WE PRESENT ourselves at the Great Gatehouse at Lambeth Palace. Security check completed, we are welcomed into a different world: behind high Tudor walls, ancient peace reigns, insulated from the bustle of the city. We climb the great staircase, and are ushered into the medieval Guard Room for fine wine and delicious morsels of food.
Soon afterwards, we are summoned to retrace our steps and enter the heart of the palace, Archbishop Juxon’s Great Hall. Have we gathered for a learned disquisition, or theological disputation, where abstruse points will be argued over in the Latin tongue? No: we are greeted by pop music that blares out from speakers, and an impressive array of high-tech equipment.
We have come to celebrate that most up-to-date of arts: television, and its offshoots, and we are the pampered guests of the Sandford St Martin Trust, come to witness its 2017 awards for religious broadcasting. Each year, it grows in professionalism, managing to combine the drama of the Oscars with the conferring of honorary degrees by some ancient university.
Prizes are awarded in five categories, each with its own distinguished panel of judges. The distinguished panel for the first section is you, the viewers: or, at least, those of you who take the Radio Times.
We saw clips of all the runners-up, and heard from the winners. One programme won two of the categories: the documentary A World Without Down’s Syndrome? (BBC2) (News, 9 June); and its passion and humour are instantly apparent.
The actor and comedian Sally Phillips made the programme to protest that ante-natal screenings are leading to pressure, as she sees it, on mothers to choose an abortion rather than give birth to a Down’s Syndrome child. Ollie, her son, who has Down’s, was the star of the show and also of the ceremony: he is a great performer in his own right.
Ms Phillips’s attitude is fuelled by her fervent Christianity, but here’s the rub: none of the clips we saw gave any account of her faith. The Trustees Award was given to The Moral Maze, Radio 4’s weekly exploration of ethical issues. And this pointed up the vacuum at the heart of the evening: the religion was either not overtly expressed, or was subsumed in exploration of social moral issues.
Of course, religion is absolutely engaged with such matters, but this is the territory in which a person of faith explores his or her relationship with God rather than the heart of the relationship itself. The shortlisted programmes we saw were confident in presenting Islam or Pentecostalism, but I saw nothing that celebrated or challenged mainstream British Christianity.
My criticism is not directed at the Sandford St Martin Trust: it is doing magnificent work. It is those who commission and schedule the programmes who seem to me to have almost no confidence in handling the faith that draws us to worship and discipleship.