The Week In Radio
Different ways of doing the Lambeth talk
All roads seem to have led to Lambeth this week. If you're even an occasional listener of Radio 4's, you can't have missed the trailers for From Calvary to Lambeth (8pm Tuesday), with Michael Buerk intoning in a voice more suitable for advertising the motion-picture experience of a lifetime, "When Desmond Tutu talks, the world listens" (if that was really true, would he have to be advertising the programme quite so heavily?).
As with many modern cinema trailers, as well, this one gave away too much plot: the former Archbishop of Cape Town would, we were told, be issuing a plea for the Anglican church to think less about sex – which in the Anglican church almost invariably means homosexual sex – and more about the really pressing issues of poverty and disease.
This was indeed what the former archbishop said, with great eloquence, so that while he didn't surprise the listener, he didn't disappoint either. What did disappoint was the way the interview was framed, with counter-arguments put by an array of Anglican (or, in Ann Widdecombe's case, ex-Anglican) conservatives, including the former Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey: the thrust being that you can't pick and choose which bits of the Bible you want to obey, and it is quite clear in its condemnation of homosexual practices.
The arguments are familiar, as is the accompanying litany of crises: the elevation to bishop, in the US, of the openly gay priest Gene Robinson, the threat of African churches to split from the Anglican communion. The problem lay in the balance – with all those conservatives, you could easily have run away with the notion that, on this issue, Tutu represents a tiny tolerant minority within the Anglican church. But maybe David Coomes, the producer, took it for granted that one Tutu versus half-a-dozen small-minded fundamentalists was a fair fight, which isn't unreasonable.
The sad fact is that Lambeth, in religious terms, is now largely associated, thanks to the Lambeth conferences of Anglican bishops, with an unholy fudge of assertive bigotry and tame liberalism. But Lambeth has its wild side: 200 years ago, William Blake was seeing angels in his garden there, experimenting with sexual freedom and writing visionary, often savage and peculiar religious poetry.
This week saw his 250th birthday, which Radio 4 has been marking with some oddly insipid programmes, including, as Book at Bedtime (10.45pm weekdays), Tracy Chevalier's Burning Bright, set in the house next door to Blake's in 1792 and, going by Monday's opening episode, very pure tosh. Much more satisfying was The Poet of Albion (11.30am Tuesday), a feature in which the excellent Jenny Uglow explored Blake's political radicalism; I got a particular buzz from Tom Paulin's close reading of "The Tiger" ("Tiger! Tiger! Burning bright..."), arguing that it is crammed with mythic echoes and enthusiasm for violent revolution.
The other big Blake celebration worth catching is Tam Dean Burn's heroic project of reading Blake's entire written works, originally supposed to finish by this week but thrown off schedule when Resonance FM went off air over the summer. Now Resonance is back with a much better transmitter, so that listeners in central London, as well as people with web connections, can catch Burn's Blake on Thursdays at 3pm, repeated Sundays at 11.30pm; and there are still a few weeks to go.
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