What a way to go out?

Dr Rowan Williams celebrates his first day of freedom from office with a brilliant documentary journey through Canterbury Cathedral: Goodbye to Canterbury. The BBC at its best and Rowan at his best: brilliant, poetic, articulate, fascinating, stimulating, educative, erudite, clear.

I still maintain – as I have consistently – that the 'Rowan is too hard to understand' narrative was mostly an excuse by lazy commentators who couldn't be bothered to work at thinking.

In this programme – written and presented by Rowan himself – he proves himself to be an adept communicator and media operator. How embarrassing for so many to have written him off so easily.

In this wonderful programme we have poetry, art, history, music, aesthetics, theology, philosophy, drama, beauty, honesty, storytelling, ecclesiology, evangelism, rhetoric, social analysis, realism, education, communication, interpretive clarity, personal reflection, politics, economics, explanation, and more besides.

Perhaps Rowan might be persuaded to do more of this now he has left office?

There is something about English culture that is self-destructive. We are expert at missing the point and getting proportion wrong. The BBC is one of the most respected news organisation in the world, but we just love pulling it down. And some of those gleefully doing the demolition are precisely those who couldn’t command respect if it was nailed to them.

So, George Entwistle falls on his sword after only 54 days in the top job. Maybe, for pragmatic reasons, he was wise to go. But, it must be obvious that anyone coming into what he had dumped on him was going to struggle to keep the show going – especially as a major part of his brief was to oversee substantial change in the way the BBC is run. Almost every voice today combines horror at Newsnight‘s disastrous editorial choices (something to do with removing the top editor recently?) with total respect for a good, competent and honourable man.

So, what good has been done by his resignation? And do we really think that the rolling of further heads will do anything to resolve the problems and strengthen BBC editorial processes – rather than simply create further lacunae in both structure and confidence?

Of course, all this is put into context by today’s acts of remembrance. The narrative against which we measure our honourability as a society is a mixed one of conflict and peace, success and failure. No one can look back honestly at British history without recognising both glory and dishonour – violence runs through it like ‘Blackpool’ through a stick of rock. If we didn’t have Remembrance Day, we would have to invent it – because we need to step back at least one day each year and remember our story, how we came to be where we are, and the cost (in every respect) of getting here.

In Bradford this morning we stood around the Cenotaph under cloudless blue skies and watched in silence as the families of those who have died in Iraq and Afghanistan came forward and placed wreaths and crosses against photographs of their young men. The poignancy of that kiss transferred from a mother’s lips to the face of a son who will never grow old or weary. It was almost too much. These aren’t just names etched into stone or bronze; these are too immediate, too present in their absence.

Getting these events right is not easy. How do we remember the fallen and those who sacrificed so much so long ago… whilst avoiding any romanticism, blind patriotism, escapist fantasy or fictionalising of history? We did it through prayers of sorrow and recognition, pledges of commitment to peace and human flourishing, statements of reconciliation and mutuality. Easily spoken, hard to do.

The point for me in all this (which is why I am recording it here for the sake of my own memory) is that reconciliation can only come from a courageously honest recognition of the messed-up-ness of human life and history. I served on the intelligence side of the Falklands War in 1982 and still have memories of the moral ambiguities involved in that. But, the narrative I (as a Christian) am held to is one that calls us to give up our life in order that the world might see who and how God is – lived out in the flesh and blood of those who bear his name (and, therefore, his character). It is shaped like a cross.

The BBC will survive because there are enough sensible people around who take a long-term view and see the detail of the current aberration only in the context of the enormous canvas of good the BBC does and is. And Remembrance Day will also drag our consciousness away from romanticism and escapism into the brutally real facing up to what human beings do to each other in the complicated name of ‘power’.

Some years ago, when we were camping in Normandy, I took my then young (and younger) son to visit a huge World War One cemetery. We both sat in silence before the enormity of death laid out over silent acres. It isn’t good poetry, but this is what I wrote on a scrap of paper while sitting on the wall:

A field of white stones

and simple crosses

with wishful words

and solemn epitaphs.

Known unto God means

we hadn’t a clue who he was.

Just another mangled inconnu

in a field of bloody might-have-beens.

Rest in peace sounds like an apology

for the hostility and brutality

of his untimely death.

I did not know him,

nor do I know those who miss him,

who still, half a world away,

miss the sound of his voice

and hear the agony of his eternal silence.

But I, also an inconnu, a nobody,

whisper an apology at his space,

and pray silently

for never again

and not for mine.

