ANGLICANS who are concerned about television coverage could take great comfort in the fact that the most watched programme of 2011, with global viewing-figures measured in thousands of millions, was the no-holds-barred live televising of a Church of England sacrament, complete with archbishop, sermon, and choir.
The only people not to have learned from the popular appeal of The Royal Wedding are those who control television programming, because broadcasts of Christian worship have now shamefully dwindled to the point where the moguls consider that they are doing us a favour in mobilising the outside-broadcasting teams at Christmas and Easter.
No doubt they count Songs of Praise as “Christian worship”, but its predominant sentimentality and populism mean that, for me, it rarely earns this label.
Apart from this, there were almost no Christian programmes, in the proper sense of ones that promoted and commended our faith, apart from Bettany Hughes’s excellent Good Friday meditation What’s the Point of Forgiveness? Also over Good Friday and Easter Day, The Story of Jesus was about the most intelligent exposition of the Gospel story that we have seen: it deserved far wider praise and attention.
There was a smallish number of programmes about religion. The 400th anniversary of what I alone in all the world still call the Authorised Version produced a slew of programmes about this translation of the Bible, including When God Spoke English and The King James Bible: The book that changed the world.
These offerings were characterised by, first, being presented by celebrity cultural commentators rather than, to make an absurd suggestion, biblical experts or scholars who knew something about the topic; and, second, the mixing up of any dissemination of the content of holy scripture with this particular version, implying that, until King James’s translators got to work, no one, apart from a few crabby clerics, had any idea of the message of the Bible.
Rageh Omaar’s documentary series The Life of Muhammad was a serious exposition, which did its best to please everyone; and the Chief Rabbi was given a prime slot to explain What’s the Point of Religion?
Huge publicity fanfared the second series of Rev, whose gentle comedy contains some grit about the life of an inner-city vicar; a far rounder picture was presented in the brave documentary Father Ray Comes Out.
But, as always, I found my most consistent religious and theological stimulus in quite other categories of programme: history, art, science, and political documentaries all being more relaxed and confident about presenting and debating matters of faith than explicitly religious programmes.
Cosmology and origins were a strong theme this year, including such series as Everything and Nothing, Wonders of the Universe, Men of Rock, while humankind was laid bare in Origins of Us, The Brain: A secret history, and Are You Good Or Evil? All these, and many others, did not merely inform and entertain: they raised profound questions about our relationship with the universe, and the purpose of life.
But perhaps the biggest TV surprise of 2011 was the popularity of miserable, dysfunctional, female continental detectives: The Killing and Spiral provided us with depths of corruption and brutality, the gloom lightened by the comfortening realisation that such horrors take place safely at arm’s length, far across the sea.