In the past week there was a shock for those of us who opened the Evening Standard. There was a picture of a nativity scene. But in the place of the infant Jesus in the crib, there was a large sausage roll. The picture came from some advertising by Greggs the Bakers. They have since apologized.
Still, the incident has remained with me. I think it very unlikely that someone set out to mock the Christian faith deliberately. I think it more likely that this little joke simply seemed a clever idea. In the idiom of today, it would have been a meme: taking a well-known image and photoshopping something different and interesting on to it. If my guess is correct, what strikes me is that the person responsible would probably have no religious awareness. Enough awareness to know what a nativity scene is like. A Christmas card knowledge, as it were. But not enough sensitivity to understand that the nativity is an image cherished by Christians, and that to manipulate it in this way was almost certain to offend and distress Christian people.
This incident with its disrespect of Christ is one of many that illustrates our changing times. For a long time Christian faith was the backdrop to much of Britain’s self-understanding. Even people with little formal faith would have understood that Christianity had deeply shaped our history, our character and our culture. Now we seem to be a largely secular nation, with something like half the people no longer professing any religious faith. Along with this goes a strange distortion of what Christianity has done for our nation. It seems sometimes that Christianity is seen only in terms of colonialism, homophobia and misogyny. This is such a travesty of the truth. Yes, the history of the Church has a darker side as well: think of the martyrs, both Protestant and Catholic, of the Reformation era. But it was the concerted long-term campaign by Christians that brought an end to the slave trade. It was Christians who led the fight for better working conditions in factories in the Victorian and Edwardian era. As for human rights, these depend heavily on Christian tradition which grounded human rights in respect for each individual man and woman, seen by Christians each of them as being made in the image of God.
What is to be done? I think that increasingly families will need to be the centre of sharing the faith. English people tend to shy away from overt faith. Relatively few homes have prayers today, not all Catholic homes have a holy picture, not all parents would be comfortable sharing with their children what they believe and why. But without this it will be harder to resist a skeptical and sometimes even hostile culture that would cheerfully erode away much of what we believe and hold dear.