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Press: BBC cooks up a way to tackle spiritual issues

10 May 2019


Anti-nuclear-weapons campaigners stage a “die-in” outside Westminster Abbey

Anti-nuclear-weapons campaigners stage a “die-in” outside Westminster Abbey

OF ALL the awful jobs in the world, I am especially glad that I don’t have to defend the BBC. There was a squirm-making little story in The Times about last week’s Religion and Media Festival (Comment, 26 April), which quoted Abigail Priddle, the television commissioning editor responsible for religious output: “She highlighted Easter at Mary Berry’s, in which the television chef helped Dr John Sentamu, the Archbishop of York, to cook roast lamb, as an example of a mainstream show tackling spiritual issues. ‘They’ve got the appeal of well-known celebs. They offer a chance to discuss faith in an accessible and pleasurable way, and a subtle way,’ she said. ‘It doesn’t feel overblown.’”

An Archbishop cooking paschal lamb on prime-time television seems to me to raise questions of taste which go some way beyond those that usually concern cookery programmes. I suppose that you can justify such things as showing that religious people are not all completely weird all the time, and that gracious celebs can talk to them as if they were normal. But it is a very long way from actually increasing the amount of content that anyone might regard as religious. In particular, this introduces the distortion from which all television suffers: it’s not interested in ordinary people, only famous ones, or those with a talent for fame.

In contrast, my friend Dawn Foster had a piece in The Guardian about rediscovering Roman Catholicism, which was entirely about people who are not and never will be famous. One evening shortly after the Grenfell Tower fire, which she reported on extensively, “A woman who was close to tears because her friend was missing . . . grasped the pendant around my neck — a Miraculous Medal I had been given by a family member — then fixed her eyes on me and asked me to pray for her. I was sorely out of practice but not remotely in a position to say no.

“We were surrounded by piles of toys, clothes and food, too many to be used: people were doing what they could to feel as if they were being generous to people in a desperate situation. Offering a prayer for someone seemed materially inconsequential but weighted with significance: it is easy to give money without any thought, or volunteer time without too much emotional investment, but a prayer genuinely prioritises someone else over your own emotions.”

One of the characteristically cross-grained themes in Ms Foster’s piece is her fondness for what you might call “disaffinity marketing”. In contradiction to the Evangelical pitch that, in church, you will meet people just like you, except with Jesus, for her the attraction of the Catholic congregation is that it contains all sorts and conditions of people: “It is far easier to construct an echo chamber in your social circle than it is to make friends with people very different from you. Faith communities force you to do that, but also offer unflinching support without being asked.”

I CANNOT work out whether the Bishop of Colchester, the Rt Revd Roger Morris, was being ironic in his protest in the New Statesman against a Westminster Abbey service to mark 50 years of constant patrol by the UK’s nuclear deterrent (Comment, 18 April).

I don’t doubt the general sincerity of his stance, but how could anyone write these sentences consecutively and not be struck by the thought that one cancelled the other out? “We must not lose sign of the fact that the UK is obligated to eliminate its nuclear arsenal. The year before the continuous patrols commenced the government of Harold Wilson signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. That Treaty calls on the nuclear-armed states to enter into negotiations on disarmament ‘in good faith’.”

On the other hand, his precise objection is to the suggestion that the service not only honour the submariners, but the “innovation and skill” of those who build the missiles (who are, of course, all Americans). This is more interesting. Barnes Wallis, the Englishman who designed bombs for the wartime RAF, is regarded as a national hero. Around Ely and Cambridge, where I live, there are several monuments to the young men of Bomber Command, whose bravery at some periods of the war was really astonishing and always admirable.

On the other hand, they were all war criminals by today’s standards. They were deliberately setting out, night after night, to kill as many civilians as they possibly could, most of whom would be, and were, women and children, since the men of fighting age had all been taken away from the cities that they set ablaze.

How is this morally different from what the crew of a nuclear submarine must be prepared to do? Let the Bishop preach a sermon denouncing the Dam Busters if he really wants to get people discussing Christianity and its place in national life.

THE untimely death of the American Christian blogger and author Rachel Held Evans will not be as much noticed as that of Jean Vanier; but, without in any way diminishing his writings, she was herself a remarkable example of the kind of Christian who thinks through, and then acts on, his or her beliefs.

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