INTRODUCTION: BEGINNING BY LISTENING
“Thought for the Day may be a mere three-minute slot, but it has become a totemic issue in the social struggle over the role of religion in public life. 
Thought for the Day (TftD), the BBC’s religious breakfast slot on Radio 4, is no stranger to controversy. In 1997 Paul Donovan, biographer of Radio 4’s ‘Today Programme’, wrote that, “It is hard to think of any three minutes in the whole of British broadcasting which is more sensitive”  A quick scan over the history of TftD is enough to confirm his claim. Since its inception in 1970 the three minute broadcast has seemed to manage to offend conservatives, liberals, Anglicans, secular humanists, homosexuals, and people from Norfolk: quite a feat from a slot often derided as steeped in platitude and political correctness.
The debate recently has centred on the long-standing question of whether members of non-religious communities should be allowed to speak on the show, a cause championed by the British Humanist Association and the National Secular Society - and by some Christians too. While the BBC Trust ruled in November 2009 that the slot does not contravene ‘due impartiality’ guidelines, the decision to invite speakers from non-religious traditions remains open, as a matter of ‘editorial discretion’.
Sadly, the opinions surrounding the issue seem at times to have polarised into a war over territory, Christians and atheists fighting over rights to speak. The use of emotionally-charged rhetoric such as ‘discrimination’, ‘marginalisation’ and ‘intolerance’ bears witness to what BBC Director General Mark Thompson has described as a ‘surprisingly widespread sense of victimhood’  amongst all parties with a stake in the discussions. Speaking in a House of Lords debate on the issue in November 2009, Baroness Young of Hornsey said that although it might be a “tactical coup for humanism to be included on TftD, it does not amount to a strategic win” . Her use of military language is symptomatic of the manner in which this debate is often set, as a struggle between two opposing factions – the religious and the atheists - each concerned to maximise their presence in those two-and-a-half minutes over breakfast.
As long as the debate remains framed along these lines, then the discussion will continue to invite defensive responses. Yet the questions raised by the slot go beyond headline-catching buzzwords and drive to the heart of the difficulties surrounding the role of religion in the public sphere. Whether or not one agrees with Rod Liddle’s analysis of TftD as “whining and vapid pseudo-religious drivel”,  the controversy is a significant one, symptomatic of the wider questions surrounding the role of religious speech in society.
In such a context, those who speak the loudest on all sides often fail to pause and consider what kind of religious speech they are actually seeking to safeguard or dismantle. This report, then, attempts not just to offer another voice amongst the crowded babble of opinions, but to begin by listening attentively to TftD itself. It is hoped that by first remaining quiet and listening, we will better be able to respond to the issues raised by the programme. The activity of attentive listening might bring to light some of the ways in which TftD could be theologically important, which are not often raised in the rush to defend it on the grounds of the religious ‘right to speak’. With that in mind, 72 scripts have been chosen as a representative sample, taken from four separate weeks from each of the last three years of TftD broadcasts.  The various issues raised in the arguments surrounding the slot will be aired, and considered in the context of the actual content of the 72 scripts.
This report is by no means an attempt to have the ‘last word’ on the issue. It is hoped rather that it might provide thoughtful new theological resources which can be used to make claims for the role of such religious speech in the public sphere without simply resorting to defensively marking out religious territory. Conversely, listening with a theological ear to how TftD actually works as speech and what kind of religion it puts forward, might help us to reconsider thoughtfully the potential that speakers from alternative traditions not currently represented, might offer to the mutual listening process.
RELIGION BY RADIO
“Some of the producers were very sharp. Some of them were very dull, and defensive. I used to hate those discussions, because they would be afraid of me saying certain things. I thought on the Today Programme of all programmes, there ought to be a bit of courage now and again.” – Leslie Griffiths 
Many of the complaints made to the BBC regarding the slot focus on the fact that it offers an unchallenged platform to contentious views.  Likewise, many of its religious defenders are quick to uphold the slot as one of the few spaces where religious thoughts can be freely aired. Given its editorial procedure, however, TftD cannot be an entirely free platform for religious comment; to a certain extent the views given on TftD have to take on the values set up for it by the BBC’s guidelines. This should be borne in mind by both its critics and its defenders. The topic is decided with a producer, and the script is checked for potential offence, libel, or bias. While levels of editorial intervention may vary, the BBC’s control over the content is final: in the words of longstanding presenter Anne Atkins, ‘Every word is vetted and the producer has the last say’. 
