I shouldn’t have been too surprised. I encountered similar sensitivity in a previous attempt at a side career a few years ago: teaching Religious Education at a private school. The textbook contained Michelangelo’s famous image of God creating Adam. I made a jokey reference to the childlike littleness of Adam’s genitalia, despite his muscle-man physique. Big mistake. One of these 11- or 12-year-olds reported the comment to a parent who reported it to the head who hauled me in for a surreal conversation about the mentionability of Edenic pudenda. I bet science teachers are allowed to mention penises, I protested — why shouldn’t humanities teachers, especially if the penis is actually depicted in the approved textbook?
So are holy snowflakes smothering the C of E? I consulted the vicar of a north London church who had worked at a cathedral, where his role included commissioning works of art. ‘What I’ve noticed is that sensitivity has become more secular than religious — it used to be that people were nervous of doing or saying something sacrilegious; now they’re more likely to worry about giving secular offence. And often they are not really offended themselves but are imagining other people’s reactions; they are upset on others’ behalf. So I sometimes have to persuade parishioners that something is not as problematic as they fear.’
A vicar of a central London parish told me that some of her parishioners are excessively worried that traditional Christian themes might seem illiberal. ‘We were planning a series of Lent talks last year, and brainstorming for a theme. I thought “sin” would be pretty uncontroversial, but the most vocal members of the group were dead set against it. That’s the image of religion we want to get away from, they said; it sounds so judgmental.’ But faith is controversial. There’s no getting away from it, and that’s no bad thing. Anything worthwhile is and should be challenging.