Here we go again, like the first cuckoo or the first swallow, there comes, annually, the first complaints about the hollowing out of British Christian traditions by people who insist on taking the eggs out of Easter, or rather Easter out of eggs, often with a side-line in complaints about political correctness or kow-towing to minorities.
Poor old Cadbury have already suffered a confected storm (see what I did there? Actually, it’s not original) about their products being “halal” and have now joined the National Trust in being the whipping boys of the keep Easter chocolatey brigade.
People are getting upset that the annual Easter egg hunts at National Trust properties are not sufficiently religious. Now, I’ve had a look at the NT website and it says, I quote, “Join the Cadbury Egg Hunts this Easter.” I suppose people wanted it to say “Join the Easter Egg hunts this Easter”, or maybe, at a push, “Join the Cadbury Easter Egg hunts this Easter.” But to be honest, the season is fairly obvious, right there at the top of the page, and eggs belong to Easter like trees to Christmas. The fact that lower down the page there’s a logo saying, “In partnership with Cadbury” makes it obvious why it specifies the “Cadbury” egg hunt at Easter as distinct from Galaxy or Thorntons (other products are available). Although it’s difficult to find the truth amid the hype, it’s possible that the Easter connection may have been made more prominent as a result of pressure. Mind you, the Telegraph article on the issue seems to have made very selective use of the National Trust advertising.
Apparently, some people get agitated about this sort of thing. They may be the same sorts who get upset about people not being able to wear their crosses to work, even if the hygiene needs of their occupation are what dictate such policy. I’ve written about that before. Judging by some of the comments made about this affair, it would seem that some have little more than a passing acquaintance with the church, by which I mean they usually just pass by the buildings in which we meet and from which we operate. I also suspect that the “keep Easter chocolatey brigade” (or is it “keep chocolate Eastery”?), contains thinly disguised members of the “keep Britain Christian brigade,” themselves the even more thinly disguised “keep out the Muslims brigade”. But, surely, they’re not all like that.
I’m sure they’re not, but among those complaining have been people who really ought to know better than to join in with the annual “sidelining of Christianity” moment. There’s John Sentamu, Archbishop of York, who ought to know better but has form for this sort of thing; the Prime Minister and even the Leader of Her Majesty’s official opposition.
We’ll start at the top of government, where we have the spectacle of PM Theresa May busy trying to sort post-Brexit trade deals with a Saudi Arabia currently warned by the UN of war crimes in Yemen, and a country where you are not even officially allowed to be Christian let alone celebrate it by the consumption of cocoa products. In that context it seems incongruous to say the least to call the actions of Cadbury and the National Trust “absolutely ridiculous”, even had she understood them correctly. Moreover, at a time of heightened tension for minorities in the UK one would have hoped for a more temperate response rather than something resembling the utterances of those “rentaquote” MPs regularly to be seen before the microphones outside parliament.
Then we have the spectacle of Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the opposition, agreeing with the PM. Now, I’m sure that there are things they could and should agree on but that they do so here doesn’t make either of them right, but suggests rather a pandering to the noises from the shallow end of the swimming pool. Corbyn said that the decision to include Cadbury rather than Easter in the (National Trust’s advertising) logo’s title reflected “commercialisation gone a bit too far”. I’d agree, as many would, that Easter, like Christmas, has been over-commercialised but if Easter eggs were bought only by practising Christians I’m pretty sure we’d not see so many in the shops, while dentists across the country would be going out of business. As to his being “upset” because he doesn’t think that “Cadbury’s should take over the name of Easter”, I’m pretty confident that churches won’t be celebrating Cadbury next weekend. If people choose to buy Cadbury eggs, that’s a different matter and I’m getting to that.
Then there are Archbishop Sentamu’s comments. Here’s a man I have had great respect for because of past words and actions but who somehow seems to have lost the plot. He suggests that the removal of Easter from the eggs (not true in all cases apparently) is an affront to the Quaker founder of the Cadbury firm, and that Cadbury’s actions are “tantamount to spitting on” his grave. The reality is that, in the past, Quakers, considering every day holy, had little regard for specific Christian festivals such as Christmas and Easter, although contemporary Quakers might celebrate them in a low key way.