It is worth reflecting, in addition, that ‘religion by radio’ itself could be considered problematic from a theological viewpoint. It is clear that, as Robert Runcie has noted, “Radio is a marvellous medium for many things but not for silence”.  In his Thought on 12 September 2008, Rhidian Brook praised the ten second silence in which Rowan Williams stopped to think before answering a difficult question on the Today Programme. Brook said that, “Those ten seconds of not saying anything were about the most eloquent thing I've heard on the radio.”
There is no space for silence on TftD, and yet the brave pause such as Rowan Williams offered, resisting the tidy soundbite answer, is vital to human interaction and communication understood theologically.  After all, our own fallibility is fundamental to the Christian understanding of our human place in the world, and therefore it is crucial that our thoughts are offered with humility, and a due sense of their own provisionality. All our words are held under both judgment and costly grace, and must therefore be chosen with care, and prologued with due silence of contemplation. Furthermore, when language attempts to speak of a transcendent God, communicate an intangible experience of revelation, or express worshipful awe, silence is perhaps a greater communicative resource than sound. The absence of silence is one of the inherent weaknesses of religion by radio.
Furthermore, by its very nature radio is, of course, a blind medium; unlike a conversation, a debate, or even a sermon, the speaker cannot see nor respond to her audience. The tone is entirely set beforehand. Abstracted from collective, worshipping communities and genuine face-to-face relationships, therefore, the kind of religion presented is necessarily limited.
A number of scripts included in the sample studied here deal explicitly or implicitly with these very issues.  Rhidian Brook (17/12/2007), for example, reflects upon the Incarnation as a form of communication :
The message of Christmas is that there is no substitute for being there - incarnate or, literally, in the flesh. No amount of words sent by post or by telephone or over social networking sites - can ever match the visceral reality of presence. Face to phone or face to screen will never match face to face. And Christmas is about face to face.
Given this theological model of incarnate communication, radio can only ever be partial, and, in all the rhetoric surrounding the marginalisation of religious speech, Christians should be careful not to overrate this medium for presenting their message.
“It’s made me much more conscious of being a human being and much less of being a Reform Jew...What I learnt is that radio is a very intimate medium and it works providing you say what’s really in your mind... You’re quite fragile, it’s early in the morning, you’ve got the problem of getting out of bed...” - Lionel Blue 
Many TftD speakers counter such limitations by making their script quite personal, offering a more narrative style in contrast to those Thoughts which sound more like a comment piece. The most personal of the scripts are offered by Rabbi Lionel Blue, who tends to take the role of a friend offering advice. The discourse is relational and remains largely informal: in one script Blue introduces his concluding message with, “and from personal experience I pass on these tips” (07/09/09). His self-presentation steers well clear of taking the stance of a religious authority; instead he offers himself as a friend, an informal counsellor, another fragile human being.
Most of the other presenters also take care to locate themselves in the common network of human relationships: as a son of a nagging mother, as a journalist who has struggled with career choices, as a scientist, an old man, a worried father, a “fellow human being” (Rob Marshall 12/01/08). These self-presentations tend to take precedence over their religious affiliations; only in 12 out of the 72 scripts do speakers refer to themselves specifically in terms of their religion, ‘as a Christian’ for example, and those that do tend to speak of their faith in terms of their personal relationship with the divine rather than in their ‘authoritative’ capacity as theologian, priest or rabbi, for example.
Notwithstanding the presenters’ attempts to distance themselves from their own religious authority, it is clear that the editors’ selection of speakers tries to balance a proportionate spread of faith-group representatives. Speaking of his choice of presenter, former producer David Coomes said that he aimed for, “Someone who can think theologically, someone who will represent a particular religious perspective, because you know we try and fulfil balances of denomination and religion and male and female and so on”. 
