It was the broadcasting of Songs of Praise in 1961 that persuaded my mother to get a television. During its 50 years the programme has become an enduring part of religious broadcasting and our national cultural scene.
At the 40th anniversary celebrations, the then controller of BBC1 gave a toast to future decades of Songs of Praise. But even some of its biggest fans who were present thought that over-optimistic, given that worship on TV was struggling for its place in the schedules. Yet, ten years on, the programme retains its place and attracts good ratings.
How does it keep its appeal? Perhaps half of its success owes something to its counter-cultural nature. Looking back, 1961 turns out to have been a pivotal year.
At the time when Songs of Praise was being planned, postwar church attendances were still high, and young men from all backgrounds found National Service instilling into them standards of behaviour and levels of mutual responsibility and loyalty. Suddenly all this ended, and the 1960s notoriously ushered in an era of moral permissiveness and a questioning of traditional patterns that had long been taken for granted.
For half a century that massive and continuing change has contributed to an erosion of Christian values. In their place has emerged a me-first, consumerist culture that has encouraged acquisitiveness and dishonesty, allows the desire for things to override concern for other people, and seems to have little time for God.
This has become evident at all levels of our society. The recent riots were a stark, but by no means only, example of what can happen when the distinction between right and wrong is blurred and once-respected moral imperatives are forgotten.
Of course, behaving morally does not require religious adherence. But Christian values do offer a secure foundation for leading a good life. Songs of Praise is a powerful and poignant source of examples of such goodness. In our celebrity- obsessed age it unashamedly tells the endless story of God’s interventions in the lives of everyday people. And its songs and hymns highlight the values that the riots, and much else, suggest we need to recapture.
To confine the disseminating of that message to the pulpit, or sideline it into a niche television channel, would be to treat Christian values as if they were a private hobby of little concern to the rest of society.
But the truth is that themes like self-esteem, respect, compassion, and warnings about the danger of craving possessions (themes strongly supported by other faiths and many non-believers, too) constantly emerge through Songs of Praise and are part of the spiritual diet of millions of worshippers in this still-Christian country. They are a constituency who deserve to be served by mainstream television.
And Songs of Praise succeeds in a manner that has avoided overt proselytism, while tapping into sometimes-distant memories of evocative tunes and half-forgotten hymns that even today resonate with people who rarely, if ever, attend church services. And it is these hymns and readings that provide a connection not only with present-day worship but also with a past that feels more ordered and offers sense and purpose for our confused society.
Of course Songs of Praise in itself is not the answer to all problems. But it does provide a rare opportunity to hear faith, hope and love spoken of in refreshing and natural ways. It shows there really are a lot of good people around – and what motivates many of them. So, happy birthday Songs of Praise and, I do mean this, MANY HAPPY RETURNS.
Do you think there are enough faith programmes on TV? Let us know what you think by posting a comment below.