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Radio review: Everyday Ethics, Great Lives, and Sunday Feature: Archives in the Culture Wars

11 June 2021


Everyday Ethics (BBC Radio Ulster, Sunday) explored the permission given to Boris Johnson and Carrie Symonds to marry in a Roman Catholic church

Everyday Ethics (BBC Radio Ulster, Sunday) explored the permission given to Boris Johnson and Carrie Symonds to marry in a Roman Catholic church

“THERE is an austere beauty in a Church taking its sacraments so seriously.” That’s one way of looking at it; and Professor Tina Beattie’s commentary on the Boris Johnson-Carrie Symonds wedding (Press, 4 June) on Everyday Ethics (BBC Radio Ulster, Sunday) was followed by a portentous “But . . .”. What followed was a detailed and level-headed tirade, which was all the more impressive for its theological literacy.

Most who look upon the nuptials without the benefit of a Ph.D. in canon law appear to agree with Professor Beattie: that the episode represents, at the very least, “a serious error of judgement” by the Roman Catholic Church. But to adopt that view would, Cardinal Nichols says, be yielding to mere “sentiment”.

The title of Radio Ulster’s programme is at the same time correct and self-effacing. The issue of our Prime Minister’s marriage is, indeed, an issue that resonates with the everyday experience of millions. For the programme, it is particularly close to home, since the former presenter, Roisin McAuley, was herself denied a Roman Catholic wedding, although her situation was similar to that of Mr and Mrs Johnson, who have taken “a hop and a skip” through canon law.

Neither Professor Beattie nor the fellow guest Baroness O’Loan held back on their detailed critiques of eucharistic theology and its implications; and the discussion, far from being dry, was ultimately very moving, as we were reminded of marriage as a sacramental gift that stops giving only at death.

This only goes to show that “sentiment” can creep up on you in the most surprising places. Who would have thought, for instance, that the “comedian” Bernard Manning would choose as his hero on Great Lives (Tuesday, Radio 4) Mother Teresa? Last week’s episode of the obituary show — which will shortly be reaching its 500th instalment — provided a flashback to some notable encounters.

Besides hearing how Manning prayed every night, we heard of the gospel singer Cerys Matthews’s admiration for Abbess Hildegard of Bingen, and the children’s presenter Timmy Mallett’s for Richard the Lionheart. “How much do you actually know about him?” was the first, disdainful question of the presenter, Matthew Parris, to Mr Mallett. A great deal, it emerged.

The notion of history as a directory of “great lives” is, of course, deplorably old-fashioned — though, in fairness to Parris and his colleagues, they would not characterise their ambition for the show as simply historical. The difficulties that career historians face now in selecting and pursuing lines of research were vividly expressed in Sunday Feature: Archives in the Culture Wars (Radio 3), in which Tom Charlton — a scholar of 17th-century religion — revealed his anxieties about the very resources necessary to study. For instance, the Codrington Library at All Souls College, Oxford, is there because of a bequest from a slave-owner. Is the knowledge that lies therein also tainted?

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