In practice, Christians gave approximately 80 per cent of the Thoughts covered in the script selection (58 out of 72); and Jewish, Muslim and Hindu speakers gave four Thoughts respectively - approximately six per cent each of the overall tally. One script was contributed by Sikh Indarjit Singh and one by Vishvapani who is a member of the Western Buddhist Order: each taking just over one per cent of the overall share. The sample is thus closely representative of all the scripts offered in the last three years, of which Christians gave 706 (78 per cent). Over the last three years Jewish speakers offered a sizeable 76 Thoughts (8.4 per cent of the overall total), and 39 Thoughts (4.3 per cent) came from representatives of Islam. Sikhs were more greatly represented overall in the past three years than in the sample, giving 36 Thoughts (four per cent of the total scripts); 30 (3.3 per cent) were presented by Hindus and 18 (two per cent) from Vishvapani, a Buddhist.
Of the Christian speakers covered within the selection, the majority are Anglican (54 per cent), 21 per cent are Catholic, eight per cent are Methodist, one is Church of Scotland (four per cent of the total Christian representation). The three remaining Christians are difficult to classify denominationally.
TftD’s religious spread is thus, very roughly, proportionately equivalent to the supposed spread of religions in Britain, not counting those who self-define as atheists or agnostics, according to an Ipsos Mori poll of 2005. As it stood in 2005, then, of those who affiliated with a religion, 85.5 per cent called themselves Christian, 3.9 per cent Muslim, 1.3 per cent Hindu and 1.3 per cent Buddhist, while Sikhs and Jews counted for less than one per cent each.  To take a strictly representational approach, according to these figures the Jewish contingent of the current TftD presenters is on the large side, and the Christians are actually slightly under-represented.
The relation to what the majority of citizens actually believe, however, is of course even harder to quantify. Unlike the 2001 census, other more recent surveys, which measure belief or practice rather than religious affiliation, produce significantly lower figures for the Christian denominations. In 2007, approximately two-thirds of the British either did not claim membership of a religion or said that they never attended a religious service, according to the report published in February 2008 by the Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, Asma Jahangir. Thus while affiliation may remain nominally Christian, the style of Christian thought or theology presented on TftD may be largely foreign.
Since its widening out from the initially establishment Anglican monopoly of its early years, the speakers represented remain from the mainstream religions in the country. The 2001 census showed up a range of other religions represented among the UK population: Spiritualists (32,000) and Pagans (31,000), followed by Jain (15,000), Wicca (7,000), Rastafarian (5,000), Bahà'ì (5,000) and Zoroastrian (4,000),  none of which are given air time on TftD. Likewise there is a notable absence of smaller Christian denominations such as Quakers, Presbyterians, Orthodox churches, or any representation from the variety of New Church Movements,  as well as the continuing absence of non-religious groups such as Humanists and atheist secularists – whose organisations are small, but whose actual level of adherence may be growing. It is worth noting that the ‘non-religious’ in Britain today include a large number of people who are simply disinterested in religion, as well as a smaller number who have consciously developed alternative belief and life stances.
While the BBC have suggested that TftD should be judged on its content rather than its contributors,  the policy of sticking to the major faiths implies that representation and affiliation influences the choice of speaker. It seems therefore that the richness of different Thoughts that might be available from widening the belief positions offered is sacrificed in favour of an attempt at representation of major social groups. The slot seems rather caught between the desire to be representative and the get-out that it is not obliged to be so.
IT’S MUCH EASIER IN THE BOYS’ CLUB
In a lecture delivered at Lambeth Palace entitled, ‘The Media: Public Interest and Common Good’,  Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Rowan Williams cited internationally-based research on the demographic make-up of media organisations, suggesting that those in the profession were predominantly male, young, drawn from the majority ethnic group in their society, and university educated. The TftD presenter statistics follow remarkably similar trends, despite the BBC’s reputation for a liberal bias in its demographic make-up.  Of the 33 current presenters, 26 (79 per cent) are male, 7 (21 per cent) female, and a remarkable 30 per cent at least, have taught or studied at Oxford or Cambridge. 
