Sarah Sands: Charity is about more than money, but giving is a start

  • @sandsstandard

The BBC can be bashful about the place of Christianity in our national life: it recently sanctioned the substitution of the lovely terms Before Christ and Anno Domini by the thumpingly prosaic and Welsh examination boardesque Before Common Era and Common Era.

Yet Rev, one of its most successful sitcoms, is a little Pilgrim's Progress. Its star and co-writer, Tom Hollander, told me that he considered theming the series along the lines of the Ten Commandments, but it did not work structurally.

Instead, each episode is a self-contained morality play. Last week, the subject was charity. The Christmas programme will be about forgiveness. Although the series was filmed long before the St Paul's protest, the characters and struggles of conscience were prescient. Many situations in life could end in the question: what would Jesus do? The fictional vicar examines the limits of his responsibility towards the oddballs and the rarely washed who pitch up at the vicarage – just as the clergy at St Paul's pray for the protesters, but wish they could refrain from using its precincts as an outside toilet.

The charity episode, coming just after Frozen Planet's global warming conclusion, made the past week a big one for personal responsibility. Both issues can be addressed or denied. The suffering of others/state of the planet can be shrugged off as too overwhelming. Tony Blair may have announced confidently that he could "sort the world", but most of us feel it is a bit more complicated.

Charity appeals are so urgent – and sometimes aggressive – at this time of year that it is tempting to retreat from them. Every high street is an obstacle race. On Friday evening, I passed three Big Issue sellers and two teams of chuggers. Many people have already given generously to newspaper and television appeals, including this paper's campaign for Merlin, whose work is so movingly described on pages 24 and 25. But alas, there will be plenty more natural disasters, and even the charities we assume to be popular are skint. A fundraiser for the estimable Tusk charity, which supports wildlife in Africa, told me that animal charities – contrary to public belief – do relatively badly in the UK.

And of course, giving money is the easy bit. In Rev, Adam Smallbone is kindly towards a local drug addict (this was a lot funnier than it sounds) and then finds him sleeping rough. He arranges for him to go to a hostel, but it is short of beds. To the understandable wretchedness of his wife, he invites the addict to stay. What would Jesus do? What would you do?

The vicar's solution is much too virtuous for me, but this weekend I have found myself in a milder version of the dilemma. A person I thought I could help with a cheque has become a more entangling and continuing presence. I am sure you are familiar with the simultaneous emotions of pity and resentment. Charity is hard, which is why, I suppose, it is also considered godly.

Sarah Sands is deputy editor of the London Evening Standard