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
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
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
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
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
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.