There’s a great Bruce Cockburn song which begins:

You can’t tell me there is no mystery…

Well, Bruce might have been talking about the nature of human experience in the vastness of the universe, but I have to disappoint him: one thing seriously mystifies me right now.

The Telegraph has reported today on a lecture given last night by the excellent Francis Campbell, Britain’s first Roman Catholic Ambassador to the Holy See (the Vatican, that is… not a vast expanse of water). I met him in Rome last September and was very impressed – he’s one of those guys you wish you could talk to on your own for a day: clever, articulate, funny and with a really interesting ‘take’ on the world. He was speaking to members of the Wyndham Place Charlemagne Trust (which debates politics and Europe) – I was invited, but couldn’t go.

One of the interesting points he made is that politicians often understand religion, but their officials don’t. According to Martin Beckford’s report, he said in an interview following the lecture:

I make this observation in general on what I’ve found in four and a half years in this post and beyond, around politics and religion and civil servants. I’ve often found politicians and ministers have a far better grasp of religion than officials. I think it’s because ministers and politicians are grounded in constituencies, they have that lived experience of religion.

He went on to observe (accurately):

The Soviet Union had many centres for the study of religion but they didn’t understand it. They saw it as some distant species, they didn’t have that lived experience.

Apologies to Martin Beckford for quoting a large chunk of his interview, but Campbell makes a point that is not often heard (and that is unwelcome in many quarters when it is articulated in this way):

One of the things I would do is perhaps to encourage people who are in these departments to be a little bit more forthcoming with their insight into this concept of religion. If you have a colleague who is practicing their faith and you know this person, it’s more difficult to marginalise them or dismiss where they’re coming from.How do you challenge that theory that somehow we’re on some sort of trajectory where we’re going to secularise ourselves out of religion? In actual fact that’s going to create more problems for us, because if the rest of the world is getting more religious and we’re getting less religious how do we have that grammar and conversation?

The more that people are encouraged to step forward a little bit and challenge this notion that we can compartmentalise religion between 9 and 5 and then you can be religious again, it just doesn’t function like that. Politicians and ministers appreciate the role that religion plays in peoples’ lives rather than being something remote that we study.

The significant thing about this is that it is not Campbell’s intention to proselytise or evangelise; rather, he is making a neutral phenomenological claim about the importance of public authorities (which really means ‘people’) understanding the role and purpose of religion in a society – whether they agree with the ‘content’ of that religion or not. A religious world view is as valid as any other, but needs to be understood in its own terms.

Campbell’s point is interesting also because it could be said to apply particularly to the media. In the last census (which, of course is now out of date…) well over 80% of the population of England and Wales claimed some sort of religious faith; in a survey of media professionals (I think, in the BBC) only 22% held a religious world view. And media people often claim that they reflect the world we live in whilst showing astonishing ignorance of the religious experience of people in that world. And there are lots of reasons for that.

The BBC has set up its internal academy for journalists and this includes ongoing ‘education’ about religion, religions and how these are lived out in the world. Yet recently it became clear that outside the BBC and Channel 4 there is no interest among the media giants about religion.

As Chairman of the Sandford St Martin Trust (which met this morning) I have an interest in religious programming on radio, television, print and new media. The challenge is also a fantastic creative opportunity for programme makers to discover the fascination (at lots of levels) of religion in the world and represent that in creative formats that don’t naturally slot into the old-style ‘religious broadcasting’ genre.

It is not good enough to whinge about the decline in religious broadcasting or the ludicrous ignorance among public bodies of religion as a phenomenon that shapes the world and is not going to go away. We have to encourage and stimulate people to be creative in their professional field and create the opportunities for addressing religious themes in ways that will grasp the imagination and command the attention of large audiences.

The bottom line for the media is simple: programmes will never be broadcast because they are ‘religious’: they will be broadcast because they are good programmes.

The bottom line for our public authorities is also simple: to ignore religion because of some assumed ideological embarrassment is both culturally stupid and pragmatically short-sighted.

Francis Campbell’s voice should be heard.