The good Archbishop, with other confectionery complainants, seems to suggest that Easter has been hijacked by Cadbury who, with the National Trust, are “airbrushing faith from Easter.’”
This is shaky ground for Christians, if it is true that the church Christianised a pagan festival celebrating the goddess Eostre. I’m not sure how much evidence there is for that; it seems scanty. Nevertheless, were there no truth in it whatsoever, the good archbishop and his co-complainers are still on shaky ground.
Why? Well, in the first place, Easter, Easter eggs, and fluffy bunnies are not mentioned in the Bible, the founding document of Christian faith; none of them. No, not even Easter.
If Cadbury or any other confectioner has hijacked anything it is the eggs and not Easter. Eggs have nothing to do with Easter, as Daily Mash humorously points out with its spoof headline: “CHOCOLATE maker Cadbury has ignored the biblical story of Jesus getting a Wispa egg off a rabbit, it has been claimed.”
You see, dear reader, calling eggs by the name of their manufacturers or inviting people of other faiths and none to search for such confectionery secreted about National Trust properties by “Easter Bunnies” is not “airbrushing faith from Easter.” If anything, we should perhaps have complained when someone started painting them into the Easter scene many years ago!
Secondly, my faith does not depend on the presence of chocolate eggs hidden by bunnies or in full view at this time of the year or any other time, any more than it depends on angels on the top of needle shedding conifers at Christmas. I would hope that would be true of any serious Christian.
Easter means different things to different people inside the church let alone outside, a point well made by Peter Ormerod writing in the Guardian: “Those of a more evangelical persuasion often tend to emphasise the events of Good Friday, which to some marks the moment when Jesus was effectively sacrificed by his own father to atone for the sins of the world. Others might focus on the reanimated body of Jesus and take it as evidence that Jesus was indeed divine and is still alive in some form. Still others might see the resurrection in purely symbolic terms, questioning whether the gospel accounts are intended to be understood literally.”
Notwithstanding the different levels of importance attached to the Easter story by Christians of various shades of belief, the hunting or consumption of chocolate eggs is an irrelevance.
What’s clearly at issue here for some, however, is not whether the word “Egg” in Spring is prefaced by “Easter” or “Cadbury” but the very place of Christianity in the UK. As Harriet Sherwood wrote, in the Guardian, “… the brouhaha reflected genuine unease among some Christians that their faith, once deeply embedded in the nation’s psyche, is becoming increasingly marginalised in a country where the non-religious are steadily outstripping the faithful. In 2014, a British Social Attitudes survey found that 48.5% of the population said they had no religion, compared with 43.8% who defined themselves as Christian.”
To define oneself as Christian is, however, more than adherence to cosy traditions. It is a far more serious undertaking. I’m with Peter Ormerod again who said, “Jesus had me at ‘love your enemies’. He sealed the deal with ‘let he who is without sin cast the first stone’, the parables of the good Samaritan, the prodigal son, his transgression of the gender norms of the time, his emphasis on mercy and forgiveness, his reaching out to society’s outcasts, his practical help to the sick and hungry. That’s enough for me, as it evidently was to his disciples, who gave up what they had to follow him long before any crucifixion or resurrection.”
And longer still, it must be said, before any talk of chocolate eggs!
I’m writing this on the eve of Palm Sunday when the church remembers Jesus riding into Jerusalem to the acclaim of the crowd. In a few days later we shall remember the crowd calling for his crucifixion. Some, I am sure, took no notice of either event.
Today also, for some Easter will come and go without any attention paid at all. For some it will be, simply, a spring holiday and they might, if they give it a thought, just have a moment of gratitude for the Christian past of this country which has bequeathed the odd religiously based day off. On the other hand, they might just enjoy the day.
For others, Easter, however viewed (pace Ormerod), will be a part of our pattern of discipleship, and an invitation to consider what it means to be inspired by the life and message of that carpenter of Nazareth.
Hunt some eggs, if you like. End your Lenten chocolate fast with a nice big chocolate oval, if you like. But dear fellow Christians and those who like to see others practising it even if they don’t themselves, please don’t confuse egg eating with the challenge of following someone who said ‘love your enemies’ and ‘let he who is without sin cast the first stone’. Because if eating chocolate eggs at Easter is all that our faith is about, it’s just as well I cut up my clerical collar now.