It was wonderful to hear that Songs of Praise, the flagship BBC religious programme, was to come from the Island of Lewis – the home island of my wife and apparently more significantly the home island of President-Elect Donald Trumps mother. I looked forward to hearing some Gaelic psalm singing, traditional hymns and perhaps a couple of Celtic praise songs.
So what did we get? On the positive side there was some stunning film, Rev James MacIver of Stornoway Free Church, the journalist John Macleod talking about the Iolaire disaster (something that has been grievously underreported in the mainstream UK press), a tiny snippet of Gaelic psalm singing as background music and the wonderful Sally Magnusson, probably the best presenter on the BBC.
But it was a surreal and somewhat bizarre programme. I watched it with a growing sense of perplexity and bemusement. Why did we have hymns from various parts of the British Isles, but not from Lewis itself? Why was there so little of the deep and rich Gaelic Christian tradition? As one colleague posted, it was “like the Trump connection to Lewis was a shabby excuse to visit some scenic locations, string together some quaint historical anecdotes, but ignore the rich tapestry of religious expression that makes up our United Kingdom.”
That led to the Iolaire disaster story being followed by a completely inappropriate account of Norman Vincent Peale, the heretical minister who seemed well suited to New York Millionaires, with his blasphemous ‘power of positive thinking’
“Believe in yourself! Have faith in your abilities! Without a humble but reasonable confidence in your own powers you cannot be successful or happy.”
Just the advice an incoming President does not need to hear! Can you imagine the grieving families of Lewis being sustained by the pseudo-psychological garbage of positive thinking?
But that sums up what was wrong with the whole progamme. Its not just that they don’t have a big budget and so couldn’t get all the equipment and crews up to film the local people worshipping, its more that that is not what the programme is about. And this is where the story gets even more interesting. I have been involved with the BBC at several levels and it is fascinating how it works in terms of its ‘religious’ output. In my view the BBC is the best broadcasting organisation in the world and produces some quality programmes – more than half the podcasts I listen to are from the BBC. But in religion it is usually dreadful – because it is just doesn’t get what Christianity is and is fearful, prejudice and biased against anything that might challenge its secular shibboleths.
There was the time I almost appeared on Songs of Praise from Dundee. A group of local church leaders were asked to meet with the producers of Songs of Praise and we were all asked for our input. I suggested that I didn’t have much to say as I didn’t watch the programme – when asked why, I said because it tended to be on when I was at our evening service, but that even if I was free I probably wouldn’t. My fellow clerics were a bit shocked but the producer asked me more and I explained that I thought it was too safe, comfortable, middle class and predictable and that it seemed designed to appeal to the Harry Secombe set in the Home Counties. He agreed and asked me for some ideas – so I gave him a couple and they agreed to run with them. He said that I was right and that his was just an independent production company that had been given a remit that had to bear in mind that the programme largely was, as I had suggested, designed for over 60’s in the South East of England. The production company came and filmed in St Peters even doing some of our psalm singing. The main event was still in the cathedral – an entirely staged event – the ‘congregation’ had to go one night and sing, and then the other night go dressed up and mime what they had sung the previous night. But at least there would be something different. However the producer phoned me a few weeks later, very apologetic, but his bosses at the BBC had refused to run with it – and they had to stick with the safe.
Another time I recorded a half hour programme with Sally Magnusson’s sister, Anna, in a graveyard in Edinburgh, discussing the Resurrection for Easter. After we had finished recording – Anna arguing from an atheist perspective, the producer told me that she thought it was a brilliant piece of radio, but she doubted that her bosses would let her just put it out as it was recorded. Why not? Because apparently they would want more ‘balance’. Apparently having someone who believed in the Resurrection and someone who didn’t wasn’t balanced enough, so they got in some renegade liberal priest who didn’t believe in the resurrection either, to waffle some ‘spiritual’ mumbo jumbo. My part ended up being a heavily edited seven minutes out of the 30.
