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."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Sport
footballHe started just four months ago
News
Nigel Farage celebrates with a pint after early local election results in the Hoy and Helmet pub in South Benfleet in Essex
peopleHe has shaped British politics 'for good or ill'
News
One father who couldn't get One Direction tickets for his daughters phoned in a fake bomb threat and served eight months in a federal prison
people... (and one very unlucky giraffe)
Arts and Entertainment
Sink the Pink's 2013 New Year's Eve party
musicFour of Britain's top DJs give their verdict on how to party into 2015
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Arts and Entertainment
(L-R) Amanda Peet as Tina Morris, Melanie Lynskey as Michelle Pierson, Abby Ryder Fortson as Sophie Pierson, Mark Duplass as Brett Pierson and Steve Zissis as Alex Pappas in Togetherness
TV First US networks like HBO shook up drama - now it's comedy's turn
News
i100
Travel
Pool with a view: the mMarina Bay Sands in Singapore
travel From Haiti and Alaska to Namibia and Iceland
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

Ashdown Group: Brand Marketing Manager - Essex - £45,000 + £5000 car allowance

£40000 - £45000 per annum + car allowance: Ashdown Group: Senior Brand Manager...

Guru Careers: .NET Developer /.NET Software Developer

£26 - 35k (DOE): Guru Careers: We are seeking a .NET Developer /.NET Software ...

Guru Careers: Graduate Marketing Analyst / Online Marketing Exec (SEO / PPC)

£18 - 24k (DOE): Guru Careers: A Graduate Marketing Analyst / Online Marketing...

Guru Careers: Technical Operations Manager

£Neg. (DOE) + Excellent Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Technical Ope...

Day In a Page

Aren’t you glad you didn’t say that? The worst wince-and-look-away quotes of the year

Aren’t you glad you didn’t say that?

The worst wince-and-look-away quotes of the year
Hollande's vanity project is on a high-speed track to the middle of nowhere

Vanity project on a high-speed track to nowhere

France’s TGV network has become mired in controversy
Sports Quiz of the Year

Sports Quiz of the Year

So, how closely were you paying attention during 2014?
Alexander Armstrong on insulting Mary Berry, his love of 'Bargain Hunt', and life as a llama farmer

Alexander Armstrong on insulting Mary Berry and his love of 'Bargain Hunt'

From Armstrong and Miller to Pointless
Sanchez helps Gunners hold on after Giroud's moment of madness

Sanchez helps Gunners hold on

Olivier Giroud's moment of madness nearly costs them
A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

Christmas without hope

Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

The 'Black Museum'

After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

Chilly Christmas

Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect