THE things of God received a higher profile on TV in 2013 than
might have been expected in advance: we all knew that the
Enthronement of the Archbishop of Canterbury (BBC2) would
take place, but no one could have foreseen Pope Benedict's shock
abdication, leading to The Mass for the Inauguration of Pope
Anyone might have assumed that it was a deliberate plan to
afford viewers an opportunity to compare and contrast the
respective liturgies, communions, TV presentations.
The Canterbury service was the more lively, but the Rome
commentary more zippy: it seemed that the new Pope had already
given permission for the gathered experts to utter far more radical
criticism of the state of the Church of Rome than would have seemed
possible a mere 12 months ago.
The new Holy Father has subsequently provided compelling TV
footage, enlivening news broadcasts with spontaneous images -
washing the feet of a Muslim woman prisoner, cradling the severely
disabled. And our new Archbishop has also popped up where least
expected - on several documentaries about banking and finance,
confounding public opinion by commanding respect as that most
untypical priest: one who actually knows what he's talking
Various programmes about the 60th anniversary of the Coronation
seemed to me not merely to acknowledge the essentially sacral
nature of that national rite, but also to treat this phenomenon
with respect. BBC4's recent series on cathedrals and medievallives
also presented Christian assumptions and discipleship as things
worth taking note of.
The big religious TV event was Simon Schama's magnificent
The Story of the Jews (BBC2), which wove history,
theology, practice, and faith into a splendid whole. After these,
with one exception I'll come to, you had to look a bit harder.
As usual, art documentaries are completely at ease in expounding
and not mocking the complexities of Christian theology and belief.
High Art of the Low Countries (BBC4), Howard Goodall's
Story of Music (BBC2), and David Starkey's Music and
Monarchy (BBC2) all delivered high levels of Christian
iconography and significance.
John Eliot Gardiner's splendid Bach: A Passionate Life
was perhaps the best of these, and the exposition of creation,
fall, and redemption recounted in Pappano's Essential Ring
Cycle (BBC4) showed how Wagner's pagan myth shares much with
Other documentaries on science, education, politics, and natural
history, and dramas such as Top of the Lake (BBC2)
illuminate the human condition and explore the complexities of
God's creation. If you wanted to watch, on average, only two
programmes a week, British TV in 2013 was wonderful. It's a pity
about the other 99 per cent.
But the best thing I saw was Rowan Williams's Goodbye to
Canterbury (BBC2). This wonderful programme was an apologia
for his perceived failings, and an exposition of why he believed it
right to take the course he did. It was really a meditation on
costly discipleship, and brought us with him to our knees at the
place of St Thomas Becket's martyrdom.