*** DEBUG END ***

Contrite sinner?

01 April 2016


FINDING a new angle from which to recount the Passion of Jesus exercises TV programmers as much as preachers — or, to be more accurate, that .02 per cent of TV programmers who give a subject of such minority interest a moment’s attention. This year’s Good Friday offering on BBC1, In The Footsteps of Judas, focused on the villain of the piece.

The Revd Kate Bottley tried every approach as she sought to recover the historical kernel behind the story, consulting theologians, visiting sites in Jerusalem, amassing a selection of sources, images, and objects, somewhat unconvincingly laid out in an apparently redundant church where she could contemplate them at her leisure.

I felt that there was a flaw at the heart of the exercise: while trying to give proper attention to the insights of scholars into the nature of the Gospel narratives, fundamentally she treated the Evangelists as historical writers in our modern sense, taking Matthew’s chronology as if it were, well, gospel, rather than symbolic.

In her search for the traitor’s motive she did not give adequate attention to context; the quite different world-picture of Antiquity means that, for example, psychological coherence matters less than the meaning of the action: the character responsible for the furtherance of a plot is frequently a hapless victim, singled out for no particular reason.

But, towards the end, the real inquiry became clear: could the God of love whom she proclaims condemn to eternity the instrument of the means of our salvation? Mrs Bottley’s refusal to contemplate such vindictiveness sought glimpses of another resolution: a moving quest for a response to Judas’s contrition, agony, and suicide, resolved by Laurence Whistler’s marvellous glass etching of the hanged Judas, held in the light of God’s forgiveness (News, 2 May 2014).

A quite different approach was, in my opinion, triumphantly vindicated in The Passion (BBC4, Easter Day). This could not be more formally esoteric: an acted-out reduction of Bach’s St Matthew Passion, performed by a mash-up of Harry Christopher’s The Sixteen and Streetwise Theatre’s cast of homeless amateurs, many living with mental and emotional difficulties.

And yet this promenade production in Campfield Market, Manchester, could not be more compelling: the stylisation of Bach’s masterpiece paradoxically accessible to all, and the music gaining extra stature from its manner of performance: solo singers and instrumentalists moved among the audience. The Streetwise performers took it in turns to play the central roles, and, at the climax, all those who had played Jesus took up a cross. This was Jesus as Everyman — hardly the complete theological truth, but wonderful in what it did proclaim.

Robert Beckford’s The Battle for Christianity (BBC1, Holy Tuesday) was an essentially optimistic account of new directions in ministry in contemporary Britain. All the church leaders interviewed rejected the over-dramatic title, acknowledging, rather, the legitimacy of many different approaches. The main omission was the great truth that challenging theology allied to radical social engagement is not expressed solely through over-amplified worship bands and banal ditties: traditional Christian liturgy and music provided far richer resources.

Browse Church and Charity jobs on the Church Times jobsite

Church Times Bookshop

Save money on books reviewed or featured in the Church Times. To get your reader discount:

> Click on the “Church Times Bookshop” link at the end of the review.

> Call 0845 017 6965 (Mon-Fri, 9.30am-5pm).

The reader discount is valid for two months after the review publication date. E&OE

Forthcoming Events

Green Church Awards

Closing date: 30 June 2024

Read more details about the awards


Festival of Preaching

15-17 September 2024

The festival moves to Cambridge along with a sparkling selection of expert speakers

tickets available



Festival of Faith and Literature

28 February - 2 March 2025

The festival programme is soon to be announced sign up to our newsletter to stay informed about all festival news.

Festival website


ViSIt our Events page for upcoming and past events 

The Church Times Archive

Read reports from issues stretching back to 1863, search for your parish or see if any of the clergy you know get a mention.

FREE for Church Times subscribers.

Explore the archive

Welcome to the Church Times


To explore the Church Times website fully, please sign in or subscribe.

Non-subscribers can read four articles for free each month. (You will need to register.)