Religious TV is not just for Easter

It is reassuring that broadcasters still invest in imaginative, high-quality religious programming, says Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby

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Religious TV is not just for Easter
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This year’s Easter television and radio schedules remind me that we have some outstanding religious broadcasting. Whether it be Good Friday’s ambitious retelling of the Passion story against the backdrop of the north-east coast (The Great North Passion, 12 noon BBC1) or the Archbishop of York’s moving meditation on the cross (3pm 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 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 couldn’t agree more with Ian Hislop, who last month wrote in 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 year round.

This year’s Radio Times Readers’ Award category shows 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, I was pleased to see BBC4’s Cathedrals depicting the joys and challenges of cathedral life, as well as showing what a blessing these historic buildings are to their communities.

BBC2’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 BBC2’s The Story of the Jews, the brilliant Simon Schama took viewers on a fascinating journey through Jewish history. Ramadan, 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 BBC2’s Rev makes the awards shortlist next year. The show amusingly depicts some of the challenges facing clergy up and down the country. But while it’s great entertainment, it doesn’t 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 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 doesn’t 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 week. Happy Easter! 

Easter programmes include: Easter from King’s, Saturday 5:45pm BBC2; Easter Worship from Leicester, Easter Day 10:00am BBC1; Easter Sunday Worship, Easter Day 8:10am Radio 4