Saturday, October 22, 2005


I don’t find myself regularly in agreement with former Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey (his successor, though horridly trapped by the role, is a different matter). But I was definitely grateful for his comments this week on the need to do away with Britain’s archaic blasphemy laws. Mind you, the incitement to religious hatred bill could well see them in through the back door again; though there are now signs, hopefully, of some serious legislative attenuation.

As an aperitif to this news story, The Guardian suggested, inter alia, that Lord Carey “loves” Monty Python’s ‘Life of Brian’. To which I say a wholehearted ‘Amen’. It’s possibly the best theological satire in movie history. Unfortunately, when it was released in 1979, Mary Whitehouse and assorted church dignitaries didn’t see it that way. They wanted it banned for blasphemy – even though the whole point of the film is that Brian isn’t Jesus… he’s yet another fall guy for the easy religious delirium which has been with us throughout history, and which is as damaging of healthy religion as anything possibly could be.

There are more laugh-out-loud moments in LoB than I care to recall. Perhaps my favourite is when the anti-hero, caught like a rabbit in the headlights, tries to stop the rootless rabble from turning him into the imagined strongman they can never be. “Look”, he pleads, “you don’t have to follow me. You’re all individuals.” There is a moment of quiet. Then they shout back in shattering unanimity, “Yes! We’re all individuals!” Except a solitary man, who protests, “I’m not!”

At the time, this kind of humour was lost completely on former Lord Bishop of Southwark Mervyn Stockwood and dear old Malcolm Muggeridge, as they slugged it out in an excruciating TV studio debate with the Python team, seemingly missing every point with effortless aplomb. I well recall cringing behind our metaphor of a sofa. All of which goes to show that the professionally sanctimonious make poor arbiters of taste, and (as I pointed out in relation to Jerry Springer – The Opera) the religiously offended make even worse readers of texts.

As it happens, I ended up working as an education and lay training adviser for another Bishop of Southwark twelve years after that infamous TV encounter. On the day I left the diocese, in 1996, my official 'do' was followed by an informal drink in the local. A couple of hours on, a film started on the pub screen. It was ‘Life of Brian’. The landlord knew we were from the church offices, and quickly hastened to turn it off. We begged him not to. “We adore this film!” we cried. I like to think Mervyn was grinning too.

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