The Challenges and Changes of Religious Broadcasting in Britain 17 October 2015

Abdul-Azim Ahmed explores the changing face of religious broadcasting in the UK by discussing events at the Sandford St Martin Awards ceremony for religious programming held in May 2015.

Those who used the earliest incarnations of the BBC iPlayer website may remember a little subsection titled “Religion and Ethics”. This section was removed several years ago, never to return. Its removal was understandable, it was usually sparse. You would find “Songs of Praise” listed every week, joined by the odd documentary or the Christmas and Easter specials the BBC produced. It wasn’t a particularly inspiring sub-section, and it certainly gave off the impression that religious broadcasting was stale, unimaginative and unengaging – it is unsurprising then that the section was quietly removed.

Sandfor St Martin AwardsThe reality of religious broadcasting in the UK however could not be further from this image, as I found out on a very warm London evening in May. It was the ceremony for the Sandford Awards at Lambeth Palace, an event organised by the Sandford St Martin Trust, a charity which seeks promote “excellence in religious programmes”. Every year, following nominations and a rigorous longlisting and shortlisting process, the trust celebrates the best examples of religious broadcasting on television and radio. Rather than dull, sparse and uninspiring, the shortlist for the awards was full of a variety of imaginative, innovative and engaging shows, many of which were popular nationally and occupied prime time slots.

It’s a paradox that goes to the heart of modern Britain. Many “believe without belonging” while others “belong without believing”. The number of people with no religious identification has increased according to the 2011 census, but so too has the growth in minority religions and alternative spiritualties. Even disbelief has a particularly religious feel about it, with Sunday Assemblies that provide space for the faithless to meet and celebrate life together, as well Humanist weddings and funerals. There was once a confidence that religion was diminishing in Britain and Europe, not only from the public sphere but also from people’s lives. This confidence has slowly been eroded as religion continued on, in different ways, but still vibrant and often growing. It prompted the sociologist Jürgen Habermas to coin the phrase “post-secularism” to describe a resurgence of religious beliefs and identities in once “stable secular societies”.

The Sandford Awards were a testament to this growing, evolving and diverse religiosity found in Britain. To borrow an idea from researcher of religion Linda Woodhead, the shortlist represented both the “old guard” and the “avante guard” of religion in Britain.

This was something the judges for the Sandford Awards were highly conscious of and they discussed the challenges of defining “religious broadcasting”. Is it shows in which “religion” is the overt focus? Or is it perhaps time to expand the definition to include shows about morality, ethics and the deeper questions to which religions relate. Likewise, should religious broadcasting be concerned with established religious traditions, or look at newer and emerging religious movements?

The winners and runners up of the Sandford Awards stretched across both definitions. The Radio Runner-Up was “For the Love of God”, presented by Catrin Nye was a documentary that explored the very human stories of inter-faith marriages—sometimes heart-warming and other times heart-breaking. The TV winner was “One Million Dubliners” which told the story of Glasnevin Cemetery in Ireland, a place that held incredible meaning to almost everyone in the city. It was clear both shows were about religion in a very traditional sense, but they also foregrounded the shared human experiences which cut across religious boundaries.

Some award winners however were not overtly about religion, but nonetheless explored religious themes very consciously. TV runner-up was “Marvellous”, a biopic that told the story of Neil Baldwin, a man considered to have learning difficulties, who counts bishops and professional footballers as close friends. In a similar vein of optimism and human indefatigability, the Radio winner was “No Destination”, which recounts Satish Kumar’s  8,000-mile walk from New Delhi to Moscow, Paris, London and Washington D.C. delivering packets of ‘peace tea’ to the leaders of the world’s four nuclear powers. Kumar is a Jain monk and a student of Gandhi’s teachings, whose deep faith and desire for political change are shared in an aurally rich documentary.

It would be easy to think that with such innovative approaches to religious broadcasting, the role for the traditional Parish priest on the airwaves has diminished. But the Radio Times People’s Choice Award put the BBC’s comedy “Rev” as Runner-Up and ITV’s detective-cum-priest “Granchester” as the Winner. Both were national hits and both positively, but in a very human way, represented the established church traditions of Britain.

Yet when many think of religion and the media, most will think of the news and the way in which religion figures in international crisis and conflicts. The Sandford St Martin Trustees recognised this by giving their Trustee’s Award to BBC International Correspondent Lyse Doucet. Reporting for Radio 4, the BBC World Service and Newsnight, Doucet has often been instrumental in investigating and communicating the nuances of global events and how religion figures within them.

I for one would be very keen for the “Religion” subsection to return to BBC iPlayer as a category. The Sandford Awards have shown that provided you have an open attitude to what counts as ‘religion’ – it could be an incredibly vibrant section that helps make sense of the modern world.

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About Abdul-Azim Ahmed

Dr Abdul-Azim Ahmed is Editor of On Religion magazine. He holds a doctorate in religious studies and an MA in Islam in Contemporary Britain.

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