THE radio meditation is a tricky genre to manage. The requirements are: to maintain a pace that is neither soporific nor agitated, with just enough content to preserve coherence while allowing for the listener to zone in and out; and to avoid silences of such length that alarm bells ring in the corridors of Broadcasting House.
Of the three examples sampled by your reviewer in Holy Week, the Good Friday Meditation (Radio 4) was handled with the greatest care — pun intended; for our guide was the hand surgeon turned Anglican priest the Revd Lore Chumbley, and the theme: the part that hands play as communicative tools (Faith, 6 April).
The same quality of fastidious calm which she presumably brought to her surgery was here apparent. Just in case we didn’t quite appreciate her credentials, we were treated to an anatomical critique of Matthias Grünewald and his depiction of Christ’s pierced hand. Admire, we were told, the palmaris longus tendon.
We encountered, interleaved within a mesh of readings and music, a violinist who suffered a career-threatening infection to his bowing hand, and a Jewish lady who prepared bodies ritually for burial, purifying the flesh right down to the fingernails. The producer, Rosie Dawson, deserves great credit for a 30-minute exemplum of fine, reflective radio.
The format of The Day When God Is Dead (Radio 4, Good Friday, Easter Eve) was more documentary than quasi-liturgy. Yet, here the pace was too frenetic, the production too busy; as if the production team — led by the presenter, Bishop James Jones — was aware of the status afforded by a mid-morning Saturday slot, and was trying too hard on behalf of the day that is “often ignored” and “a no man’s land”.
Sometimes, this was down to overly efficient editing: a piece of music slamming into an interview without that essential dividing beat. But there were also too many people with too much of interest to say. The former Archbishop of Canterbury Lord Williams could fill a half-hour without breaking sweat; and then there were an art historian talking about pietàs in the National Gallery, and two guests with searingly poignant and beautifully articulated stories of bereavement and renewal. In the end, one felt simultaneously exhausted and guilty for feeling so.
Radio 2’s version of the Holy Week meditation is an altogether more spacious affair. Spanning two hours, At the Foot of the Cross gives those interviewed the chance to tell their stories at length, and tracks to play out to their final cadences. You cannot really fault a playlist that is bookended by Whitney Houston and Aretha Franklin, but which also features recent gospel music by the Spirituals.
Love her or not, the Revd Kate Bottley is an effective interviewer, managing equally the experiences of an assortment of guests, from Christian rapper to lifestyle vlogger, transgender performance poet to social-housing campaigner. And, as with any good two-hour meditation, you are not required to pay attention throughout.