A problem like Medea

It's all a bit too Greek for one vicar.

Nadira Jakinova once danced in the nightclubs of Tashkent. These days, the aspiring actress lives in Ramsgate with her husband Craig Murray, former ambassador to Uzbekistan and now a fierce critic of British foreign policy. She's taking her production of Euripides' Medea to the Edinburgh Fringe in a couple of months time and needed some rehearsal space. Fortunately, the local church hall was available for hire.

Early responses were encouraging, but Jakinova was surprised when the vicar prevaricated and demanded full details of the play. In the end, he turned her down. Craig Murray writes on his blog that the vicar didn't approve because the play was "Greek" and "pagan". The vicar himself, Rev. Paul Worledge of St Luke's -- an Anglican church of the conservative evangelical persuasion -- insists that the church hall was fully booked. But he also confirmed that he did, indeed, have a problem with Euripides.

"Rehearsing such a play in a consecrated building would be considered inappropriate by some and cause unnecessary upset," he tells me.

He declined to elaborate. But it's hard to see who would be upset by a rehearsal, apart perhaps from God. And as far as I know church halls aren't consecrated. Jakinova tells me that she was "surprised and a bit shocked" by the vicar's line of questioning. Murray asks: "Do we really want a state church that bans Euripides?"

Medea is one of the towering works of Western theatre, and its anti-heroine arguably the greatest female part prior to Shakespeare's Cleopatra (I wonder if the vicar would have had a problem with that?) It might have been written by a pagan for a pagan audience, but it can scarcely be said to preach paganism. Its themes are eternal: betrayal, sexual jealousy, revenge. Some have even seen Medea as a proto-feminist: "Of all creatures that can feel and think," she says at one point, "we women are the worst treated things alive."

True, she isn't the most sympathetic character in literature - she does, after all, kill her own children as a way of getting back at her husband. Not your typical Sunday School fare. But there are plenty of equally violent stories in the Bible. And Nadira was only asking for rehearsal space: it's not as though she was proposing to sacrifce goats live on stage.

Worledge wouldn't be the first vicar to make the news for banning non-Christian activities from his church hall. In 2009, a Catholic church in Stockport banned members of a Wiccan coven who wanted to host a social evening featuring nothing more controversial than "a buffet dinner and music from an Abba tribute band". Last year, a vicar objected to a group of elderly ladies who wished to learn Tai Chi because the breathing exercises constitued "an aspect of the Taoist religion."

Murray fears that "for some reason the C of E feels a need to compete with the lunatic evangelist establishments which attract large congregations and promote miracles." Certainly, stories like this suggest a tension between the Church's historic role in providing a service to the whole community and a growing tendency which sees the church primarily as a club for believers. As Murray puts it, acerbically: "It is a tremendous mistake for the Church of England to start taking an interest in religion."

Not all Anglican clergy share this exclusive attitude. I spoke to the Rev James Rattue, rector of St John the Evangelist in Farncombe, Surrey, who said, "I don't know what's more depressing -- the cultural illiteracy of many modern clergy or the loss of the confidence past generations of Christians had that God could communicate through non-Christian people and narratives."

As for Jakinova, she's now having to rehearse in her local pub. Not, perhaps, the ideal venue. Although given Greek tragedy's origins in the cult of Dionysus, god of wine, a poetically appropriate one.

Belief, disbelief and beyond belief