Sunday, 9 April 2017

Why the National Trust 'airbrushing' Easter matters

Who could have possibly thought that with Easter fast approaching and a news agenda full of the uncertainty of Brexit and the misery of atrocities around the world that one of the biggest, burning topics around water coolers up and down the country was the story of a treasured institution, chocolate eggs and a heated debate about whether commercialisation trumps heritage.

You wouldn’t for one second have imagined that was going to become a massive issue, but that is exactly what has happened.

It all started with that most innocent of things; an Easter Egg Hunt.

For well over a hundred years now the National Trust has been one of the leading charities in Britain.
The Trust is a massive and powerful organisation. In addition to owning 59 villages and managing 775 miles of our coastline the charity owns and manages more than 350 heritage properties around the nation.

The organisation holds a special place in the hearts of many, many ordinary people. Each year more than 4 million of us pay the fifty or so pounds to join as members; over 60,000 of us volunteer 3.1 million hours annually to help in stately homes and other properties owned by the Trust.

In so many ways the National Trust itself holds a position of trust in our nation. It is a guardian of our heritage, a vital part of our establishment.

I’ve always been very proud to say that my family and I have been members for many years. For as long as I can remember visiting properties has been an indispensable element of our family holidays; it’s been part our children’s education, instilling in each of them a love of our history and heritage; whether it has been watching spring lambing or autumn apple harvesting the National Trust has been an ever present component in shaping not just who we but countless thousands of others are.

And then last week for me, and I’m assuming many other thousands of Christians, the purpose of this iconic organisation and what it represents made me develop something of a sour taste in my mouth.

For a number of years now, presumably to attract in children and their parents the National Trust has run in many of their properties an Easter Egg Hunt. You know the type of thing? Have the kids running around the gardens of one of many magnificent stately homes to expend a little energy and earn the reward of seasonal chocolate treats.

Only this year the National Trust did what many organisations looking for funding do, they went out on the search for a commercial partner and ended up making a deal with chocolate manufacturer Cadbury.

All of a sudden the National Trust wasn’t advertising their Easter Egg Hunt; they were promoting, in the words of their website for the Dunstable Downs and Whipsnade Estate, the ‘Signs of Spring Cadbury Egg Hunt’.

Mentions of Easter, that most wonderful of Christian celebrations, had been quietly and seemingly intentionally dropped in favour of the demands of a sponsor.

As you might expect something of a furore ensued.

A spokesman for the Church of England accused the National Trust of ‘airbrushing faith’; John Sentamu, the Anglican Archbishop of York said they were ‘spitting on the grave of John Cadbury’.

Even the Prime Minister got involved telling ITV news “I’m not just a vicar’s daughter – I’m a member of the National Trust as well. I think the stance they’ve taken is absolutely ridiculous and I don’t know what they’re thinking about. Easter’s very important. It’s important to me, it’s a very important festival for the Christian faith for millions across the world. So I think what the National Trust is doing is frankly just ridiculous.”

Now, in fairness, the National Trust chose robustly to defend their position. They argued across their vast website there were over 13,000 mentions of Easter; they said that nothing could be further from the truth that they wanted to ‘air brush’ this solemn time.

But then the National Trust made a revealing claim; they said ‘We work closely with Cadbury, who are responsible for the branding and wording of our egg hunt campaign.’

And I think that in this whole debacle this is perhaps the most important, revealing statement about our National Trust and the world that we live in today.

It doesn’t really matter whether the Trust made a conscientious attempt to remove Easter from their promotional literature or whether it was simply a by-product; although a quick look at their website at the time the story broke would definitely lead you to seeing the confectioner as the key driver.

No, this story really is about the priority that one of, if not the major, custodian of our heritage gives to this most solemn of religious festivals.

The National Trust, even in their own statement, make a clear indication that they were prepared to leave the branding and wording to their commercial partner.

It wasn’t their choice to drop the word ‘Easter’ from their East Egg Hunt campaign, they simply thought that it was an acceptable by-product of a sponsorship deal.

That isn’t what we should be expecting of a charity trusted by millions.

For many years we have seen a commercialisation of Christmas. The Coca-Cola ‘Holidays are coming’ adverts have almost become synonymous with that religious feast.

In fairness if Coke or Cadbury want to drop mention of religious faith from their advertising in many ways that is up to them; in the same way it’s entirely up to us if we choose to buy their products.

But the National Trust is different. History and religion and our faith are indelibly intertwined. In a Christian country it matters that our iconic institutions preserve that relationship rather than selling naming rights off to the highest bidder.

34Would the Trust consider selling the naming rights of their properties? Would they change their guidebooks and brown signs to read ‘Chartwell – brought to you by Churchill Insurance’?

Even though the insurance company and their nodding dog persona would be a fantastic match for the former Prime Minister’s country residence clearly and rightly it’s not something the Trust would even countenance.

For Christians of all denominations Easter is every bit as important as any property and should be to The National Trust too.

Now I have no doubt, for all of the bluster and ‘robust defences’, that over the past week conversations have been had in the upper echelons of the organisation that this type of public relations disaster must not happen again. But that doesn’t mean that we as Catholics mustn’t stay vigilant.

We must defend our Christian faith and this most wonderful and mystical of celebrations from creeping commercialisation.

I do want to say just one thing in conclusion. I’m not going to cut up my National Trust membership card, we trust members are far more sensible than that; we don’t do outbursts of anger.

But I am cross so this year I will send a message to the National Trust of moderate annoyance and tell them in no uncertain terms I won’t be frequenting their tea shops. I will forego the usually wonderful cream teas in order to convey my own quiet protest. I urge you to do the same.

Have a holy and joyous Easter.

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