As a sample of all the TftDs given over the past three years, this selection is a reasonable representation: of all the scripts from 2007-2009 inclusive, 21.4 per cent were given by women and 78.6 per cent given by men. While it mirrors the gender balance of the media profession as a whole, the unequal gender ratio of speakers is likely to be influenced to some extent by the gender restrictions in some sections of the faith-groups represented. Within the Anglican Church for example which, as we have seen, supplies the majority of TftD presenters, ordained male clergy outnumber female clergy by 2.5 to 1,  and at present there are still no female bishops.
Nevertheless, somewhat ironically, gender equality is a topic of concern in one of the scripts in the selection: John Bell from the Iona Community (08/09/09) offers a searing critique of gender-related inequality in both business and religious institutions. Bell’s piece notes that, as well as the prevalence of women amongst Jesus’ friends, followers, and earliest evangelists, Jesus often used ‘female’ illustrations in his talks in what amounted to a radical challenge to a male hegemony.
The same cannot be said for the TftD presenters. While it is true that many individual women such as celebrities or historical figures are upheld as examples, these are by no means all positive, and many come in for criticism, albeit generally of a mild and diplomatic variety. What is more, female speech is treated as far less of an authority or useful resource for the Thoughts - of the 30 or so non-scriptural  quotations that are used in the scripts studied, only two are directly the words of women: one from a paralympic athlete, and one from Evelyn Underhill. There is also, as a tenuous third, an adaptation of the famous opening of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (07/04/07).
THE SHAPE OF THOUGHT FOR THE DAY SCRIPTS
The majority of Thoughts follow a very similar tight structure, a simple formula which allows for a neatness and clarity of shape within the limited time allowed. The speaker tends to open with reference to the news item which acts as the ‘topical tag’ for the overall reflection. This opener needs to grab the listener’s attention, and this sentence therefore tends to be very specific, often introduced in the context of the speaker’s, or alternatively the media’s, initial reaction to the piece of news: “It's been suggested in some quarters of the British press that Hillary Clinton is in search of a cause” (James Jones 13/10/09), for example.
Typically, the second paragraph expands the topic from the specific headline story or personal anecdote out to the general idea exemplified or implied by the issue. It is this broader idea which then becomes the nub of the Thought. Anne Atkins’ reflection on 11/09/08 for example, opens with a reference to an interview with John Humphreys on the Today Programme the previous day, and leads on in the second paragraph to the nub issue that his question represents: the debate between accountability and trust in those in authority.
The typical script then changes key about two thirds of the way through; a bridge sentence links this topical issue to a particular teaching, doctrine, or story offered by the religious tradition represented. This is expanded and discussed to varying extents; the presenter will often then proffer another example, a personal anecdote, or a quotation from a writer/thinker/poet/philosopher or personal acquaintance, to support the thrust of their discussion.
The close of the piece usually ends with a summary and often a message in the shape of a challenge to thought or action. Occasionally the script closes with a sentence in the language and form of prayer; for example: “Pray God Iran will emerge from the present crisis to be one of them”. (Colin Morris 15/05/09). This is the closest the slot ever gets filling the function of the prayer and praise programme from which it evolved.
Speaking to me about the art of writing a good TftD script, veteran contributor Leslie Griffiths attested that a script’s success often hangs upon the hinge between the ‘topical tag’ and the ‘religious reflection’. Lord Griffiths suggested that, “the way that you move from the one to the other was crucial to the whole thing. It didn’t have to feel as if you had set everything up for the 'and now the bible says' bit [...] It must sound as if it’s all of a piece.”
An analysis of the linking sections in the script selection reveals that there are four different approaches to Thoughts, four different ways of making the link between the chosen ‘topical tag’  and the theological message.
The first is when the speaker introduces the religious reflection as a way of commenting upon the ethics of a particular current issue, using theological resources in order to inform a response. In most cases, the transition to the ‘religious’ aspect of the Thought is made about two-thirds of the way through, and is used to call into question or to affirm the current developments in the issue concerned.
