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 Sunday, 22 December, 2002, 14:16 GMT
Controversial Virgin Mary film defended
Catholic altar
Alarm has reportedly been sparked among Catholics
A BBC One programme about the Virgin Mary has been criticised by a Catholic bishop as "crude and offensive" guesswork.

But the film's producer Alan Bookbinder has defended the decision to question the virgin birth.

The documentary, to be screened on Sunday evening, questions the Mary of popular imagination.

It portrays her as a poor and downtrodden girl, who might have conceived Jesus as a result of being raped.

The Catholic Church and indeed the whole Christian tradition is not afraid of critical examination but, at the same time, we guard the truths of our faith very jealously

Rt Rev Crispian Hollis
Bishop of Portsmouth

Mr Bookbinder said the documentary, called The Virgin Mary, gave a "sense of wonder at her miraculous story".

He added: "Above all it shows a respect for the special place that Mary has in the hearts of believers."

But the Catholic Church said the documentary sparked "serious alarm".

The RC Bishop of Portsmouth, the Right Reverend Crispian Hollis, accused the programme of offensive speculation which misrepresented a figure respected by millions.

Virgin birth doubts

His comments coincided with a survey carried out by the Sunday Telegraph, which suggested more than a quarter of Church of England clergy did not believe in the virgin birth.

The paper asked the opinions of 500 clergymen and women, 27% of whom said they did not accept the traditional account.

The BBC documentary raises doubts about other traditions, including the birth of Jesus in a stable at Bethlehem and the presence of three wise men.

The programme said the traditional image of Mary as a blue-eyed, blonde haired woman wearing expensive blue robes was probably wrong.

Italian statue of bleeding virgin   AP
Mary is revered in the Catholic faith
She was probably a hard-working uneducated girl in simple tunics who had an arranged marriage with Joseph aged 13, the programme claims.

The programme also questions the Biblical story of Mary's divine conception of Jesus Christ.

It reports a version of the event put forward by a second-century historian, who claimed Mary was raped by a Roman soldier.

But the programme said this was likely to have been a ploy to discredit the early Christian church.

Bishop Hollis said he plans to write the director general of the BBC, Greg Dyke, to express his concerns on behalf of the Catholic community of England and Wales.

'Confused'

He said: "The Virgin Mary is clearly a person whose life and times are immensely important to the whole of Christian history.

"As Mother of God, she is honoured and venerated by millions of Catholics and other Christians within these islands and all over the world.

"To include, within a historical examination of her life, confused and unfounded guesswork, which carries with it crude and offensive speculation, is not only unscholarly but runs the risk of undermining the very integrity of the project itself."

The Virgin Mary is broadcast on BBC One at 2000 GMT on Sunday 22 December

  WATCH/LISTEN
  ON THIS STORY
  The BBC's Robert Piggot
"Mary is perhaps the most significant woman in the history of the world"
See also:

21 Dec 02 | UK
16 Dec 02 | Americas
09 Dec 02 | England
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