Gunpowder (BBC One, Saturdays, 9pm) tells the story of the infamous plot to blow up Parliament in 1605, an act of religious terrorism that is, understandably, reviled in English memory. But the first episode of this three-parter is dedicated to historical context: the vicious persecution of Catholics.
In the opening scene, a fanatical priest-hunter arrives at a country house in search of clerics. The efforts to delay opening the front door as a priest is hidden are farcical – you expect the homeowner to shout “Won’t be a moment, I’m just stepping out of the bath!” – but what follows is nail-biting and horrific. A cleric is found and tortured. The mistress of the house is executed for breaking the law. She is stripped naked and an iron door is placed across her chest. Weights are added until her bones are ground to powder.
How much has changed! We Catholics are free to practise our faith now, which is obviously a good thing, but at the price of a different kind of conformity. In Gunpowder they say the old Latin Mass, whereas now we recite our Mass in English and with Protestant hymns (I recently visited a beautiful recusant church in Northumberland and was surprised that the service opened with a rendition of Amazing Grace). We were once outsiders; now we rub shoulders with the Establishment. And as the Church of England slides into polite disagreement with itself, so we’ve emerged as the pre-eminent voice of Christian orthodoxy in these islands. Reasons to be cheerful, I suppose. But I watch the passion of the first few minutes of Gunpowder and can’t help but feel something has been lost.
I recently had dinner with Giles Fraser, the radical Anglican priest, and while he’s decidedly of the Left and I guess I’m of the Right, we agreed on one thing: religion is a disrupter. It should bring comfort to the individual, obviously, but always challenge society. Fawkes’s plot was barbarous and thank goodness it was foiled; his effigy is burned each year with good reason. Nevertheless, I’m quite happy with a TV show that treats the faith of the persecuted Catholics around him as deadly serious and Catholicism as something unsettling, even frightening to the rich, powerful men who once tried to stamp their authority on England.
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