Meet the ad exec turned pin-up vicar

BBC chooses country priest to present centrepiece of its revamped Sunday schedule

A 45-year-old vicar has been plucked from the obscurity of his country parish to spearhead a multi-million-pound revamp of the BBC's religious programmes, which is to include a controversial series on atheism.

The new shows are the brainchild of the corporation's head of religion, Alan Bookbinder - a self-confessed agnostic whose appointment two years ago was greeted with dismay by many prominent Christians.

Mr Bookbinder, the product of a Jewish-Catholic marriage, has commissioned a three-part series on atheism, fronted by Sir Jonathan Miller, while this week a new series begins that will attempt to popularise religion by featuring celebrities, including Pamela Anderson, discussing their faith. The atheism programme will argue the case for non-believers.

Defending the show, Mr Bookbinder said: "Atheism is an important part of the story of religion, to show the clash between belief and non-belief. Part of our purpose is to scrutinise belief."

The Reverend Peter Owen-Jones, a father of four from Cambridgeshire, is to front a new prime-time BBC2 series chronicling the history of Christianity in Britain. Mr Bookbinder hopes that his "maverick" presenting style will do for religious programmes what Simon Schama, Niall Ferguson and David Starkey have done for history on television.

Other highlights will include A Seaside Parish, a follow-up to the recent docusoap A Country Parish, which will follow the fortunes of a female vicar who moves with her family to the Cornish coast. Also planned is another special-effects-laden "landmark" documentary in the style of Son of God - the successful BBC1 film that reconstructed the face of Jesus - this time focusing on Noah's Ark.

Of all its forthcoming series, the BBC is putting most faith in How Christianity Came to Britain, in which Mr Owen-Jones, wearing a frock coat in place of his dog collar, visits locations that chart the UK's ecclesiastical history.

Though flattered by the BBC's billing, Mr Owen-Jones describes himself as "more David Dickinson than David Starkey" - a reference to the perma-tanned antiques dealer who became an unlikely cult figure among housewives and students while fronting the daytime show Bargain Hunt.

The vicar, who first came to his producers' attention when he made a fleeting appearance in an earlier BBC4 series about the Church of England, The Power and the Glory, said: "When we were filming that programme, one day someone came up to me and said, 'how do you feel about doing some presenting?' I think it was much the same kind of thing that happened to David Dickinson."

For a working clergyman whose ministry covers four village parishes on the outskirts of Cambridge, Mr Owen-Jones's filming schedule proved particularly gruelling. He was often away from home for "three- or four-day chunks", leaving him little or no time outside church services to spend with his wife, Jac, and children, India, 13, Jonson, 10, Harris, eight, and Eden, six.

Of course, the job does have its compensations. Though Mr Owen-Jones is coy about discussing his presenting fee, it has done much to inflate the £16,000 vicar's salary he and his family usually subsist on.

"As a married priest with children, I have a massive personal debt, and I have an agreement with the bishop that the money I am paid will go towards paying that off," he said. "That said, I'm not a big name, so I'm not on 'star' money. Everyone knows how much David Starkey earns, and it's nothing like what I'm on."

Should more traditional churchgoers disapprove of Mr Owen-Jones's foray into TV presenting, he is well equipped to handle any controversy. A former advertising copywriter, he once worked on a notorious Church of England publicity campaign that adapted the iconic image of Che Guevara into a poster of Jesus wearing a crown of thorns. It bore the infamous slogan: "Meek. Mild. As if. Discover the real Jesus. Church. April 4."

Mr Owen-Jones's TV debut is unlikely to be the most controversial of the BBC's upcoming religious shows. That honour may well fall on Atheism: A History of Disbelief, which has already provoked criticisms - though, oddly, from atheists rather than Christians.

Hanne Stinson, executive director of the British Humanist Association, has dismissed the programme as a token attempt to address secular beliefs, which only does so in the context of Christianity.

"We are pleased they are doing it, but we still have an ongoing disagreement with the BBC, because in doing a programme like this they are almost putting atheism into a religious agenda," she said. "What we've been trying to do for some time is to get them to put programmes in the schedule that are actually about humanism."