Obituary: Canon Roy McKay
Friday 19 November 1993
IN 1955, it was still widely held that sound broadcasting could continue to be the main religious medium. But Roy McKay, the newly appointed Head of Religious Broadcasting at the BBC, thought otherwise. Though he himself with his beautiful voice was most at home in radio programmes like Lift Up Your Hearts, he had the vision to see television's great potential, and to set up an outpost of his department in the Television Centre.
At my first lunch with him and Douglas Stewart, the Assistant Head of Sound Radio, he said, 'We are the new triumvirate.' And the question was, he said: with the advent of television, do you take a theologian and teach him television, or a television man and teach him theology? Both alternatives had their drawbacks. The ITV, who employed lay producers, tended to be far more conventional in their approach to religion than the BBC, who employed a number of ordained men. The ITV's religious equivalent to BBC's Meeting Point had at one time a Latin word for its title, Credo, and a stained-glass window as its background. But that must surely have excluded the 90 per cent of viewers who never went to church.
Roy McKay, by contrast, saw the 6.15pm space on Sunday, following the News and Weather, as a tremendous challenge to go after that 90 per cent. Take the weekend, when Dr Donald Coggan, then Archbishop of York, had been addressing a women's meeting at Pocklington, in his diocese, and suggested that he knew more about love than the pop-singer Adam Faith, who was always singing about it. It had merited a three-line mention in a Monday newspaper. McKay read it, and was on the phone to us as soon as he reached the office. A confrontation was arranged for Meeting Point the following Sunday. Early in the programme, Coggan moved the discussion away from teenage love to love in the family, and likened church-going to a family meal. This provoked Adam Faith to remark: 'The atmosphere round your table is, I'm sure, a friendly and loving one. That's not the feeling I get when I go to church.' 'You've a point there', said Coggan. 'It's a point you've got to answer, Archbishop,' said Ludovic Kennedy, who was in the chair. So the battle was joined, and the result was an audience of 8 million.
'Those who stand outside the Churches,' McKay once wrote, 'are often more open to Christian truth than those inside suppose.' It isn't every religious programme that was discussed on commuter trains next morning, as were the Meeting Points with the Cambridge liberal theologians Harry Williams, author of The True Wilderness, and John Robinson, author of Honest to God. But church circles became increasingly suspicious.
What seemed to them the last straw was the Meeting Point with Alec Vidler - discussing Paul Ferris's book on the Church of England. McKay had missed the programme, and we told him he ought just to see it. There was wind that it was to be debated in the Church Assembly. He rang back to say that, having viewed it, he could see nothing to worry about. How wrong he was] The nub of Vidler's argument was to question the need for a clerical caste. The early Christians didn't have it. But this got lost in the Assembly debate, which castigated the programme as undermining ecclesiastical authority. It was understandable in a way. They saw television as a dangerous threat.
This may have been the reason why - on leaving the BBC - to the distress of his many friends, McKay was blackballed. Whereas others of his colleagues became deans and bishops, he was offered only a city church. True, he instilled new life into it with lively lunchtime discussions. His mind never stopped. He was always questioning. But it will not escape a future historian that the man whose department every week addressed congregations of many thousands should have been consigned to a church with a congregation of practically nobody.
Nothing, however, can take from him his achievement in responding imaginatively to the demands of the television age - true to what he once wrote: 'There are times when the Christian must be ready, like Abraham of old, to turn his back on the accumulated treasures of the past, and go out in search of a new inheritance without knowing where he will find it.'
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