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TV review: Easter Sunday Service, Urbi et Orbi, and Gareth Malone’s Easter Passion

05 April 2024

BBC/CTVC/James Pratt

Aled Jones, the presenter of Easter Sunday Service (BBC1) with the Dean of Canterbury, the Very Revd David Monteith

Aled Jones, the presenter of Easter Sunday Service (BBC1) with the Dean of Canterbury, the Very Revd David Monteith

ON EASTER DAY, as if channelling the immemorial dispute between Canterbury and Rome, BBC1 whisked us instantly from one to the other. But the difference between Easter Sunday Service, from Canterbury Cathedral, and the Pope’s Urbi et Orbi was, Lord be praised, characterised not by bitter antagonism, but, rather, by generous cross-fertilisation.

Indeed, intransigent Protestants must have been disgusted by the clouds of incense, gorgeous vestments, and Latin mass setting celebrated gloriously on the banks not of the mighty Tiber, but of our humbler River Stour. In Canterbury, the Very Revd David Monteith prefaced the service with a group of children gathered outside around the Easter Garden; the splendid choir proudly featured its girls as well as its boys; and the Archbishop called us to love in action with urgent immediacy, concluding by subliminally reinforcing the historic link between our two Communions by pronouncing the blessing from St Augustine’s throne.

The Pope’s message was no less urgent: a global survey of international conflict and injustice, pleading in specific rather than generally vague terms for a ceasefire, aid, peace. Best of all, the Christian gospel was proclaimed most directly not by anything said, but by the clip concluding the broadcast from Rome, showing Pope Francis — aged, fragile, wheelchair-bound — washing on Maundy Thursday the feet of convicted women prisoners.

Tears were also shed in Gareth Malone’s Easter Passion (three parts, BBC1, Good Friday, Easter Day), realising thereby what is surely the very pinnacle of Mr Malone’s long mission to demonstrate, through TV reality shows, not only that ordinary Brits can sing real music, together, publicly, in choirs, but also that doing so will bring them transformative liberation.

Here, the stakes could not be higher: in just 11 weeks, he took eight enthusiastic strangers from total unfamiliarity with classical music and zero score-reading to performing that sublime peak of Western music, Bach’s St John Passion. What we experienced alongside them was not merely the technical flowering of learning to breathe properly, to articulate, to project, to sing together in concert, but also the personal process of digging deep inside yourself to uncover the truths that you will be proclaiming.

To sing really great music properly, to communicate its profundity, is an act of courage, of daring to expose emotional vulnerability. To reach the heights, you have to be willing to plumb the depths. Mr Malone made his singers engage with the significance of the suffering and death of Jesus, as a priest explained the Stations of the Cross, and a drama group performed a visceral Passion play, encouraging them to relate Jesus’s story to their own personal experience. If not explicit works of evangelisation, these programmes could not have demonstrated more powerfully transforming redemption.

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