitering drunks. London seemed timeless.

But now, like an unwelcome guest arriving at midnight on Christmas Eve, Britain has imported America's ''culture wars,'' in which Christmas becomes a pitched battle between Christians, secularists and minority faiths.

The Christmas cards of Prince Charles, Prime Minister Tony Blair and his heir-apparent, Gordon Brown, have been scrutinized to see whether they offer anemic ''Seasons Greetings'' rather than a stout ''Merry Christmas.'' Journalists have been dispatched to find school canteens that have replaced the traditional fattened goose with halal chicken. The tabloids are full of trendy teachers that have banished the nativity play in favor of a multifaith ''festival of light.''

The passions spilled over the last few weeks suggest that this is no silly-season frippery. Christmas has become the latest battleground in a series of skirmishes over whether Britain will remain a Christian society.

However personally pious, everyone born into Britain 50 years ago shared a Christian heritage at the least, a vague sense of sin, a working knowledge of the Bible and a sense of the year segmented by religious festivals. But this familiarity with religion as the bedrock of national life has eroded within two generations.

Average weekly attendance in Anglican churches has dwindled to between 1 percent and 4 percent of the population. A BBC survey this week showed that fewer than half of British children aged from 7 to 11 know that Christmas marks the birth of Christ.

Nevertheless, Britain remains officially a Christian country. The British monarch has the constitutional title of ''Supreme Governor of the Church of England'' and ''Defender of the Faith.'' The 24 most senior bishops in the Church of England, known as the ''Lords spiritual,'' still wield political power through their right to sit in the House of Lords. And this isn't just a fusty constitutional nicety. The bishops were instrumental this year in blocking laws that would legalize euthanasia.

For years the Church of England tacitly accepted that its role would become marginal as Britain became secular. But, in the face of a new mood of religious intolerance that threatens old British freedoms, mild-mannered Anglicans seem to have found their teeth.

British Airways' suspension this autumn of a Heathrow Airport check-in clerk, Nadia Eweida, for wearing a tiny cross (contravening their ''no jewelry'' regulation) led to protests from the archbishop as Anglicans concluded that they were being treated with far less sensitivity than that afforded to minority faiths. At the same time, even the mildest Anglicans began fretting at the new tone of strident religiosity coming from religious groups indulging in a professional grievance competition.

Sikh protests in Birmingham over the play ''Bezhti'' which portrayed sexual abuse among community elders succeeded in shutting the play down after a mob threatened theatergoers. The critically acclaimed ''Jerry Springer: The Opera'' is unlikely to be repeated on the BBC after protests by evangelical Christians. And the radicalism of some young British-born Muslims leaves many Britons feeling bewildered and frightened.

These new holy wars explain why, despite the fact that the vast majority of Britons will spend Christmas morning on the sofa rather than gracing a church pew, most feel that the liberal freedoms upheld by the church are worth protecting. According to the last census, 71.6 percent of the population declared themselves to be Christian.

All this may be contributing to a mild resurgence in the Anglican brand of Christmas this year. Ticket sales at carol concerts are at record levels, and long queues are expected to get into midnight mass at the sparkling, newly cleaned St. Paul's Cathedral.

The British finally seem to have taken to heart words attributed to an anonymous British elder statesman in the 19th century: ''We must preserve the Church of England. It's our only defense against real religion.''

Posted on 23rd December 2006.

Last changed at 19:06 UTC, 7th August 2008.

1 Comment

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Peni on 14th December 2012

Never trust a journalist who can't spell.