Listeners to BBC’s "Radio 4" could be forgiven for thinking that an evil British Broadcasting Corporation programmer had substituted a wicked satire for the scheduled Lenten Talk. On April 4th, in the middle of Holy Week, the Very Rev. Jeffrey Johns, Dean of St. Albans, took to the national airwaves and delivered an hysterical, if not heretical, diatribe.
“What sort of God was this,” Johns huffed indignantly, “getting so angry with the world and the people he created and then, to calm himself down, demanding the blood of his own son? And anyway, why should God forgive us through punishing somebody else? It was worse than illogical, it was insane. It made God sound like a psychopath. If any human being behaved like this, we would say they were a monster.”
Across the United Kingdom, there must have been an audible sucking noise as people drew in a collective horrified breath. Even a secular humanist with a two by four chip on his or her shoulder would have thought twice about calling God a psychopath on the eve of Good Friday. Many in the radio audience undoubtedly assumed that Jeffrey Johns was the latest Brit to come down with some screaming form of religious mania.
But the fact is that Johns didn’t just burst into the Radio 4 studios, grab a microphone, and start his Freudian spew. He had been invited to editorialize on the meaning of Easter by the Religion Department at the BBC, a once revered institution which now stands accused of having adopted an anti-Christian agenda.
By way of background, in 2001, two months before 9-11, the BBC appointed Alan Bookbinder as the head of its Religion Department. Breaking with a tradition dating back to 1933, Bookbinder was the first person in this post to declare himself “an open-hearted agnostic.” His predecessors were all practicing Christians, many of them ordained clergy. Indicative of their theological timidity, reactions to this appointment by the majority of the church’s hierarchy were generally tepid. They were moved to characterize Bookbinder’s ascension to the top of the religion division as “not reassuring.” But surely this incident adds to suspicions about the Beeb’s motives in matters of faith because this tempest was not inadvertently created in a teapot.
The Rev. Jeffrey Johns is a known ecclesiastical persona. He was forced to step down as Bishop of Reading in 2003 when it emerged that he was a homosexual, albeit a self-proclaimed “inactive” one. In a previous public statement, Johns’ declared that, by age 10, he found that the Christian theory of penal substitution was — as an explanation for the Crucifixion – “pretty repulsive and nonsensical.” Is it indelicate to wonder if these two things are somehow connected?
Thankfully, there was an uproar over the Rev. John’s commentary on the state of God’s mental health. Newspapers reported that “evangelicals,” (as opposed to the more accurate term “traditionalists”) were “outraged” at this latest attempt by a member of the liberal wing of the church to hasten the demise of Christianity in England. Several unnamed Bishops were rumored to have opined that Johns’ performance illustrated why he would have made a terrible Bishop, regardless of his sexual preferences. Good call.
One Bishop added his personal hope that Johns would “speedily reconsider and repent of his attack on apostolic Christianity.” Hope springs eternal.
Just as robotically, the BBC reiterated its policy: “Lenten Talks are short individual authored opinions in which a contributor is invited to reflect on a different part of Christ’s passion.” But there must have been a bit of squirming behind the scenes because the Rev. Jeffrey Johns was given the opportunity to add two lines of clarification to his “talk” before it was aired (which means it was pre-recorded, not live and uncensored.)
In his murky mini-apologia, Johns stated that “Jesus died on the cross for our sins, but the price of those sins was paid by God, not to God.” It’s obviously all down to bad parenting and some Biblical bookkeeping in the gospel according to Jeffrey Johns.
Meanwhile, the 2007 Easter controversy in England intensified on another front. Chocolate. Somerfield’s, a grocery chain equivalent to Safeway in the US, had commissioned Godiva Inc. to manufacture a special line of Easter Eggs. Unfortunately, the Somerfield’s Press Office was suffering a crisis in salvific copy writing. The Godiva Eggs were introduced to a hungry public as a traditional gift exchanged to “celebrate the birth of Jesus.” Pause. Yes, the birth of Jesus. Catching that little slip, a second press release attempted to correct the disinformation. No, went version two, Easter Eggs actually celebrated the “re-birth of Jesus.” At this juncture the Church of England Press Office leapt into action. After some negotiating over terminology, a third press release appeared, but at that point the masses were far beyond caring. However, in a terse addendum to the third release, a Church of England spokesperson declared: “Easter is as hollow as a chocolate egg if one does not understand the meaning of the death and resurrection of Jesus.”
Well, Amen, but from whence ought such understanding to come? Perhaps this chap does not recall the days when British children were taught, in their parish churches, that rolling eggs down a hill symbolized the stone which had been rolled away from the entrance to the tomb. It was about the spiritual, not about the sugar.
But all was not lost. Hallelujah. A vibrant Eastertide message DID turn up in — of all places — a weekend newspaper section devoted to listing alternative family activities.
In exultation, up went the impassioned proclamation: Show Me The Bunny.
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