Church of England rejects confrontation with the BBC

By staff writers
10 Feb 2010

The General Synod of the Church of England has rejected the substance of a motion condemning the television coverage of religion by the BBC and independent companies, preferring to encourage rather than cajole broadcasters.

A resolution put forward by Nigel Holmes, a former producer with Radio Cumbria, calling on the BBC and Ofcom to explain why British television's "once exemplary" religious coverage had become "marginalised" was heavily amended to produce one expressing appreciation - but also "deep concern" about the alleged reduction in coverage.

Alongside voices criticising the TV companies in the debate were a good number offering a contrasting, positive perspective.

Christina Rees, a representative from the St Albans diocese, and a leading member of WATCH (Women and the Church) declared: "As far as I am concerned, the BBC fulfils its remit better than anyone else … we can't expect the BBC to do the churches' job. We cannot tell them what to believe."

Canon Jonathan Boardman added: "Encouragement is the best way, not a lot of bombastic upbraiding. Would the church's mission be best served by a return to the sort of syrupy, sentimental programmes like Stars on Sunday from my childhood in the 70s?"

Meanwhile, Elaine Storkey, a theologian and broadcaster, commented: "If you ask the average teenager whether they would rather give up television or the internet, they will say they could not bear to be without the internet. Digital culture is no longer the preserve of broadcasters – are we going to go on debating television for ever?"

The Bishop of Manchester, the Rt Rev Nigel McCulloch, proposing the amendment that was eventually carried, said the whole breadth of public service broadcasting had come under “corrosive attack” in recent years, due to the impact of the recession and drop in advertising revenues.

The bishop said the Church had to speak into the debate on religious broadcasting in a way that was visionary rather than protectionist.

He said the Church had to face the fact that religion does not "fare well" as a priority with audiences, according to research.

One one Synod member, Gill Ambrose of Ely, confessed she did not know how to turn on her television.

In her widely read Articles of Faith blog, the Times newspaper's religion correspondent, Ruth Gledhill, wrote that the debate was "lacklustre", adding: "General Synod succeeded only in illustrating why more broadcasters do not devote more time to religious broadcasting."

The Church of England's briefing on the issue had explicitly complained about the BBC "increasingly moving religion out of specialist slots and into news and magazine programming."

But commenting on the debate, Simon Barrow of the religion and society thinktank Ekklesia, said: "If this motion had been passed unamended, the church would have been marginalising itself. Coverage of religious and non-religious belief issues is now going mainstream rather than being restricted to ghettos, and that is a positive thing."

He added: "Rather than moaning about the broadcasting companies' agendas and trying to resuscitate the defunct 'god of the slots', churches need to spend more time working out how to communicate within the wider culture - and in a multi-platform media environment."

Ekklesia also renewed its call for an end to the religious restrictions on BBC Radio 4's 'Thought for the Day' slot, arguing that it would benefit from being opened to all, including the non-religious, who wish to explore aspects of society from values-led, spiritual and ethical perspectives.

Also on Ekklesia: 'Making the media the (wrong) message', by Simon Barrow - http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/11227

Research briefing on The 'Thought for the Day' Debate, by Lizzie Clifford - http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/research/thought_for_the_day

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