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Review of 2013: Television

20 December 2013

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 Francis (BBC1).

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 about.

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 our own.

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.

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