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The Sea of Faith at 40: Thanks to Don Cupitt, I plunged in

28 June 2024

Forty years ago, the Sea of Faith television series changed Ian Marchant‘s life. He looks back at it with gratitude


IN 1976, in the last week of school in my home town of Newhaven, a girl asked me why I was going to university. Not, you note, what was I going to study at university, but why was I going at all. Nobody else from my year was going to university, so what did I think I was playing at? I knew exactly why I was going; so I told her: “To get in a band, to take drugs, and to lose my virginity.”

I dropped out in 1979, having achieved these modest aims. My girlfriend was pregnant, and we got married and moved to Brighton. Being utterly unqualified for anything (I had three A levels, but nobody cared), I took a job in a bookmaker’s shop, doing what was known as “take and pay”. My dear old Grandpop said: “So that’s what you got from that ruddy university — a girl in trouble, and a job in a bookies” — and he had a point.

He was uninterested in the entirely unsuccessful and unlikeable post-punk band in which I was trying to sing, through inadequate PA systems, over a drummer who thought his job was simply to hit things very hard.

By 1984, things had improved somewhat. Although I still worked part-time in the bookies, I was primary carer for my daughter, who was my delight; my wife had a successful career; and I was in the process of leaving a dull, workmanlike rock band to set up a thrilling funk-and-soul and rock-and-roll ten-piece band, featuring the best players Newhaven could provide. But I was hungry for something more.

I wasn’t, I think, spiritually hungry, but intellectually hungry. I knew that I was bright, but I was uneducated, and I needed something more than drinking mushroom tea and discussing Doctor Who with our bass player. Spiritually, I did what many young people did at the time: I threw the I Ching, I read the Tarot, and my wife did my astrological chart — Pisces, Leo rising, Moon in Capricorn, etc. Mad that I still know this, since I now also know that modern astrology is the fruit of theosophical “thought”.

Don Cupitt talks about Annie Besant and theosophy; Madame Blavatsky has cast a baleful shadow over modern spiritual life, not least through the continued interest in astrology; and The Sea of Faith was the first time I’d noticed her.

AS A young dad in charge of a four-year-old, I didn’t go out, other than to work part-time, rehearse, and play gigs. What I did, most evenings, was watch the telly. I think the show aired during a two-month period when my wife (who worked for a large bank) was on secondment in Japan. I guess there had been TV shows before that demanded so much of the viewer, but The Sea of Faith was the first time I had really paid attention. It was — and I’m sorry, but I can think of no better word — a revelation.

It’s hard, 40 years later, to recreate the feeling I had watching it: hard, I think, because it and the accompanying book acted like a fourth A level. Where, previously, I had been reading science-fiction novels, I started reading systematically.

I started, I blush to admit, by reading Christmas Humphreys’s book on Zen, because Van Morrison had mentioned it in a song. But then I moved on to Paul Johnson’s A History of Christianity, and went from there. What Cupitt showed me, above all, was that ideas had a history; that science and morality and religion all had a history; and that was the kind of history I wanted to study.

The Sea of Faith was the first step on my way back to higher education — at Lancaster University, where I started in 1989 to read the history and philosophy of science. I was taught by the great John Hedley Brooke, who didn’t go along with the science-v.-religion opposition. It’s hard also to recapture how changed I was by that first viewing, thanks to Cupitt,

I now know too much. At the start of the series, I had what Zen Buddhists call a “beginner’s mind”; Cupitt took that from me, and I’m grateful for it. I couldn’t shake off the habit of being in bands, but even that had been influenced by The Sea of Faith, because we were called the Prime Movers.

If my hunger was for intellectual stimulation, the show also awakened in me a spiritual curiosity: first, for the oriental stuff, and then — following what I have always regarded as my first encounter with the Holy Spirit — step by step, back towards something like orthodoxy; to the faith of my grandparents, freely chosen.

As for scepticism, I’m now more sceptical about the claims of science and technology than I am than about those of Christianity, supernatural though they may be. My encounters with the Spirit — my “born again” moments — aren’t really accounted for by The Sea of Faith; but I think, without having watched it, I wouldn’t have been open to those experiences.

BECAUSE of the Sea of Faith, I started on a path to being educated; and also to being a pipe-smoking Anglican gentleman in his accustomed pew, halfway back on the left, saved by the grace of God, delighting in being a member of a Christian family. Because of the education, I picked up gigs in both television and radio; so, in a way, I have Cupitt to thank for that, too.

And, watching again, I’m open-mouthed at the money it must have cost. The final shot, on Dover Beach, shows a crew of about 20. During the course of the show they go to Switzerland, and Germany, and Denmark — and even Hereford. Incredibly, they also have Cupitt canoeing up the Ogooué river in Gabon to visit Albert Schweitzer’s hospital at Lambaréné.

There is nothing about this remarkable series which would get it made today — a great shame, because there are plenty of young men and women as I was, lost and alone, and hungry for something more. I’m not sure where they might turn.

Ian Marchant is an author and broadcaster, and the founder of Radio Free Radnorshire.

Read our other articles marking the 40th anniversary of The Sea of Faith here and here.

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