Mary Colwell

Songs of Praise or Call the Midwife? Is religious broadcasting about doctrines or doing good?

A Jesuit friend of mine commented that Call the Midwife is the best portrayal of religion he’s seen in a very long time. Why? Because it is non-judgemental, grounded in compassion and deals with real issues. Many think Secret Millionaire does a good job too in showing the world a glimpse of dedicated yet ordinary people who do good things for no other reason that it is right. They are not seeking wealth or adulation – they just do it in an unsung, un-fussy type of way and we are thrilled when they get rewarded. But are these two programmes religious? Can they be put in the same frame as Songs of Praise for example?

What constitutes religion is an interesting area in this fast changing and culture-merging world. It is not a new debate. In 2005 a report on issues facing the BBC looked at religious broadcasting and lauded the change in name of the religious programming department to the Department of Religion and Ethics to reflect a society more interested in spirituality in general rather than religion per se. The media articles at the time were full of debate on whether religious broadcasting should be about showing the doctrines and practices of the faiths of the world or more widely explore the abiding human fascination with good and evil, right and wrong, selflessness versus selfishness.

These eternal battles have been told in tales around Palaeolithic camp fires, sung about in ancient sagas, acted out in theatres, written about in books and now broadcast across different media for thousands of years. We will never tire of telling and re-telling stories about what is good and bad. But is that enough in itself to be classed as religious? If so then for sure Call the Midwife and Secret Millionaire fit the bill, but arguably so do Sherlock, Dr Who and perhaps some could suggest the likes of East Enders. Where is the line in the sand today between religion and a more “spiritual” stance on what is the right way to live? Should there be one?

The two schools of thought occupy well-trodden ground. The first is that religions are too important to mass together with more diffuse programming. Believers want to see their faith as it is. For Christianity for example, as numbers in pews fall, to show that traditional worship is alive and well is needed more than ever. People welcome the fact that what they believe (no matter how up front their beliefs are in public) is there in front of them and they can join in. It is surprising how many people say they don’t always manage to get to church but they do watch Songs of Praise every week. Pure, unadulterated religious programmes definitely meet a need for many people of faith. It need not just be programmes like Songs of Praise, documentaries about St Paul’s journeys or the life of the Buddha or observational documentaries on what is a Catholic or the day-to-day running of an Islamic funeral parlour are all in the same camp. They are about the stuff of religion and how the faithful live.

Others say that any expression of good is a sign of God (any faith’s God) and so programmes like Call the Midwife follow closely what St Francis urged all Christians to do – always preach the gospel and sometimes use words. Religious programming is more to do with how people exhibit the undeniable bedrock of human goodness than concentrating on specifics of a faith. Watching how people struggle with life’s problems, make courageous choices or whatever, no matter what actual religion they are following, is as religious in content as any documentary of a well-defined faith. In today’s western society there does seem to be a consensus that traditional beliefs are a minority and airing issues of universal ethical concern appeal to more people. This is nothing new and this argument has been raging for years. Have things moved on? I think they have. 9/11, the paedophile priest crisis or the Arab Spring have changed the landscape. Also, in the West, climate change was still largely theoretical.

It has been said many times that 9/11 shook the world to its core. It made a complacent humanity realise that faith was not a minority hobby but a powerful force that could, when combined with politics and power, virtually bring the world’s most dominant nation to a halt. Who were these religious extremists who killed themselves and many others so audaciously? The paedophile clergy crisis has shaken the seemingly unshakable Vatican and rocked the largest Christian denomination so violently that sweeping reform is underway. Pope Francis is watched by the world as he tries to turn the old order upside down and change the institution that influences the lives of one billion people. From the Arab Spring emerged the factions and in fighting in the Muslim world which have confused the West about what exactly it means to be Islamic. In other words the religious world is not what it was and is still changing fast.

In times of distress and uncertainty people turn to religion. In a survey last year in the US 57% agreed with the statement “When a natural disaster occurs, my interest in God increases.” Church attendance rises and donations to religious relief funds increase. My guess is that this pattern is repeated around the world.

Many of us look on with increasing concern as weather patterns change and records for coldest, wettest, driest or whatever are broken. The earth is destabilising along the lines predicated and instead of being dependable has become a shape-shifter. It is now not fanciful to imagine mass migration away from unsuitable areas that no longer support populations. It is thought food and water will be the cause of wars, not oil, as our ability to grow food and supply water is increasingly stressed. To think that religion won’t play a major role in helping people face these realities is naive in the extreme.
Religious broadcasting, to my mind, is more important than ever. We need to understand and monitor how the faiths of the world are dealing with all these evolving situations. I believe there is a real interest in how religions are reacting to the many crises we face. Are they up to the job ahead? Do they have an opinion, a strategy, a vision? I will throw my hat into the ring and say I want more, not less, religious programming. I’m not convinced though my wish will come true.

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