1. “It struck me as interesting that it's apparently so difficult to admit that human beings have the mass potential for moral failure. Indeed, it seems that it's quite unacceptable to propose that human beings generally are morally suspect. And this interests me because this, of course, is precisely what's being asserted by the Christian doctrine of original sin”. (Giles Fraser 12/09/09)
2. “Until very recently, when a woman had a miscarriage or delivered a still-born child, there were few prayers to represent these particular losses which even yet affect one in four women. Men - who were mostly in charge - didn't make provision for what they couldn't understand.
And this...in blatant contradiction to Jesus whose most loyal followers were women, whose prime examples of faith, generosity and love were women, whose first evangelist was a woman, and who even used female illustrations in his talks”. (John Bell 08/09/09)
3. “This delusion that any nation is self-sufficient and doesn't need the rest of the world is one the most persistent religious heresies. Isolation breeds the demonic. The apostle Paul told the Greeks that God has made all nations of one blood to dwell on the face of the earth”. (Colin Morris 15/06/09)
In these above three examples, a Biblical reference or Christian doctrine is introduced as the authority to support the speaker’s argument in response to the topical issue.
A second method is to use the topical tag as a jumping-off point for a more general theological discussion. The ‘religious bit’ initiates a change of tone, in which the speaker moves from one particular current example to a wider reflection with a religious angle. In this case the news story provides the initial theme, but the thrust of the reflection is not a direct suggestion of how to respond but a more abstract meditation on a theological or human issue. Responding to psychological research suggesting that religious belief is more intuitive than atheism, for example, Lucy Winkett says that,
4. “It is only a starting place for believers to know that this instinct to believe may be hard wired. Jews and Christians live by the commandment to love God with all our heart, soul and mind ... For adults who have engaged their brain with their faith, which is a vital part of religious life, it is not enough to assent intellectually to the existence of God or not. These are sterile arguments that can never be proved either way”. (Lucy Winkett 10/09/09)
The hinge section in one of David Wilkinson’s scripts reads as follows:
5. That personal sense of wonder and discovery is at the heart of the International Year of Astronomy, marking the 400th anniversary of the first use of an astronomical telescope by Galileo. It seeks to help people rediscover their place in the universe through the day and night sky. This is something as a theologian I want to strongly affirm. (David Wilkinson 18/06/09)
While this type of Thought can work, it can also risk at times sounding like it is using a contemporary issue simply as an analogy or attention-grabbing device, much like a tenuously related joke at the start of a sermon.
Lucy Winkett’s Thought of 26/05/09 is one such example: her topical tag is Sir Ranulph Fiennes climbing Mount Everest, and she makes the link with religion thus:
6. This physical spirit of adventure is arguably in contrast with our reluctance to venture into the unknown spiritually. The most challenging journey we can make is inwards, discovering the contours of our inner life, attempting to scale the sometimes mountainous terrain of our regrets, griefs and loves, hoping that the journey will give us fresh perspective on who we are and how we are to live.
The transition technique here initiates a move quite away from the topical tag, offering not a response to the current affair, but simply using the current affair as an excuse to explore a particular aspect of spirituality. Thoughts that make the transition from topical tag to religion in such a way risk veering too far away from the brief to reflect or comment upon the news. The can also sound like a bad sermon, and they are easy to parody or mock – as the remorselessly dismissive ‘Platitude of the Day’ website indicates.
No link required
A third mode of relating ‘topical tag’ to ‘religious reflection’ is one in which does not require a hinge-point as such at all. A topical tag can be chosen that is in some sense already religious, for example the Sikh festival of Hola (06/03/07) or the debate between Peter Kay and Richard Dawkins (09/03/07). This has the disadvantage of limiting its remit to overtly ‘religious’ news and affairs. Alternatively a distinctly narrative style can be employed which allows the speaker to weave some kind of religious reflection into the piece right from the outset. This is the approach taken by Lionel Blue; whose idiosyncratic Thoughts warrant a category to themselves. His more anecdotal rather than argumentative style can mean that these Thoughts run the risk of sounding out of place in the Today Programme, however, and do not grow so organically out of its news-focused page. Blue’s engaging, popular, and enduringly personal Thoughts, once described as “thinly disguised psychotherapy”,  suggest that the BBC’s description of the slot as offering a response to issues of the day through the lens of a specific long-established theological tradition, is not always accurate. In practice a wider reflective and ‘spiritual’ approach is sometimes employed.