Yet another time I was asked to speak on Radio Scotland’s Thought for the Day. I met with the producer beforehand in a café besides Haymarket station having travelled down especially for it – and I suggested that I would just go into the Dundee studios on the days required and just give a one minute commentary on some aspect of the news. Of course that was refused and I was told it would need to be a pre-approved word for word script. More than that he wanted me to send him a couple of trial scripts. After the first one he contacted me and the following conversation ensued:
‘You can’t say ‘Britain’s Christian values’”
“Because it might offend some people”
“You want me to talk to 250,000 people and not offend anyone? No wonder thought for the day is so boring! I can’t talk to myself without offending someone! What if I said, ‘as some of us would say ‘Britain’s Christian values’”
“You’ll have to leave it out”
“But it’s true – and anyway this is an opinion piece – surely you don’t expect everyone to agree?”
But apparently he did. I was banned from saying on the BBC, even as an opinion, that some people thought that Britain had Christian values! Balance, equality and diversity are not the BBC’s best qualities when it comes to religion. They like their religion bland, vague, middle class, and ‘liberal’. They will have evangelical churches on because these are generally the churches that are growing but they still want tightly scripted sermons which are ‘radical’ in that they talk about being radical, the poor, the dispossessed etc, but they don’t want the real radical teaching of Jesus which challenges the philosophies, ideas and sins of the possessed and the rich.
BBC Scotland in particular used to be dreadful. The Gaelic side is fine and the ‘secular’ news side is fine, but in the old days, when Rev Johnstone Mackay was in charge of religious broadcasting, it was made abundantly clear that anyone who strayed from the liberal perspective was unlikely to get air time. The liberal wing of the state church, thought that it could control the state broadcaster…and I think it largely did. Although in later years there is some sign that with the decline of the Church of Scotland the BBC is opening out a bit more. Incidentally in another twist at the end of last year Garry Otton of Secular Scotland, hardly my biggest fan, wrote to the BBC to complain about ‘thought for the day’ and amongst his complaints was that yours truly was not allowed on!
One other story. I was amazed to discover this programme on the BBC.
It was so unusual I wondered what had happened. Then I found out. The BBC’s religious editor was retiring and even he was fed up with the often-bland samey ‘safe’ stuff that came out. He was being replaced by a Muslim so apparently he decided he would go out with a bang! This also resulted in a most incredible witness in that it was discussed in this fascinating clip by Chris Moyles on his show….
Lets return to the opportunity that Songs of Praise missed when they went to Lewis. What sustained many of the families after the Iolaire disaster was the robust biblical doctrine and spirituality of their churches. I remember sitting in my in-laws house, overlooking the sea where the Iolaire sank, watching the ferry coming in and thinking, how could anyone cope with such tragedy? Coming home from the bloodiest war known to man, and drowning within sight of home? Only belief in a sovereign, loving and gracious God can take you through that dark pit.
At times the Presbyterianism of Lewis could come across as austere, legalistic and formal dead nit-picking religion – because sometimes it was. The story of swings chained up on Sundays was all to easy to mock. But at heart it is a religion of the heart – deeply spiritual, full of grace and of faith and trust in a loving and sovereign God. The religion of Norman Peale is that of the self-made man who thinks positive thoughts. The religion of Lewis is that of a Christianity which faces squarely in the face, the reality of 200 of its men dying in one horrible incident, and yet still retains a beauty, depth, intelligence and spirituality of life which is the only thing that can give us hope.
Songs of Praise far too often gives us the comfortable, honed down, unthreatening churchianity which fits the secular ethos of the BBC, rather than the messy, mixed up, rational and painful reality that is the religion of Christ. You can take your pick – the nice, comfortable self-works religion which wouldn’t get anyone crucified, or the reality and beauty of the gospel of Jesus, which turns the world upside down and gets you banned from the BBC! I know which one causes me to sing songs of praise!