Thursday, October 23, 2008

Whither the Daily Service?

Confound and blast the wretched BBC!

Melancholicus has never thought much of the level of religious programming aired by the BBC, but he has always derived a certain spiritual comfort from listening to the Daily Service broadcast on BBC Radio 4 (LW) between 9:45 and 10am on weekdays.

This service—typically but not exclusively Anglican—consists of a series of prayers, reflections, Scripture reading and some lovely traditional hymns. The Lord’s Prayer is usually recited. While listening, one can close one’s eyes and imagine the interior of one of those countless beautiful English churches, with their medieval architecture, Victorian stained glass and their rows of BCPs and English Hymnals. Unusually for a religious programme broadcast by the BBC, the service is regularly edifying (although often sandwiched by the schedule between the impious, arrogant, pompous and opinionated Melvyn Bragg on the one hand and the equally egregious Woman’s Hour on the other).

But of late the content of the Daily Service has taken a noticeable turn for the worse. Recently we had the vicarette who explained away all of Our Lord’s exorcisms recorded in the gospels as simply the curing of people afflicted with “mental illness”, thus denying the reality of demonic possession, and in effect denying the very existence of wicked spirits. It is all very well to draw attention to mental health issues, but one must not falsify the testimony of Scripture in order to do so. Besides, is there nowhere else in the Radio 4 schedule in which the issue of mental health could be raised, than the Daily Service?

The devil has no better allies than Christian ministers who go out of their way to deny he exists. A day later there was the foolish Canon who interpreted the spirit that had afflicted the bent woman in Luke 13 as “a crippling psychological burden”. Psychological burden! While it is true that grave mental anxiety can have such an effect on the body, this kind of rationalisation is ridiculous and succeeds only in calling attention to itself and to the minister’s discomfort with the plain words of the Biblical text. This silly man also made a reference to “the spirit blowing where she wills”, whereafter Melancholicus heard no more, since his thumb flew post haste to the off switch. While he has heard a few fairly iffy Daily Services over the years, this is the first time on which he resolutely tuned out before the programme had finished.

And this morning there was a Welsh minister, whether Anglican or non-comformist Melancholicus cannot recall, but the service led by this man would have gone down a treat at a socialist meet. He claimed his faith didn’t make any sense until he began linking it with the emancipation of the poor and the working class. His service, naturally, featured ‘inculturated’ Zulu singing, socio-political reflections that were thoroughly this-worldly, Pelagian and all about works (is such not passing strange for a minister from a Reformed background?). Almighty God was very much in the background. Insofar as He made an appearance at all, Our Lord’s mission was all about merely improving the material condition of the poor, something any socialist could rave about; one could be forgiven for thinking as a result that the Incarnation was nothing to do with redemption from sin and attaining to everlasting life. With a sigh, Melancholicus switched off the radio. He had expected an edifying service of prayers and hymns, not fifteen minutes of marxist agitprop.

One wonders if the BBC is attempting to bring the hitherto unmistakably Christian Daily Service into line with what we might call ‘BBC religion’, even to the extent that it shall contain nothing that could be considered ‘exclusivist’, or offensive to persons of non-Christian religions; or, on the other hand, whether the degradation of the content of the service merely reflects the continuing decomposition of the Church of England, since the established church provides most of the ministers who conduct the service. Melancholicus wonders who picks these ministers, and whether they are vetted beforehand, so that the BBC may rest safe in the knowledge that they will not use their fifteen minutes of air time to utter some similitude hostile to the dogma of political correctness, or to infer that Christianity might actually be the true religion after all.

The BBC even has a page on the history of the Daily Service here, and a gallery of images therefrom here. Both are worth a look.

But this article by Paul Donovan in the Sunday Times on the occasion of the Daily Service’s 80th anniversary in December of last year is much more illuminating as regards the current trajectory of this much-loved programme:

Faithful service

Radio Waves
Paul Donovan

Hidden away on Radio 4 long wave (though still important enough to interrupt the cricket, as listeners to Test Match Special in Sri Lanka will have noticed) is a 15-minute programme called Daily Service. It consists of hymns, prayers, a Bible reading and a homily. On Wednesday, it is 80 years old. This extraordinary span is exceeded only by Choral Evensong and Radio 4’s Sunday-morning charity appeal, both of which began in 1926. In addition, Daily Service marked the first point in history when daily corporate worship was extended to people, unseen and unknown, who had not physically gathered together for that purpose.

There is one tiny sentence about the anniversary in the vast, 272-page Radio Times, the same in the official listings, and nothing in the press information bulletin. Twenty years ago, when Daily Service celebrated 60 years of “bringing peace and consolation to the sick, the lonely and the sad”, in the words of its founder, the BBC produced an excellent souvenir booklet with much enthusiastic input from its then head of religious broadcasting; this time, so far as I can tell, his successor has said not a word, at least not publicly. How much has changed in 20 years.

Is the BBC suffering from “Nativity-play syndrome”, the misplaced belief that non-Christian religions will object to too much emphasis on Christianity, a view that has been so effectively demolished by Trevor Phillips?

Possibly. But I detect something more: a slight but increasing nervousness in the BBC about the legality and morality of spending public money on one religion at the expense of others. Let there be no doubt that this is what the BBC does: in addition to Daily Service, every weekday, we also have Prayer for the Day (not to be confused with Thought for the Day) and Sunday Worship on Radio 4, Sunday Half Hour on Radio 2, Choral Evensong on Radio 3 and, on BBC1, Songs of Praise. All of these are ecumenical, but specifically Christian. No other faith is accorded this airtime.

Some of us have no problem with that: Britain is a Christian country, whose head of state is also head of a church established by law, and whose legislature still has 26 Christian priests sitting in it as of right; and the BBC, as the state broadcaster, should reflect that. But I fear that is becoming a minority view, and that more people now think of Britain as a “multifaith” country, in which case it is difficult to defend a publicly funded body supporting only one religion in terms of the hours devoted to worship. Indeed, many BBC bosses — and its own corporate literature — frequently refer to “multifaith” Britain. Sooner or later, I suspect, they will be asked to justify giving this platform to Christianity in preference to other faiths.

Until then, and perhaps afterwards, we can take heart from a corner of the schedules that would not exist had it not been for an indefatigable Hertfordshire spinster, Kathleen Cordeux, whom I quote above. She pestered the BBC for two years to start the programme, arguing her case, getting a petition up and having an appeal printed. She was the most persistent letter-writer the fledgling BBC had ever encountered. An early example of listener power! How much we owe her, and her determination.

Indeed. But even if the BBC does not go so far as to axe the service altogether, Melancholicus fears that the hip’n’trendy C of E ministers currently chosen to lead the service may still end up killing it with relevance.

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