They say confession is good for the soul, and as a vicar I know this to be true. So I have something to confess, something that’s been bothering me for a while. I love TV, I’m a Christian, but I can’t stand Songs of Praise.
Now before you start drafting letters to my Bishop and digging out the flaming torches and pitchforks to run me out of town, let me explain why Songs of Praise (Sundays BBC1) has me reaching for the remote.
It’s not the delightful Diane Louise Jordan or the adorable Aled Jones (is it me or are his teeth getting whiter?) – they’re both lovely. I even like a glimpse of a guest presenter or two. It’s not the hymns or even the more hip modern-day choruses – I love Christian karaoke as much as the next clergy person. I even, on occasion, spot someone I know (always strange seeing someone you know on the telly!).
I appreciate, of course, that it’s great for those who can’t get out to church. I’ve done many a funeral visit where the deceased’s loved one has said, in reply to the question “Did she have a faith?”, “Oh yes, vicar, she never missed Songs of Praise.” In that respect it’s a worship lifeline for many. I know it’s a national institution and lots of folks’ Sundays just wouldn’t be Sundays without Songs of Praise. But even so, after all this, it makes my teeth itch.
Let’s start with the singing: I don’t like it. Not the hymns themselves, but rather the over-exaggerated mouth movements, as if the singers are trying to chew a toffee at the same time.
And then there are the congregations. I’ve never seen an Anglican church so full on a Sunday evening (or perhaps that’s just the churches I preach at!) and with such a huge variety of ages. There are always the token cute kids in school/guide/beaver/air cadet uniform, the Mothers’ Union/Women’s Institute contingent and some poor bloke who’s been dragged there reluctantly and hasn’t been in church since his wedding 40 years ago: “Oh do shut up, Derek, and come along, we might get on the telly!”
But more than all this, I find it a bit depressing. For me it doesn’t reflect the beautiful, rich and amazing diversity of the faith that I know. It feels nostalgic for a postwar era that was never that great. It doesn’t show the doubt, the questions and the massive wobbles that being a Christian brings- after all, it’s not all harvest festivals and cheery smiles. If this is the best primetime religious broadcasting has to offer, it’s rather like a piece of soggy quiche.
Religion has the power to unite and divide people like nothing else and I think religious broadcasting should reflect that. It should challenge, cheer and stir us up like nothing else on our goggleboxes. It should be brave, bold and at times controversial. It shouldn’t be bland and easy to swallow, it should be spicy and flavoursome. Primetime religious programmes should be the most talked-about shows of the week.
The best religious broadcasting I’ve seen on the Beeb was Rev, and that wasn’t a documentary (although many clergy would argue with that). Why was it so good? Because it painted the Christian faith without skipping over the messy, dark and difficult bits. It wasn’t just someone opening and closing his mouth, it was someone cheering, screaming and shouting about what faith means, not just on a Sunday evening in a church full of people “just like me”, but in a messed-up world with far more questions than answers.
Rev Kate Bottley appears on Gogglebox on Friday at 9 pm