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Historical context

17 April 2015


SEX and the Church, BBC2's new three-part documentary (Fridays), is exactly the kind of commission that we expect from the Religion and Ethics Department - except that, alas, it wasn't. Instead, as with what little serious theology we get on TV, it is from another department altogether: History.

The Revd Professor Diarmaid MacCulloch traces the development of Christianity's attitude to sexual activity, setting out first the Jewish and Classical context in which our faith was originally born.

Generally speaking, both these milieux held that sex was divinely sanctioned and delightful - within marriage. Homosexuality, abhorred by Judaism, was celebrated by the Greeks, but MacCulloch is careful to explain that the acceptable relationships were very different from today's ideal of same-sex equality.

But Christianity took up another strand of classical thought, developed by a succession of theologians - Clement of Alexandria, Jerome, Augustine - that sexual desire was a depraved consequence of Adam's primal disobedience; celibacy was the ideal state, and Mary remained a perpetual virgin. Even within marriage, sex was a duty to be undertaken to propagate the species, and ought not to be enjoyed.

The Early Church had remarkably little interest in developing a theology of marriage, and we were reminded that there was no marriage liturgy for many centuries: matrimony was entirely a civil business. Perhaps more could be said about the root of the issue: the omnipresence of sexual attraction, and knowing how to relate this aspect of our condition to a life of faith and discipleship.

MacCulloch is a delightful guide, presenting a view that is at once authoritative and personal, relishing with pursed lips the naughtier and more absurd bits.

I had no space last week to mention Holy Saturday's Monteverdi in Mantua: The genius of the Vespers (BBC2). This was another splendid partnership between Simon Russell Beale and Harry Christopher's The Sixteen. Intelligent and moving, its broadcast reminded us that our faith continues to extend its grip on public imagination through its art - and especially its music.

Russell Beale told the story of the composer's life, focusing especially on the part he played at the Gonzago court. How refreshingly contrary to current presuppositions to be reminded that, exhausted by the duplicity of his prince, Monteverdi sought to work instead for the Church, as it would offer him greater artistic and personal freedom.

Once again, the BBC was too stingy to pay for a choir and orchestra to travel to Italy, to perform the Vespers in its original locations. The programme ought to have been titled Monteverdi in St Augustine's, Kilburn.

Britain's Winter: Storm heroes (Channel 4, Sunday) reminded us softies in the south-east that the northern UK has suffered an appalling winter. We saw the remarkable courage of emergency and rescue services, saving lives in the most atrocious conditions; a sub-theme was some people's determination to put themselves and others in mortal danger.

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