Media: BBC puts Christ back into Christmas

Somewhere between Morecambe and Wise reruns and old James Bonds, the God slots survive.
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The Independent Culture
A MINI religious revival is occurring on the BBC this Christmas. Not only is a live midnight Eucharist service being broadcast on Christmas Eve, but an hour-long Christmas Day service too.

This may not, in itself, sound remarkable. After all, if the media is ever going to take Christianity seriously it is surely at Christmas, and this year - the 2,000th anniversary of the birth of Jesus - more than any other. In fact, the two services are a result of pressure from the Church of England following the BBC's failure to broadcast a single act of live worship on 25 December last year.

The Church is thankful for the BBC's Christmas Day service, albeit from the New Testament Assembly Church in Tooting, south London, a Pentecostal rather than mainstream denomination, but they know the battle is not won. A private member's motion from Nigel Holmes, a radio producer who sits on the Churches Advisory Council for local broadcasting, is likely to come before the General Synod in February.

Like others in the Church, including the Archbishop of York, Dr David Hope, and the Bishops of Briston and Wakefield, Mr Holmes recognises that in the world of television nothing is sacred anymore, not even religion. For Channel 4, mainstream religion is clearly not a priority. This Christmas it has two religious offerings: On Christmas Eve there is a service from the Calvary Baptist church in Accra, Ghana, and then a repeat of The Real Jesus Christ at 4.30am.

ITV has taken a bold approach to the Christmas story, treating it as a breaking 20th-century news event in a series presented by Martyn Lewis. On Christmas morning ITV is broadcasting the Archbishop of Canterbury's favourite hymns followed by a religious programme called The Searchers and then a discussion of heavenly encounters.

It is the BBC that the Church feels most betrayed by. Mr Holmes complains that the BBC is dumbing down religion, like everything else. Live worship doesn't get a fair shout and serious discussion programmes have reached the realms of Priests Win Prizes.

In a recent report entitled Losing Faith in the BBC, Mr Holmes accused the BBC of breaking its promises to licence payers. "Christians need to act to ensure that their faith is not ridiculed, marginalised, or summarily and deliberately dumped by the BBC."

He pointed out that, although overall television output has doubled in 10 years, religious broadcasting has fallen by more than a third, and none appears regularly at peak times. Jonathan Jennings, the CofE's spokesman on broadcasting, said yesterday: "We are pleased that the BBC has addressed the problem of Christmas, but the other problems of religious broadcasting being shortened and shunted to the margin of the schedule remain."

What hope is there, asks the CofE, when the programme commissioners and controllers are heathens who think God is dull, if not dead, and a widely circulated, 22-page strategic document, entitled The BBC Beyond 2000, barely mentioned religion?

The BBC's head of religious broadcasting, the Rev Ernie Rea, may be a signed-up member of the Church, but he is keenly aware that most of his viewers are not. They are, as he sees it, people of "vague belief" who suspect there is something out there (70 per cent of Britons surveyed say they believe in God), but don't go to church (10 per cent of Britons do).

Mr Rea recently gave a lecture at the University of Manchester entitled Faith in the Future: Religious Broadcasting for a New Millennium. He admits that religious programmes have been marginalised - notably Sunday, religion's Today programme on Radio 4, which is now broadcast before most people are up (7.10am), and BBC1's Heart of the Matter, which goes out after most people have gone to bed (sometimes as late as 11.45pm). But he still believes there is a market for good religious programmes - like the Heaven and Earth Show. This magazine-style BBC1 programme goes out on a Sunday at 10am, the only religious offering on the Sabbath menu after 9am. It takes a pix `n mix approach: a bit of trepanning here, a bit of Zoroastrianism there, and a newsy angle where possible, be it a look at the spiritual side of the Glastonbury rock festival.

The beauty of it, in Mr Rea's eyes, is that people can dip in and out, watch one item and switch over for the next. "I'm really unapologetic about the Heaven and Earth Show," said Mr Rea, "but I know the Church people are quite twitchy about that agenda. It's more about people searching than providing answers. It sits in a part of the schedule which used to be almost exclusively Christian. The establishment finds it difficult, but the fact of the matter is that it's doubled its audience in the last 12 months to 900,000."

Mr Rea is right. The Heaven and Earth Show is not the CofE's scene. To them it is evidence that the BBC isn't taking its public service responsibilities seriously. What about the recent 450th anniversary of The Book of Common Prayer, for example. Where was the documentary examining its significance?

"It was the touch paper of English religion," said Mr Jennings. "Up until that point all the services were in Latin and no one knew what the priest was up to. It was a major cultural event which the Church celebrated but the BBC virtually ignored."

Mr Rea insists he has two "major landmark series" in the pipeline, both for BBC1 next year. The first is Son of God, a three-part series in which an "agnostic BBC personality" will go to Israel and "recreate the greatest story ever told" by swimming in the Sea of Galilee, spending a night in the wilderness, going to Jerusalem at Passover and so on. The second is "a spiritual audit of the nation", with the working title Spirit 2000. This 12-part series will "take the temperature" of the various faith communities across the UK.

Being an ordained minister is a mixed blessing for Mr Rea when it comes to his work. Yes, he has a firm grasp of all things theological ("an absolute must for any head of religious broadcasting at the BBC"), but equally it creates expectations. "I sometimes wonder whether Christian groups think I'm a bit of a traitor because I'm not waving the Christian flag more firmly," he says.