TWENTY years ago, I regularly spoke at men’s breakfasts organised by churches. They are still popular — not, I suspect, because of the appeal of the speaker, but for the attraction of a full English and a valid excuse to avoid the Saturday-morning chores (children, shopping, bins, and DIY), or at least to postpone them.
The Men’s Breakfast, however, has had to face the challenges of the modern world. It is no longer acceptable to expect some of the “church ladies” to turn up and cook the bacon and eggs.
That leaves a disappointingly short list of alternatives: have a simple breakfast — say, cereal and toast (no thank you) — or get some of the men to cook the meal (definitely dodgy quality-wise). Here, in Thatcham, we have for some years enjoyed a five-star alternative: cooked breakfast in a local hotel — not quite full English, but splendid bacon with all the condiments (tomato, brown, and mustard).
Sadly, recently that arrangement came to an end: blame Brexit if you like. The hotel put up its price, decided to charge for use of the room, and — the final blow — reserved the right to cancel at short notice if necessary.
So, last month, it was Men’s Breakfast in a church hall, menu prepared by some of the men, including the essential item, bacon. Further discussions were then promised about future plans. No one suggested that we should give in, but clearly that treasured Saturday-morning bacon-and-eggs is in peril — not to mention all those wonderfully inspiring and challenging talks, of course.
Auntie in the dock
THE dear old BBC — “Auntie”, as we used to call her — has come in for a great deal of criticism in these pages recently. The churchgoing natives are getting restless. It is a sad fact of broadcasting that everyone thinks the “media” are on the other side.
I produced Thought for the Day during both the Wilson and the Thatcher eras, and the complaints about it from Downing Street were equally indignant: trendy left-wing bishops, on the one hand, and impractical do-gooders on the other.
Looking at the present complaints, there is no doubt that there is less specifically religious broadcasting than there used to be 30 years ago. Sadly, there are also, of course, fewer people in church on Sundays, and most people under 40 cannot name a single hymn (or so it seems when trying to plan a wedding or a funeral). The BBC can hardly be blamed for either of those.
What seems to me certain is that the reduction in Christian broadcasting has nothing to do with our present-day multifaith culture. In 20 years at the BBC, I never had, nor heard of, a single complaint from the leaders of any of the UK’s other religions that there was “too much” Christian broadcasting. What they feared, beyond doubt, was the emergence of a secular society in the UK.
The only complaints, endlessly and tediously, came from the National Secular Society, constantly harping on the dreadful consequences of the “God delusion”. This is, of course, the counter-conspiracy: the religious zealots’ constantly pulling the secret strings of influence.
WHEN it comes to assessing the influence of broadcasting on the public’s view of religion, we need to look at the influence of the most popular programmes. Lately, many of these have been high-quality drama. Here, there has been a notable change, which churchgoers should recognise and celebrate.
Not all that long ago — 30 years, perhaps — if a vicar or curate appeared in a play, he was usually there either for comic relief (slightly dotty, hare-brained, or gauche), or he had some other role (a part-time detective, for example). But, in several of our most watched drama series recently, vicars have had serious and central roles, providing important moral and spiritual insight.
Three have particularly impressed me as representing a new kind of television cleric. The priest in the splendid series of Broadchurch, for instance, was the first point of relief for the poor woman given the role of the rape victim’s recognised support. He listened, he was wise and kind, and he was always there when needed.
Then there is the frighteningly good-looking vicar in Grantchester, winning marks for his vulnerability and honesty. I am not sure that I would go to him for counsel, but, as a wounded healer, he makes a convincing priest.
Best of all for me, though, was a cameo role in the true-life drama-documentary Moorside, about the mother of Sharron Matthews, who staged her abduction to make money. At one point, we saw the mother’s best friend, who was beginning to have suspicions about the whole affair, making her way up the path to church. Yes, she was going to see the vicar — in this case, a young woman.
She poured out her fears, and, as I heard what the priest had to say, I wanted to cheer. It was sympathetic and understanding, but very clear about what must be done, and her advice was followed.
Perhaps the playwrights have spotted something that is very relevant to Christian ministry today: that there are huge numbers of people who desperately want someone to talk to whom they can trust with their deepest fears.
These dramatic characters were reminders to me that the knock on the door when I’m halfway through choosing the Sunday hymns is not simply a nuisance. Shepherds don’t tell sheep to come back next week.
Singing in the Lane
SEVENTY-TWO years ago — the first season after the war — my father took me to White Hart Lane to watch Tottenham Hotspur. It was a kind of conversion experience: I became “Spurs for life”. So, watching the TV broadcast of the last match from the old ground, where they have played since Victorian times, was intensely nostalgic. In a year’s time, they hope to return to a splendid new stadium.
The final match was tremendous: songs from 30,000 throats filling he air from start to finish (why don’t men sing like that in church?). I was intrigued to note that the tunes all had Christian origins (though not the words): those of “When the saints go marching in”, “Glory, glory alleluia”, and, to my surprise, “Lord of the Dance”.
Perhaps I am wrong to say that the under-40s do not know any hymns. It’s just that the ones they know are not the ones that we sing today in church, or on Songs of Praise, either.
Canon David Winter is a retired cleric in the diocese of Oxford, and a former head of religious broadcasting at the BBC.