We should expect better, but sometimes you just have to despair.

A link to a BBC website this morning led me to the following quote by the Editor of the Church of England Newspaper (sic):

Editor of the Church of England Newspaper, Colin Blakely, said dioceses across the country were facing serious problems that were partly due to declining church attendance. He said: “With such a massive drop in the number of people going [and] the number of people who are giving to the church – that’s going to affect all sorts of things.” Three dioceses had already been merged in the north of England because of declining revenues, he said.

This little organ really should change its name as it is not the ‘Newspaper of the Church of England’. That aside, and allowing for the possibility that the editor has been either misunderstood or misinterpreted, what he says is decontextualised nonsense and the last bit a downright lie.

First, projections to 2057 assume nothing happens between now and then – that you can draw a straight line from now until then. Just take a moment to reflect on that.

Second, that numbers affect money, and that this “affects all sorts of things” is such a bland truism that it beggars belief it was even said.

Third, and most seriously, three dioceses in the north of England have not been merged and finance is not the driving factor in proposals to merge three dioceses. In fact, finance rarely comes into it. It is about a pile of other stuff – like better support of clergy and parishes, more flexibility of development of clergy, etc. – and not about money. None of the three dioceses has financial alarm bells ringing.

So, my question is: is the quoted editor going to demand a retraction?

This lazy reportage, in which disconnected factors are linked together, owes everything to the inability of some journalists to avoid squeezing everything into a single assumed narrative: that church is defined by ‘emptying pews’ and everything we do is aimed at stopping people leaving or saving money.

It’s enough to make you weep.

Oh no! The Archbishop of Canterbury has lost his inhibitions, thrown caution to the wind, and – in a massive scoop for the media – has slagged off the government in a book to come out after he has left office in 2013. It must be his considered revenge, mustn’t it?

Even the BBC website has him “dismiss[ing] David Cameron’s ‘big society’ initiative as ‘aspirational waffle'”.

The story broke with the Observer claiming to “have obtained” the book. Just how clever is that?

Has it occurred to any of these guys that the book is a collection of speeches and writings already given over the last few years? In other words, the scripts are all public anyway and have been for some time. The headline story about Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ was, I think, delivered before the last election.

So, why is this now puffed up into a sensation story? Why is it presented as if it was anything new? Why did any editor think this could possibly be a ‘story’ unless it was misleadingly represented as ‘new’?

Or, just like (a) when the riots hit England last year and we were constantly asked why the Archbishop of Canterbury was making no comments, and (b) when St Paul’s Cathedral steps were Occupied and we were constantly aksed why the Archbishop of Canterbury was making no comments, why did no journalist go back to their previous ‘scandal’ story and recall that the Archbishop of Canterbury had actually spoken very loudly about all these matters in articles and speeches – not least the New Statesman editorial that politicians and journalists castigated him for?

Is such amnesia deliberate? Or is there some other explanation?

[Note on 25 June: I notice that John Bingham got the story right in the Telegraph.]

This evening saw the 2012 Sandford St Martin Trust awards ceremony at Lambeth Palace. It was a good gig, but air conditioning might have helped cool the place down. Yet, there is something really powerful about all the great portraits of dead Archbishops of Canterbury staring down unamused by the hi-tech stuff going on in the Guard Room. Why powerful? Because it gives a sense of perspective to the immediate when the continuity of the past keeps looking at you.


Anyway, these annual awards, attended by programme makers, independent production companies and broadcast executives from around the UK, highlight the cream of mainstream religious broadcasting in the UK over the preceding 12 months. They attract entries from all the major broadcast channels as well as BBC and commercial local stations, and – more recentlynew media productions. Prizes are awarded in radio and television categories.


This year’s top prizes went to a BBC TWO production – “The Life of Muhammad” made by the independent company “Crescent Films” – and a BBC Radio Scotland production Resurrection Storiespresented by Anna Magnusson, reflecting on her experience of loss and hope after the death of her brother, Sigi.

The editor of the Radio Times, Ben Preston, announced the winner of the Radio Times Readers Award taken from a poll to choose the readers’ favourite religious production of the year. Their award went to Songs of Praise 50th Anniversary - a trilogy of programmes, culminating in a spectacular show from Alexandra Palace featuring singers Catherine Jenkins, Beverley Knight and Leanne Rimes.