In Shakespeare’s The Tempest Caliban retorts to Prospero:

You taught me language, and my profit on ‘t
Is I know how to curse. (Act 1, Scene 2: 437-438)

What is it about us that seems hell-bent on turning anything good into something bad? Words are wonderful, but they can be used to kill. Science progresses with techniques for curing and healing, but the same technology gets diverted into ways of killing ever more efficiently. Why? What is wrong with us?

Well, none of this is new if you are remotely familiar with any Christian theology… or basic human experience. But, in relation to current news stories, I make two rather simply observations: first re the Jimmy Savile horror story, and second re racism in football.

Various churches have had to pay heavily for allowing the systemic abuse of children and vulnerable people over decades. Quite right, too. Yet there has been a hint of a suspicion in some quarters that those doing the gloating about the nasty churches might one day need to defend themselves and their own institutions on similar terms. No schadenfreude here – just a fear that the problems experienced in the churches have less to do with the churches’ theology and more to do with common human propensities.

The BBC is now under scrutiny and certain newspapers scream at the BBC in judgement – seemingly oblivious to the moral questions hanging over their own treatment of vulnerable people. The BBC faces serious scrutiny and it clearly needs it. For Savile to have been able to exploit its culture for so many decades raises serious questions that must be (and will be) addressed.

But, those pointing the fingers now might need to be a little cautious in their judgements. They might be next. For the basic truth about all this stuff is that human beings have a tendency to turn goodness into badness, to exploit weakness and power, to put self-preservation before truth, and to pervert what began beautiful.

This applies to the banks, businesses that pay no taxes, media organs that treat people like commodities for the entertainment of others, clergy who abuse trust and abase the ‘good news’ they are supposed to represent. As we keep having to remind those who uncritically (and sometimes mindlessly) accuse religion for all the world’s ills, the worst abuses of human life in the twentieth century came from anti-religionists such as Stalin, Hitler, Mao and Pol Pot. These are human problems, not just problems to be nailed to people we don’t like.

In other words, this stuff goes right back to being human and not just part way to what humans say motivates them.

This is another reason why people like me get fed up with accusations that Christians are escapists, whilst humanists are people who ‘take responsibility’ for themselves. Christianity is rooted firmly in this world, in facing reality and taking direct responsibility for the whole shebang. The cross of calvary involves God and us looking the sad reality of the human condition in the eye and naming it for what it is. No romantic escapism; no fantasising that if we just tried harder everything would be OK; no wishful thinking about ‘myths of progress’ that seem somehow to end up lying in pools of other people’s blood dripping from the altar of someone else’s tribal ego.

Francis Spufford calls this “the human propensity to fuck things up” (HPtFtU). The Bible calls it ‘sin’. Take your pick, but the former spells out what the latter means after we have drained it of all the negative associations piled onto it as the shorthand that means all Christians are miserable self-haters. No, we are lovers whose experience cries out for some explanation, if not excuse. Read Spufford’s wonderful Unapologetic to see how he deals with this universal feature of human being. (And read Stephen Cherry for a reflection on the book.)

This is where the racism stuff comes in. I am writing this while Liverpool are giving away a two-goal lead against Everton – football being the game that houses racism (leaving match fixing to cricket, doping to cycling and competitive-dadness to Monopoly). Yes, we must do all we can to expose racism wherever it comes to light. Yes, we must legislate against behaviours and language that represent a curse within our society, blighting lives and scarring all of us with sheer nastiness. But, no, we shouldn’t be surprised that these things go on and will not be eradicated by all our best efforts.

As I once said to a neighbour in a General Synod debate on something or other: it is easy to win a vote – but winning the vote does not mean we have won the hearts and minds.

Unless HPtFtU is taken seriously – and the alternative is escapism, romanticism, fantasy, wishful thinking, etc – we will continue to bow at the altar of the sort of relativism that we see in our press: assuming that the best guide to moral goodness is merely that we know we are better than [insert chosen ‘monsters’]. (Which, of course, means that we might be well down the moral pecking order, but at least we are not as low as…)

Ferdinand (not Rio or Anton) bleats to Prospero in The Tempest:

I warrant you sir;
The white cold virgin snow upon my heart
Abates the ardour of my liver.

Says it all, really.

(And, Christianity doesn’t stop at realism or diagnosing the problem of the human condition; it offers a response that takes the human condition seriously. Start with Easter…)

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.


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