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Book review: Sunday: A history of religious affairs through 50 years of conversations and controversies by Edward Stourton and Amanda Hancox

01 December 2023

Andrew Brown on five decades of Sunday

THE past 50 years have brought immense social change. As part of these, both the religion by law established and the established broadcaster have been pushed towards the margins of national life. There are no Church Commissioners for the BBC; so it faces threats even more existential than those confronting the Church of England, and has enemies much more numerous and determined.

The Sunday programme is uniquely placed at the intersection of these two retreats. It has both illuminated and reflected them for decades. Some very good and professional journalists have worked on it. It seems to offer a unique lens through which to examine what has happened; it is a pity, then, that this book doesn’t really do so. A history of these changes told through transcripts of Sunday interviews, which was, I think, the original aim of this project, really doesn’t work.

There are exceptions: the story of the Irish child-abuse crisis is well and clearly told through a series of contemporary reports. But they don’t purport to dramatise an argument, and the weakest part of the book consists of transcripts of people arguing in a studio. One reason for this failure is the difference between radio and print: a slab of transcript on the page will always read itself in different voices to a radio producer, but not so much to someone who comes on the words cold on the page. One exception is when there is a simple vox pop, and someone whose voice would never normally be heard on Radio 4 is given space to speak.

Another reason stems from the established quality of the BBC. The search for balance leads to the ghastly duets of staged disagreement which make the Today programme unlistenable and, even in religious programmes, never lead anyone to think of the argument in a new light. The only conversations that escape from this mould are when one of the parties holds views that no right-thinking BBC employee would consider for a moment: Ian Paisley defending the Authorised Version and reciting a psalm from memory, for instance, or right-wing Americans cutting loose with their real beliefs about sexuality and feminism.

David CookIn 2017, Sunday went to Hampton Court Palace to explore the background to the Reformation in 1516: the Revd Anthony Howe shows a prayer book of 1515 to Edward Stourton (centre) and David Cook. From the book under review

A certain sense of responsibility burdens the programme’s coverage of extremism in this country. When Hindus and Muslims rioted in Leicester, Sunday’s reaction was to find Hindu and Muslim voices to explain that these weren’t really about religion — as if they could be understood without the religious dimension. Of course, this stems from the admirable determination not to give ammunition to racists outside the BBC or secularists within it. Yet, it is only the edge of danger, horror, and irrationality which makes religion compelling. The world is not a nice place, and nothing that takes it seriously can be wholly nice either.

Andrew Brown a writer and journalist, and writes the weekly Press column for the
Church Times.

Sunday: A history of religious affairs through 50 years of conversations and controversies
Edward Stourton and Amanda Hancox
SPCK £29.99
Church Times Bookshop £26.99

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