It was a question that nagged defenders of the English monarchy for years: If and when he ever became king, would Prince Charles declare himself to be the "Defender of Faith," as opposed to "Defender of the Faith"?
In a way, the chance that the crucial "the" would go missing was the perfect symbol for decades of tense "multiculturalism" debates in Britain. Drop the "the" and the implication was that Christianity, and the Church of England in particular, would have lost its status as a foundation for English life and culture. The monarch would henceforth defend the IDEA of faith, as opposed to a particular faith. Theological pluralism would be the new norm.
It didn't help, of course, that the Church of England was on the decline, in terms of worship attendance, baptisms, marriages and just about any other statistic that could be cited. Meanwhile, Islam was on the rise. Wasn't dropping this telltale "the" simply a nod to the new reality?
Prince Charles has, fairly recently, stated that his title would remain "Defender of the Faith." However, the cultural identity debates roll on, as witnessed in the stark message of the new report by the Commission on Religion and Belief in British Public Life entitled "Living with Difference: Community, Diversity and the Common Good (click for .pdf)." Its bottom line: England isn't Christian. Get over it. Reactions? Click here for commentary from veteran religion-beat specialist Ruth Gledhill and here for analysis by Jenny Taylor of the Lapido Media religious literacy project.
These painful debates loomed in the background during this week's "Crossroads" podcast. This time around, host Todd Wilken and I discussed the many implications of the decision -- by the principalities and powers of the movie theater business -- to reject the use of that Church of England ad featuring the Lord's Prayer before screenings of the new Star Wars epic.
I wrote about that controversy this week in my Universal syndicate column, opening with a bit of commentary by a progressive Evangelical who offered a revealing take on this firestorm -- asking how audiences would react if, just before the archetypal "Star Wars" fanfare, there was an advertisement based on individual believers reciting these lines:
In the name of Allah, Most Gracious, Most Merciful.
Praise be to Allah, the Cherisher and Sustainer of the worlds.
Most Gracious, Most Merciful; Master of the Day of Judgment.
Thee do we worship, and Thine aid we seek.
Writing at a website called "An Evangelical Theology for the Post-Christendom Age," theologian Andrew Perriman of London noted, as I wrote in my column:
"Context is everything. It seems to me that the assumption that the Lord's Prayer is culturally and religiously innocuous points to some complacency on the part of the church," wrote Perriman, author of "The Coming of the Son of Man: New Testament Eschatology for an Emerging Church."
The decision to use this symbolic New Testament prayer in this public-square context, he argued, suggests that, "We have not let go of the Christendom mentality that expects everyone in this country to be, deep-down, innately, whether-they-like-it-or-not Christian."
What was the stated reason for the rejection?
Anglican officials released emails in which Digital Cinema Media leaders cited a "policy not to run advertising connected to personal beliefs, specifically those related to politics or religion. Our members have found that showing such advertisements carries the risk of upsetting, or offending, audiences."
So is this a reference to the Church of England advert, or to others that might be presented in the future if the door was open to religious content? It isn't hard to propose some tension-inducing answers to that question.
It's so easy to focus on the culture wars side of this debate and miss the highly symbolic gesture that set off all of this controversy in the first place. That would be the Church of England's plan to use a beautiful, solemn ad to reach out to the millions of people who will turn out for what will be, for many, a kind of pop-culture sacrament or holy day.
"Star Wars" is back! In my column, I noted:
... "The Force" at the heart of this pop mythology is precisely the kind of "spiritual but not religious" symbolism that has been embraced by many "nones" who have been cutting their ties to traditional religious institutions, noted movie critic Steven Greydanus of DecentFilms.com and The National Catholic Register.
"Which is bigger in England, Star Wars or the Church of England? ... There may be more practicing Anglicans these days than there are members of the Jedi faith, but it says a lot that we can even ask that question with a straight face," he said.
"It's safe to say that more young people in England are familiar with the details of the 'Star Wars' mythology than with the contents of The Book of Common Prayer."
That's sobering. Anyway, enjoy the podcast.