Announcing the TV winner, the Journalist and Catholic commentator Paul Donovan praised the way “The Life of Muhammad” had tackled a very difficult subject with great sensitivity.


The Radio Prize winner – Anna Magnusson (daughter of the late Magnus, and sister to Sally Magnusson) based much of her winning programme on reflections around the death of her brother Sigi when she was just 13. Now 38 years on, faced with questions raised by the description of Jesus’ resurrection – she explored how contemporary Christians could respond to the Gospel account.


In awarding the prize to Anna and her BBC Scotland producer Mo McCullogh, the chair of the radio judges Priscilla Chadwick – said “This was a most impressive programme…a very reflective, highly personal and deeply theological exploration of the issues which allowed space for ‘questioning hopefully’ that one day Anna would be reunited with her much loved brother.


As Chairman of the Sandford St Martin Trust, I chaired the event and presented the awards. I was able to praise the imaginative programming that had been entered for the awards. I also noted that religion is no longer a niche commission, even appearing on entertainment channels such as Sky Atlantic who’ve just ordered a 6 part series featuring a gang of Jewish bikers from North London who will be talking about their beliefs and how faith affects them.


My comment was simple: “Religion is not primarily about mere ideas; it is about people, communities and the stuff of human existence. It is rich, ripe and fertile soil for stories that expand and enrich our understanding of life and its biggest questions.”


2012 Television winners

Premier Award:

The Life of Muhammad: Ep 1 – The Seeker

(Crescent Films for BBC2)

Runner Up:

The King James Bible: The Book that Changed the World

(BBC Religion for BBC2)

Merit Award 1:

Ian Hislop: When Bankers Were Good

(Wingspan productions for BBC2)

Merit Award 2:

Wonderland: A Hasidic Guide to Love, Marriage and Finding a Bride

(BBC Factual for BBC2)

2012 Radio Winners

Premier Prize:

Resurrection Stories

BBC Radio Scotland

Runner Up:

Faith and 9/11

TBI media for BBC Radio2

Merit Award 1:

Something Understood: Abraham

Unique: the Production Company for BBC Radio 4

Merit Award 2:

Good Friday Reflection

Central FM


 

This is the text of the Radio Times article which caused a bit of irritated response in some quarters. It will be obvious that it is not critical of the BBC, but congratulatory and ‘encouraging’ of how things might develop constructively.

A couple of years ago, before X-Factor ‘popularised’ it, I contributed to a BBC Radio 2 documentary celebrating the 25th anniversary of Leonard Cohen’s great song Hallelujah. Covered by more than 120 artists, Cohen the Perfectionist ended up writing and re-writing around 80 verses or versions. The lyric, full of biblical allusions, breathes some human realism into a word that would normally be seen as purely religious (and, therefore, rather suspect).

During an interview with Guy Garvey, singer-songwriter with Elbow and presenter of the documentary, he put it to me that “Cohen had hijacked religious language”. “No,” I replied, “Cohen has understood it.” By this I meant that Cohen had liberated the word from some assumed compartment called ‘religion’ and given it back to real people living in the real world and with real stories to tell. The song speaks of the ‘holy and the broken hallelujah’ – a phrase that encapsulates the torn nature of human beings who long to be ‘holy’ but usually manage just to be ‘broken’. Cohen’s point is that God is not surprised by this.

Leonard Cohen refused to allow ‘religion’ to be stuck in a compartment from which everybody else is spared any engagement. Religion and its place in the public discourse are much misunderstood.

Mention ‘religious broadcasting’ in polite company and you might well be faced with finding someone else to talk to. Either that or it’s assumed you’re really wanting more Songs of Praise on the television to keep the Christians (who haven’t gone to church) happy.

Yet, this isn’t the case. Religious broadcasting simply takes seriously the indisputable fact that religion is a phenomenon that has to be acknowledged and understood, if we are to understand the world in which we live. This doesn’t presuppose a religious commitment, conviction, practice or adherence any more than doing a programme about Marxism demands that only Marxists produce it.

The BBC’s Easter programming looks increasingly imaginative, finding creative and engaging ways of telling the Easter story, questioning the implications of the Easter story, capturing the experience of Christians celebrating the Easter story. The Preston Passion follows on from the superb Manchester Passion of several years ago, taking Easter out of the church and onto the streets. This enables everyone to be part of it and be confronted by it. A bit like… er… the original Easter events.

