Religion, royalty and the media

Note: This article is from the Guardian.


Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Religion, royalty and the media” was written by Jonathan Chaplin, for theguardian.com on Sunday 1st May 2011 07.30 UTC

Kirsty Wark’s frozen, disdainful grimace said it all. Anchoring Newsnight on the evening of the royal wedding, she found herself completely at a loss to know how to respond to Martin Bashir’s unexpected mention of religion. Presumably invited as a studio guest on the strength of his explosive interview with Princess Diana in 1995, Bashir had the poor taste to point out that the event for which the BBC had been providing round-the-clock coverage was actually a religious service.

Wark and her other two guests – like pretty much every commentator throughout the day – had been largely taken up with the surface imagery of the day’s proceeding. Some of this was quite innocent, though not even a hardy, seasoned Newsnight presenter like Wark could resist yet more obsessive indulgence in “that dress”. Even myth-busting historian Simon Schama had been getting progressively intoxicated throughout the day with his own gushing monarchical sentimentalism.

Bashir broke ranks by choosing to point out, jarringly but accurately, that other commentators had been ignoring the actual content of the service in Westminster Abbey which was, not surprisingly, religious. Citing the rich theological content of the hymns and scripture reading, he proceeded to offer a brief summary of the bishop of London’s homily which had spoken of the wedding not as a royal or a celebrity marriage but – as one might expect from an Anglican bishop – as a Christian event in which marriage is seen as established and sustained by God.

Palpably discomfited, Wark abruptly turned away from Bashir and yanked the discussion back to the day’s familiar secular preoccupations. A journalist with a modicum of religious fluency would have followed up Bashir’s surprising and arresting remarks with a question such as ‘so do you think the religious nature of the service has any real significance for British society today?’ Except that the BBC already knows the answer to that question so it needn’t even be put.

This is only another familiar episode revealing the religious illiteracy of much of the contemporary British media (CiF Belief excepted, of course). Wark’s blanking of Bashir might, perhaps, be defended by media professionals as a necessary consequence of media “neutrality”. The argument would be that to have indulged Bashir’s remarks about the bishop’s Christian theology of marriage might have been seen as favouring a specific religious perspective, or to give undue weight to religion in a secular society more interested in fashion houses than houses of prayer. But completely ignoring the theological content which alone can make any sense at all of the richly-textured liturgical goings on in Westminster Abbey is itself a substantive and controversial statement about the social significance of religion in general and the constitutional significance of Christianity in particular. It may or may not be true that religion has become largely insignificant in British society, but there is no neutral or objective standpoint from which to reach that judgement. Will the media dare to have a serious discussion about that question?

If coverage of the royal wedding poses a question to the media about the principle of journalistic neutrality, the service itself poses a different one to the church about the principle of Anglican establishment. The Church of England cannot be held primarily responsible for the media’s ignoring of the theological content of the service over which the church presided (though perhaps it might have stipulated, as a condition of allowing TV cameras into the Abbey, that one of its spokespersons should be given airtime to interpret the service). But it surely is primarily responsible for how far the liturgical offerings it seems so eager to supply to what is a largely inattentive and uncomprehending nation are actually consistent with its own theological integrity, even its self-respect.

For many defenders of establishment, the royal wedding will no doubt provide glorious confirmation of their claim that the church remains the spiritual hub of the nation, sending out signals of transcendence from the heart of a unifying national celebration. For many opponents, it will raise the question whether the meaning of even a robustly orthodox wedding liturgy – for such it certainly was, as Martin Bashir so tactlessly pointed out – is effectively neutered when placed in service of a survival strategy for a political institution with an uncertain future. They will interpret the day’s events as yet further evidence of church’s captivity to civil religion, and will ask whether on April 29th the church really “served” the nation or rather was “used” by it. Will the church dare to have a serious discussion about that question?

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