This year’s Easter television and radio schedules remind me that we have some outstanding religious broadcasting. Whether it be the ambitious retelling of the Passion story against the backdrop of the North-East coast on BBC 1 or the Archbishop of York’s moving and personal meditation on the cross on Radio 4, there is no shortage of programmes that inspire.
At a time when some argue that faith and religious life should be kept behind closed doors, it is reassuring that the BBC and other broadcasters still invest in imaginative, high-quality religious programming, especially during Christian festivals such as Easter and Christmas.
But I believe passionately that religious broadcasting is not just for Easter or Christmas: its presence is vital the whole year round. I could not agree more with Ian Hislop, who wrote in last month’s Radio Times “that programmes that concern themselves with faith are still trying to engage with the world, rather than just trying to escape from it into the next”.
The dramatic events of Holy Week remind us that God is intensely engaged with the world he created – not just the ‘religious’ bits of life. St Paul told early Christians that, through the death and resurrection of Jesus, God chose to “reconcile to himself all things”.
This means that we should not be surprised to find God at work in unexpected ways and in unusual places. Christians believe that the risen Jesus reigns over all of the world – not just in religious buildings or during Christian festivals, but at all times, everywhere.
The Sandford St Martin Trust awards celebrate programmes that explore the relevance of faith in God to all of life. I had the privilege of presenting the awards for the first time last year at Lambeth Palace. I was struck by the quality and variety of programmes that are out there all the year round.
This year’s Radio Times Readers’ Award category show that religious broadcasting continues to be in superb health and, thankfully, is not confined to the ‘religious’ times of year.
As a former cathedral dean myself, I was pleased to see BBC 4’s Cathedrals depicting the joys and challenges of cathedral life, as well as showing what blessing these historic communities are to their communities.
BBC 2’s The Choir: Sing While You Work – the Gospel Episode showed the capacity of gospel music to lift the spirits and bring people into the presence of God in the midst of their everyday lives.
The awards, quite rightly, also recognise programmes that explore non-Christian religious traditions. In BBC 2’s The Story of the Jews, the brilliant Simon Schama took viewers on a fascinating and illuminating journey through Jewish history. Ramadan, broadcast on Channel 4, provided some extraordinary insights into Islam’s month of fasting and an important snapshot of the lives of Muslims.
And it would be no surprise if BBC 2’s Rev makes the short list. The show amusingly depicts some of the challenges facing clergy up and down the country. But while it is great entertainment, it does not truly tell the whole story. I have a friend who runs a growing church in Reading city centre filled with young people with no church background; I have another friend who has had to plant two new churches because his existing congregation is bursting at the seams. Other churches have few people but great impact, again with visionary and inspiring leadership. As with all of life, the picture is complex, but I see plenty of struggle and plenty of grounds for celebration. Therefore, while Rev is great viewing, it does not depress me quite as much as you might think!
Easter still stands for a lot in people’s minds. The best of TV roots the folk memory in the reality of what it is about, and why it matters to be aware. At all levels we have a treat this Easter.