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."

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Dawkins: 'There’s a very interesting reason why a prince could not turn into a frog – it's statistically too improbable'
newsThat's Richard Dawkins on babies with Down Syndrome
Malky Mackay salutes the Cardiff fans after the 3-1 defeat at Liverpool on Sunday
footballFormer Cardiff boss accused of sending homophobic, racist and messages
Rodgers showered praise on Balotelli last week, which led to speculation he could sign the AC Milan front man
Life and Style
life – it's not, says Rachel McKinnon
Arts and Entertainment
Eye of the beholder? 'Concrete lasagne' Preston bus station
architectureWhich monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?
Arts and Entertainment
Arctic Monkeys headline this year's Reading and Leeds festivals, but there's a whole host of other bands to check out too
music(who aren't Arctic Monkeys)
Lizards, such as Iguanas (pictured), have a unique pattern of tissue growth
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

Creative Content Executive (writer, social media, website)

£30000 - £35000 Per Annum + 25 days holiday and bonus: Clearwater People Solut...

Legal Recruitment Consultant

Highly Competitive Salary + Commission: Austen Lloyd: BRISTOL BASED - DEALING ...

Digital Project Manager / Web Project Manager

£45-50k (DOE) + Bonus & Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced ...

Account Manager

£30 - 35k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking an Account Manager to join ...

Day In a Page

Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape
eBay's enduring appeal: Online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce retailer

eBay's enduring appeal

The online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce site
Culture Minister Ed Vaizey: ‘lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird’

'Lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird'

Culture Minister Ed Vaizey calls for immediate action to address the problem
Artist Olafur Eliasson's latest large-scale works are inspired by the paintings of JMW Turner

Magic circles: Artist Olafur Eliasson

Eliasson's works will go alongside a new exhibition of JMW Turner at Tate Britain. He tells Jay Merrick why the paintings of his hero are ripe for reinvention
Josephine Dickinson: 'A cochlear implant helped me to discover a new world of sound'

Josephine Dickinson: 'How I discovered a new world of sound'

After going deaf as a child, musician and poet Josephine Dickinson made do with a hearing aid for five decades. Then she had a cochlear implant - and everything changed
Greggs Google fail: Was the bakery's response to its logo mishap a stroke of marketing genius?

Greggs gives lesson in crisis management

After a mishap with their logo, high street staple Greggs went viral this week. But, as Simon Usborne discovers, their social media response was anything but half baked
Matthew McConaughey has been singing the praises of bumbags (shame he doesn't know how to wear one)

Matthew McConaughey sings the praises of bumbags

Shame he doesn't know how to wear one. Harriet Walker explains the dos and don'ts of fanny packs
7 best quadcopters and drones

Flying fun: 7 best quadcopters and drones

From state of the art devices with stabilised cameras to mini gadgets that can soar around the home, we take some flying objects for a spin
Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

The midfielder returned to the Premier League after two years last weekend. The controversial character had much to discuss after his first game back
Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

British No 1 knows his consistency as well as his fitness needs working on as he prepares for the US Open after a ‘very, very up and down’ year
Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

A descent into madness in America's heartlands

David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home