However, go beyond the BBC (and the odd bit of Channel 4) and religion has been dropped as if it were a toxic contaminator of decent culture. This ideological knee-jerk sees religion as an embarrassing problem (for which there is obviously no audience) rather than part of a solution (one lens through which to tell stories and understand people, their lives and motivations). ITV sees no need to consider religion – despite the fact that more people shape their lives around religious conviction and practice than attend sporting events. Now look at the relative budgets given to sport and religion…

The point here is not that religion should be privileged or protected. It is not to argue that religious propaganda should find space in the schedules of broadcasters. But it is to maintain that we can’t understand people, events and the way the world is if we don’t take religion seriously.

The BBC has a sports editor, an economics editor, a political editor and editors for other areas of life. It has no religion editor. Yet, if an economics editor is needed to help explain and interpret economic decisions and events in order that the public should be responsible citizens in our democracy, why on earth isn’t there someone to explain, interpret and communicate the phenomenon of religion as it influences people, colours political and economic decisions, questions values and shapes both individual and corporate behaviour?

There are two issues here. First, how does the BBC fulfil its public service remit by challenging the ridiculous assumption that the ‘non-religious’ world view is neutral? Second, how do other broadcasters get beyond their own prejudices and see religion as an indispensable lens through which to see and understand the world?

There are some shining examples – despite the problems of encouraging imaginative commissioning – of good religious broadcasting. Some are on the Sandford St Martin Trust Radio Times Readers Award shortlist: the humanising Rev, the powerfully questioning Forgiveness, the affecting re-telling of the Life of Mohammed, to name but three. But, the need is for a change in assumption and perception of religion as phenomenon, motivator and shaper of human stories.

Good media need good stories. Religion is not primarily about mere ideas; it is about people, communities and the stuff of human existence. It is rich, ripe and fertile soil.

I was doing Pause for Thought on BBC Radio 2’s Chris Evans Show this morning and arrived while some fun was being had at the expense of ITV. I caught the last half an hour or so of the Brits last night and was astonished when Queen Adele was interrupted so James Corden could introduce Blur for their epic finale.

 

When a sports event over-runs, or the Eurovision Song Contest drags on a while, they simply re-align the schedule and cope with it. So, what was the thinking behind cutting Adele (who deserves every second of her glory) and not just adding a few minutes to the programme? I am not a media expert, but my jaw dropped at that disaster.

Anyway, that wasn’t my business – I just came into the studio on the back of it. I was there to talk about Lent. Just before I went in I was asked whether Lent actually includes the Sundays, or if we can have Sundays off and still do the forty days. The good Christian answer is that we can choose. Forty consecutive days from Ash Wednesday (today, of course) takes us to Palm Sunday and the beginning of Holy Week which runs up to Easter. If you take out the Sundays, you can count Holy Week in. Wonderful flexibility. But, I did remark to Chris that taking Sundays for celebration is a recourse for wimps – and that his intention to start next Monday is a bit sad. (At least he’s starting, though!)

I began my script with a reference to my eighteen-month old grandson, Ben, who vomited all over me a couple of weeks ago. He was with us again last weekend. We live in a big house in Bradford and he loves to charge around the space that was just made for little kids to charge around. He is learning how to be naughty – a natural reflex – and has that look in his eye that says: “You’re not going to like this, but I’ll do it anyway and see how far I can push you.” I think it’s written into his job description. He is pushing the boundaries and unwittingly working out what he is about and how far he can go. (It should end when he is about 30…)

And this is where Lent comes in. The forty days of mirrors follow Jesus mirroring Israel centuries before and spending forty days and nights in the desert wondering what life was all about really. What happened to Jesus was that, stripped of all the distractions that even an Internet-free first century Palestine offered, he had to face himself, what really drove him, how far he would really go in taking seriously the vocation he believed was his. OK, he’s tired, cold and hungry. Then the voice in his head says: “So, you’re really not interested in the short cut to glory and fame? Really? Why go through all the suffering when you don’t need to?” It actually is really hard: “You – of all people – don’t need to go hungry! Just turn this stone into bread and get fed. Put your own material needs first. Come on – don’t be so hard on yourself!

I think Jesus knew this wasn’t the sort of stuff to prepare him for a cross.

But the connection here between him and us and Lent is simply that if we take the time and make the space to drill down deep into our own choices and motivations, we might find it both uncomfortably challenging… and extremely profitable.

Lent isn’t magic and it isn’t primarily about giving up chocolate as some form of narcissistic aecetism. It simply offers the space in which we can take the time to reflect more seriously and deeply on what is really going on deep within us – especially those bits that we are usually too busy to examine.

Which is a theme I treat from a different angle in the BBC Radio 4 Lent address going out at 2045 on Wednesday 29 February and at 0545 and 1445 on Sunday 4 March.

 

So, yesterday St Paul’s Cathedral Chapter dropped its legal action against the camp protesters – not all of whom are anti-capitalist per se, despite the media shorthand categorisation – and the Corporation of London ‘paused’ their action to evict. This has allowed a fresh approach to the whole issue.

This morning I woke up to two stories: (a) the Archbishop of Canterbury writing in the Financial Times about the need now to move from general protest to specific solutions and (b) the Bishop of London doing a good job on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

The point of both of these was to push the agenda away from the protests themselves and on to the reason behind the protests: the frustration of millions of people around the world that the people who caused the global financial collapse continue as if little has happened (bonuses, etc.) and everybody else suffers. These questions – regardless of how we got to them in the last couple of weeks – will now be centre-stage as the particular ‘issue’ of St Paul’s and its handling of matters steps back into the less interesting shadows.

It would be interesting to see where the imagination is to be found within the spheres of pension funds, banks, financial institutions for re-shaping a global financial system in which reward is based less on numbers and more on ethics, and in which the distribution of wealth is driven by a vision of the common good and less by the compulsion to ‘have more’. The concept of ‘reqard’ might be significant here.

The world we are now in demands unusual business. That is to say, responses to the current crisis seem mostly to be technical and within current assumptions of what an economy is and how an economy works. It is at the level of assumption that the protests are directed.

What is now required – while these questions are on the front page, as it were – is a re-visioning of what an economy is for. Surely the mantra of the last thirty years, that we are economic beings in an economic market, is being seriously challenged. We do not exist for the market (the market economy); rather, the economy exists for us (a human economy).

This now needs to be cashed out in technical terms (bank taxes, challenges to assumptions about ‘attracting the right people by paying the hiughest salaries, etc.) and the advantages, costs, etc. identified. Many of us won’t understand the financial technicalities. But, we can certainly contribute to the articulation of an alternative vision.

Off to another day of meetings…

During an address to nearly 500 people a couple of weeks ago I spoke about curiosity as a key to the Kingdom of God. What I meant by this is that Christian discipleship (it seems to me) has to be driven by curiosity about Jesus and where he might be leading us. There are lots of reasons why I think this, but they are not the point of this post.

As an example of this I used the challenge of writing and presenting scripts on the radio, making particular reference to the stuff I have done on BBC Radio 2 for more than a decade and now, particularly, on the Chris Evans Show. Before giving this address (which is why this example came to mind during it) someone asked how you find something useful to say in the ‘fluff of the programme’. So, when I referred to it I described it something like this:

You have to grab the attention of the potential listeners ( so they don’t go to the loo or put the kettle on), tease their imagination with story or image, say something, then give a pay off back into the ‘fluff’.

You get around 320 words to do it with.

The further challenge is that you have no idea if or how Chris will pick up on what you have said or the basic theme. Of course, there is no reason why he should pick up on it at all. But, the great thing about doing his show is that Chris is bright, interested, creative and excellent at engaging. When writing a script, you have to be conscious of stimulating the curiosity or imagination of the host and his team as well as the audience. It means speaking a language that is interesting and comprehensible to this diverse range of humanity.

And that’s why it is good to do. It is also excellent discipline for people like me who can talk for England, preach for hours, and range wildly from subject to subject.

It is also why I like Twitter and text messaging. These force you to be concise, to express an idea with very few words, to communicate effectively in brief. It demands the skill that is exemplified by comedian Milton Jones in his wonderful new book of ‘10 Second Sermons‘.

In a former life I used to encourage preachers to write a radio script of 400 words. I remember one person complaining that you can’t actually say something in such a short space. I responded that if you can’t say something in brief, you don’t know what you are trying to say… and you shouldn’t dare to say it for 20-30 minutes. I still think that.

The enjoyable thing about doing the stuff with Chris Evans is that he will often respond in ways you didn’t expect. Always interesting, sometimes challenging, never boring. And always a privilege not to be taken for granted.

Now I’m off to a communications conference…

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