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Where's the challenge?

19 December 2014


Fly above the wall: a BBC drone looks down at Canterbury Cathedral

Fly above the wall: a BBC drone looks down at Canterbury Cathedral

HEARTWARMING, uplifting, religious - but essentially a safe bet. BBC2 offers us another fly-on-the-wall documentary series about the life of one of our great cathedrals: Canterbury Cathedral (Fridays).

It is a reflection of that great counter-truth of current C of E life: while general parish churchgoing continues to decline, the numbers sharing in the worship in our great churches are growing.

Of course, it is a relatively undemanding expression of faith: in a huge space, no one will notice you, and on your first visit you are unlikely to be grabbed to stand for the PCC. You avoid the anxiety of having to worship next to the same ghastly people for the next 20 years. It is a spiritual experience, reinforced with great music, architecture, art, and the comforts of heritage: all the dreadful things now bear the safe patina of history.

And, as a significant vehicle of religious TV, these are exactly the criticisms that I level at such programmes: where is the challenge? Where is the radical step of discipleship that lies at the heart of true faith?

Having said all that, our cathedrals and minsters make strenuous efforts to confront those who come to visit with the reality of Christianity, and how it is lived today. They seek to have their doors open to minister to the wide world, in its joys and agonies, while offering the best-tuned worship of God that can be achieved, and I think that this new series tries hard to do the same.

Not Set in Stone was the witty title of last week's first episode, linking the launch of the first girls' choir in the cathedral's 1400 years to the reconstruction of the great south window. The men and boys, meanwhile, were singing evensong deep in the Arctic, in a Norwegian church believed to hold the northernmost relic of St Thomas Becket.

I know that the clergy from previous great churches depicted on TV have been disappointed that the editing process has diminished the centrality of mission in their work: let us hope that this reverses that trend.

If you want all certainty removed from your life, I can recommend Jim Al-Khalili's The Secrets of Quantum Physics (BBC4, Tuesdays), whose tag could be Einstein's comment that "everything that we regard as real is made out of things that cannot be regarded as real." At sub-atomic level, stuff behaves in such a way that it defies every understanding on which we build our lives. It seems that photons, the heart of light, only become real when we observe them; the assumption that things exist whether we are watching them or not does not seem to be supported by scientific evidence.

A more accessible bending of the norms of accepted reality was celebrated in Spike Milligan: Love, light and peace (BBC4, Wednesday of last week). The surreal aspects of Milligan's comedy were set in the context of his life story, from blissful childhood in colonial India to the deprivations of pre-war London, the misery of war, and the exhilaration of creating the weekly episodes of The Goon Show. We saw home-movie footage, and heard from his children and colleagues.

The demons were all around: his see-sawing depression and hospitalisation, the impossibility of working with him. It forced the disturbing questions: what toll must genius take? Is personal hell the only possible source of other people's laughter?

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