Gogglebox’s Rev Kate Bottley: good religious shows don’t need to feel religious

"Overtly religious programmes have their place and are to be cherished- but there's also something to be said for 'religious broadcasting' by stealth"

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I’m not known for being stuck for words, shutting up is more difficult for me than speaking up, although I know sometimes people wish I would. Someone once said ‘Just because you have something to say it doesn’t mean you should’. In short, I’m a bit gobby. But there are occasions when I do stumble.

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About a year ago I had a go at the hallowed ‘Pause for thought’ slot on Chris Evans show on Radio 2. Being a fan of the show, I knew the criteria: 2 minutes, a bit of a story and a gentle but sound point made from the perspective of faith. But it was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.

The biggest challenge was not to crow bar the faith bit in. My first attempt had a very clunky gear change from a story about a lost child’s toy to the ‘Jesus bit’. You’d think a vicar would find it easy to talk about the stuff of faith in an easy and natural way, but it ain’t necessarily so. It felt like the bit in a shampoo advert, when it’s announced ‘And now for the science…’.

As a vicar there are some parts of my week that are very obviously the ‘religious bit’ – Sunday mornings seem the obvious example. But my faith doesn’t begin and end at the church door and my faith is carried with me in the day to day. In fact, I’ve had more conversations about what faith might mean as a result of being the vicar on Gogglebox than I ever have about any of my Sunday sermons. Which come to think of it might say something about my Sunday sermons.

Because good telly – like good radio – offers a reflection of the human story and part of the human story is faith, religion and belief. And whether you describe yourself as belonging to a religion, having sympathy for faith or belonging to no faith, faith is still part of the our national and global conversation.

All of which makes me think overtly religious programmes on TV have their place and are to be celebrated and cherished and championed but there’s also something to be said for  ‘religious broadcasting’ by stealth. That’s not to say we need to sneak faith in but the gear change from the secular to the faith need not be obvious.

Look at the shows in the running for this year’s Sandford St Martin awards for religious broadcasting. In the Radio Times shortlist there are understandably ‘religious programmes’, such as David Suchet’s Easter documentary ‘IN the Footsteps of St Peter’ and the one off drama The Ark. But you might be surprised to see Call the Midwife on the list, after all just because it’s got nuns in it, it doesn’t mean it’s ‘religious broadcasting’. But it deals with birth and death and the roles of men and women in a fast changing world – what could be more part of the human story than that?

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And in a further twist, on the judges’ shortlist for the main award at the Sandfords is an interview Stephen Fry gave about his Atheism, in which he calls God an ‘evil, capricious, monstrous maniac’. Surely that’s got no business being on the list of awards for promoting excellence in ‘religious’ broadcasting being the very antithesis of religious?

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I disagree. I believe good religious broadcasting often doesn’t feel religious at all because religion isn’t just the ‘God slot’, the science bit in the shampoo commercial. It’s about the stuff of life, what makes us human and what makes us tick.