Last night I had the privilege of presenting the 2011 Sandford St Martin Awards at Lambeth Palace. The Trust aims to encourage excellence in religious broadcasting. The great thing is that ‘religious’ is emerging from the niche into the mainstream. Last night’s event showcased some wonderful stuff made by some very creative people.

The television awards panel of judges was chaired by Peter Bazalgette who has been described by the Independent as ‘the most influential man in British television’. (The Daily Mail, on the other hand, accused him of singlehandedly depraving the morality of the country by propagating reality television in these islands!) In his remarks he had a pop at television for not treating seriously enough the killing of Osama Bin Laden. He recognised that radio had considered the  ethics of what he called ‘the assassination’, but that television had simply reconstructed the events and avoided serious debate.

The television award went to the remarkable Nativity, written by Tony Jordan (East Enders, Minder, The Hustle, etc.). The Nativity also won the Radio Times Readers’ Award, so I got to interview Tony twice along with his production team. Tony pointed out that the theologians and historians he interviewed debunked the story, but in the writing of the characters and the narrative he had begun to consider it ‘true’. I put to him what he has been quoted as saying: “The Nativity is a true story and a thing of beauty.” He described how, as a man who lives in ‘character’ and ‘story’, he recognises a true story when he sees one. This programme had changed him and his team told similar stories.

In one sense this is not a surprise. Some of us have been banging on for years about the fact that the Bible is not primarily a book of doctrines, but a collection of stories, characters and earthy experience: a rich fund for those who tell stories and explore ‘reality’ and ‘truth’ through them. A bit like Jesus did when he told stories and used images that tease away in the imagination in ways that propositional arguments do not.

However, Nativity pipped both a serious documentary on ‘beggar children’ and the wonderful Rev series – which humanised clergy, demonised archdeacons and exposed the raw stuff of church life and leadership in a tough local community. As another series is promised, they MUST submit again next year.

The radio judging panel was chaired by the Master of St Peter’s College, Oxford, who until relatively recently was Controller of BBC Radio 4 and Radio 7, Mark Damazer. The Premier Award was given to the BBC for daring to schedule 7 hours of readings of the King James Bible – in a single day. It was electric stuff and brought the Bible alive. Other recognised programmes included one from a prison, an axamination of the Pope (so to speak) and a surprising brief programme from West Yorkshire critiquing the image of Jesus as ‘meek and mild’.

We also gave a special award to the BBC for 50 years of Songs of Praise – a remarkable example of commitment to public service broadcasting.

Full details of winners and other awards can be found on the Sandford St Martin website along with a few photos.

The key encouragement is, of course, that mainstream media genres were throwing up programmes dealing with ‘religious’ themes: humanity, morality, faith, ethics, Bible, religious commitment, and so on. Wonderful stuff.