Editor-At-Large: 'Songs of Praise': top programme, shame about the church

 

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Happy birthday, Songs of Praise! The world's longest-running religious series celebrates its 50th birthday today, with performances from stars such as LeAnn Rimes and Andrea Bocelli. For half a century, Songs of Praise has broadcast 12,500 hymns from 1,800 churches all over the world and been enjoyed by millions of viewers. Hymns that no longer get sung in schools in the UK, fantastic pieces of music that are in danger of dying out within a generation replaced by trendy rap and turgid folk songs, musical porridge that is totally without merit. Contemporary music rarely does the job of a decent hymn, which uplifts you and transports you to another level.

I realise that admitting you're a secret fan of Songs of Praise is like saying you believe in God or think that marriage is a good idea – something not mentioned in public. In the media world, you're a laughing stock if you admit to any of the above. Morality in modern society is a pick 'n'mix affair – feel free to do what you like and we won't judge you.

What fab roles models we've got in public life; the Milibands got married long after their kids were born, and Labour refuses to dignify marriage as a desirable state of affairs. God forbid Nick Clegg would raise his head above the parapet on this issue either. David Cameron approves of marriage – but hesitates to make it financially rewarding.

Our leaders are so feeble about morality and belief it makes me feel slightly nauseous. When it comes to discussion about religion in modern Britain, every minority has got to have equal airtime, equal prominence, even though new statistics show we're overwhelmingly a Christian society, 70 per cent claiming it as their faith. Muslims constitute only 4.4 per cent of the population.

In this climate of embarrassment about spirituality and personal values, I wasn't surprised to read that the BBC was thinking of phasing out AD and BC, and replacing it with the anodyne expression Common Era – although the director of editorial policy was on Radio 4's Feedback on Friday, backtracking like mad and claiming it was only an idea floated on a website. The BBC's head of religious broadcasting is Muslim, and the producer of Songs of Praise is a Sikh, neither of which bothers me. What I find more unsettling is the feeling that coverage of our mainstream religion is not regarded as a cornerstone of the output. Aaqil Ahmed, the BBC's head of religion and ethics (notice how religion gets only part-billing in his job description, ethics being now as important as belief), thinks that the Church of England is living in the past and shouldn't be given any preferential treatment. I agree about the former but not the latter.

The problem facing the Church of England can be summed up in two words – Rowan Williams. This uncharismatic academic wrote a disastrous editorial for the New Statesman earlier this year, moaning about the coalition and claiming politicians didn't understand the climate of "fear" in the country. The same unelected, unaccountable chap was due yesterday at the 60th birthday of another bloke, Bob Geldof, who is always telling democratically elected leaders what they're doing wrong. At least Saint Bob has raised millions for the world's poor and needy, whereas the Archbishop of Canterbury has failed to offer any kind of leadership to his flock and is now rumoured to be ready to resign before the end of his tenure.

The church sits on a property portfolio worth £5.3bn. It owns prime real estate, offices, shops, housing and 105,000 acres of farmland. Its bishops live in palaces, and the Church commissioners use their holdings to generate wealth to repair churches and fund their clergy. Over the years they have made some spectacular losses – £800m in the 1990s and £40m in 2010, when they invested in property in New York just before the crash. Shouldn't they use more of their huge wealth to reach out to the needy in modern Britain, demonstrating their faith through direct action?

In spite of 70 per cent of us saying we believe in God, the number attending church is plummeting. It's an unappealing use of our time. We're turned off by ineffectual leaders and the endless wavering over gay priests and female bishops. There's so much the Church of England could be doing – taking belief out of outdated buildings and into the lives of ordinary people in offices, canteens and schools. Rowan Williams has presided over a PR disaster for his church; at this rate, it will cease to exist except as somewhere we go to get married or be buried.

No wonder the BBC's head of religion thinks it's a turn-off. He's right, but please spare Songs of Praise.

Down and out in Paris – fashion hits rock bottom

The most unpleasant hours of my early career were spent at couture shows in Paris, when I wrote about fashion. Nothing seems to have changed. Designers employ hatchet- faced PRs who take malicious pleasure in inspecting your invitation as if it's forged and cramming you into cramped rows of tiny seats in airless spaces you would not put a hamster in, let alone several hundred overdressed sweaty adults.

Once in your unforgiving chair, you can expect to wait at least an hour for the "show" – usually a parade of unsmiling stick insects. Generally you can't see much, as photographers and favoured celebs fill the front row, with buyers next, and journalists further back. As the fashion press gives designers free publicity, without which their brands would be worthless, it's amazing more don't walk out.

At the Balenciaga show in Paris last week, the front benches collapsed, depositing everyone on the floor, and the entire audience, including VIPs such as actress Salma Hayek and Vogue's Anna Wintour, had to watch the show (and make notes) standing up. Burberry shows its range online and via Twitter – surely a better option than risking spinal injury from a faulty seat.

Wesker's fare has gone stale

Kitchen by Arnold Wesker, revived at the National Theatre, has stunning staging and choreography, and excellent, energetic performances. It's set in the kitchen of a busy West End restaurant in the late 1950s, and its cast of 31 makes the piece expensive to stage. But there could be another reason it is rarely performed: Wesker's play has absolutely nothing to say but the blindingly obvious. Yes, loads of nationalities work in catering.

Yes, their ups and downs could be a simile for a larger world. But this piece has a great big hollow at its heart. Why didn't Wesker let someone else update his work?

The bestseller race starts here

On Thursday, 225 hardback books, three times the number usually published in a week, hit the shops as publishers fight for our cash in the run-up to Christmas. In spite of talk of the demise of books, the 10 bestsellers in 2010 racked up sales worth more than £1m each.

Who will be the big winners this year? James Corden's autobiography, for sure. Jamie's Great Britain, half price in some shops, is already a runaway succes. But I'm not so sure about Heston Blumenthal at Home – this man left his home for a hot new mistress. Maybe some fans won't buy into his latest version of domestic bliss.

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