IF I Were Dr Rowan Williams, and I had been receiving the sort of media coverage that he has experienced over the past few months, I do not think I would have started off The Archbishop of Canterbury’s New Year Message standing next to a row of rubbish bins.
The text, however, was brilliant. It reflected on the seasonal junk we will already have thrown away, and contrasted that with God’s eternal faith in and for us. Our culture may be disposable, but “God doesn’t do waste.”
Nothing could be more admirable, but TV, of all the media, communicates not by subtle argument, but rather by subliminal message, and this one was spelt out only too clearly by the opening shot: this is rubbish.
The irrelevance of it to the lives of most people was reinforced by contrasting scenes from Canterbury Cathedral. The opposing choices are not between, on the one hand, living in a junkyard and, on the other, wallowing in sublime medieval architecture and Anglican liturgy (although that is, of course, firmly where I belong).
For most people, the message of God’s enduring love is not best expressed by a glorious building currently appealing for £50 million: it is found in the care and compassion extended to the poorest in our society. This is what our Archbishop (and his Church) knows and does — but it is not the message that will have been heard.
The BBC demonstrated how much it values the Established Church by broadcasting the piece on New Year’s Eve — but at 8.30 p.m. on BBC2 — and on New Year’s Day, at noon on BBC1.
A different kind of episcopal contribution came from the Bishop of Croydon, the Rt Revd Nick Baines, in The Big Questions (BBC1, Sunday). This is now the closest the BBC gets to a religious programme on a Sunday morning. Even the feast of the Epiphany deserved nothing even approaching an act of worship.
The sort of religious question it deals with is: “Is the Church of England a failing business?” There was a particularly illuminating response from a charming young Muslim, who admitted he knew nothing about the Church.
But the Bish was terrific. He did his best to counter the usual rubbish spouted by the other pundits who contributed to the debate, attempting to steer the discussion away from the hoary clichés of chauffeur-driven bishops living in palaces to what the Church actually does. He was robust and passionate — and received the strongest applause of the morning.
The new adaptation by BBC1 of Sense and Sensibility (Sundays) applies the tools of biblical scholarship to Jane Austen’s text. We know what the book says, but what layers of cultural conditioning can be discerned, and then stripped away, so that we can reveal what really took place, and what the characters were really like?
This dramatisation presents us with the familiar plot, cast, and snippets of conversation, but the whole is completely unfamiliar. One of the most significant elements to have been discarded is that of wit: no one could possibly imagine that this used to be a funny book.
Unfortunately, the technique is, to say the least, misconceived. Jane Austen, as befits a rector’s daughter, knew exactly what she was doing.