Take heart! When that secular, vulgar, sex-fuelled reality programme, Big Brother, was down to its last three survivors, two of us were practising Christians – one Catholic, one Evangelical – who had borne open witness to Christ throughout.
Often the modern view is that it is not safe to express Christian views and that people will be offended, but as St Paul said, we believe and therefore speak. Each Sunday the Christians in the Big Brother house held a prayer meeting and each time we were joined by one or two unbelievers who wanted peace and time out from the fray.
It was not something I had expected, having earlier negotiated access to the Bible for 20 minutes each Sunday. (In the Big Brother house the written word is forbidden. There is no reading material available and pens and paper are also prohibited.) I had wanted this in what I expected to be the absence of collective worship, and was delighted to find that it had been an unnecessary precaution.
I had stuck to the Church’s teaching of opposing both abortion and gay marriage in the debates (though I would hold those views even were I an atheist), and again there was a general expectation that that would finish me off, but I lasted to the end and was the competition’s runner-up.
Unpicking the threads of the tapestry which saw Christians do well in this most unlikely programme is a complex exercise, but the first strand was undoubtedly freedom of speech. Many would have disagreed with my views but in this age of political correctness they were only too happy to defend my freedom to both hold and express them.
In every interview I gave after those four gruelling weeks were over, I hailed the public vote as a demonstration in favour of free speech, but of course it is still inaccessible to millions of workers whose jobs can be put in jeopardy just by saying “God bless” or offering to pray for somebody. MPs can say what they like in Parliament and so can reality TV stars, but the cases of the Ashers bakers, Adrian Smith of Trafford Housing and Bryan Barkley of the Red Cross (to name just three among many) show that some are more equal than others.
The second strand is curiosity. In this secular and multi-faith age, what is it that Christians believe? Children no longer learn Scripture as a matter of course and there is widespread ignorance about even the most basic Christian teaching. As we head towards Calvary and the Resurrection, it is worth reflecting that once almost everybody in Britain would have known the significance of Easter even if many did not believe in it. Now it is associated with chocolate eggs and bunnies. So listening to people talking about Christianity is interesting and for some even intriguing.
The third strand is simply yearning. There has to be something beyond the materialism, sexual indulgence and “me, me, me” attitude which characterises the age in which we live. Interestingly, it was the older generation in the Big Brother house that brushed off small quarrels while the young magnified them – because we had grown up in harsher times when instant gratification was a daydream and self-restraint a given. So now those wanting something more than the rat race and the roar of competitive consumerism, commerce and acquisitiveness seek higher meaning and are ready to listen to those who endeavour to offer it.
Occasionally we managed a general grace before meals and were rewarded with “Amens”, but we did not try to parade our faith aggressively and therefore did not make others feel uncomfortable. I prayed tucked up in bed rather than kneeling beside it. The balance between open witness and trumpeting one’s deeds is always a fine one.
As observed above, some of the others drifted into our prayer meetings and therefore it is reasonable to suppose that maybe some at home were curious enough to investigate their local church services, so let us hope they were welcomed.
There is much talk about the decline of Christianity and indeed of belief in general, but out of 16 participants in this year’s show, four were active Christians. One was a rap artist, another a member of a boy band, a third a reality show star and I completed the tally.
That does not mean the remaining 12 were dismissive. Several had their own notions of belief but had less time for organised religion, citing a range of reasons. Inevitably I had not been there five minutes before I was challenged about child abuse, which so many still see as a largely Catholic problem.
I think therefore we should not be pessimistic about today’s rampant secularism and militant atheism. There are still many who want to know more. We should tell them.
Ann Widdecombe is a novelist, broadcaster and former prisons minister
This article first appeared in the February 23rd 2018 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here