Some of the most successful scripts hold organically together news stories and religious reflection by using language in such a manner as to create a sense of continuation right through the piece. Such scripts persuade through aesthetic force as well as logic: patterns of language can do a great deal of rhetorical work which enforces a point with just a subtle linguistic allusion.
Rhidian Brook’s Thought on 12 September 2008, for example, uses the full linguistic resources of the two and a half minute script to communicate his message in such a way that religious reflection grows organically out of the news item chosen. Taking as its subject the fact that our words matter, Brook uses Obama’s unfortunate quip about pigs in lipstick with reference to Sarah Palin, as his topical tag. Scattered through the piece are references and allusions that hark back to the opening Obama quotation: he labels Obama’s language “porcine”; notes that some concluded that he was a “chauvinist pig”; celebrates the importance of thoughtful pauses or “pig’s whispers”; contrasts political substance and cosmetics; and ends on the suggestion that “no amount of lipstick” could hide the ugliness of unholy speech. Brook’s language thus plays out his argument. His writing style and choice of metaphors and adjectives enforces the hazardous power of casual words to draw connections, make insinuations, and have far-reaching implications. He cements the link between the topical tag and the theological reflection by yoking both form and content: the proverb chosen (“a gold ring in a pig’s nose is like a fair woman who lacks discretion”) presents his message – the importance of discretion in speech – but it also echoes the metaphorical vehicle of the pig analogy cited in Obama’s phrase.
Brook uses his linguistic tools to ensure that the piece holds together. He avoids the temptation common to TftD presenters – to offer two different Thoughts rather than just one – and enforces the unity of the single message by creating a sense of cohesion within the script both in its form and content. His aesthetically powerful script captures the imagination and prompts reflection, without just putting forward a set of propositions.
In contrast, where TftD begins to sound like a sermon or a systematic apologetic argument, it falls into the hands of those who accuse the slot of simply offering an evangelistic platform to a range of religious dogmas. David Winter’s Thought on 7April 2007, for example, offers a mini sermon on the events of Good Friday. It lacks a personal angle and any quotations or other resources, and rather than acting as a reflection for the day, response to a topical issue or extended aphorism, its thrust is primarily evangelistic. Although well-written and certainly theologically thoughtful, it is easy to see why such use of prime-time radio for Christian evangelism is seen as offensive to those who accuse the BBC of using the airwaves to proselytise. 
Mark Damazer claims that, “TftD is commissioned as a theological reflection on current events. It is not an opinion piece. All contributors are told to ground their ‘thought’ in their own theological tradition, using the words of scripture or liturgy that have been worn smooth as a pebble by centuries of repetition and devotion”. 
Its grounding in religious tradition is thus claimed as the source of the slot’s distinctiveness. At first glance, this is largely borne out by the content of the scripts themselves: a survey of the 72 scripts reveals that almost all make at least one reference to the sacred texts of their religious tradition, often directly quoting or paraphrasing a specific passage. Although the specifically ‘religious reflection’ is often introduced late in the piece, in only one script from the selection (04/07/07) was no mention made at all of anything overtly theological or religious. Seven scripts cite a specific theologian or figure from their religious tradition as authority; one draws on liturgy. Inevitably, the scripts also draw a great deal from personal opinion and reason, but very rarely stray from the traditional orthodoxy of the established mainstream of the faith. They tend to steer largely away from the more controversial theological issues such as the specific mediation of salvation, the status of scripture, or the role of hierarchy in the church, for example.
The near ubiquity of religious references notwithstanding, a substantial proportion of the Thoughts seem merely to be paying lip service to their religious tradition. Occasionally, scriptural phrases and theological quotations are plundered and used to sanctify what otherwise demonstrates very little difference from any other comment piece. One Thought employs a quotation from St Augustine about faith: “St Augustine of Hippo said that faith is to believe what you do not yet see”, at the end of a reflection about equality and freedom exemplified in microcosm on the football pitch (20/06/09). The quotation comes out of the blue and initiates a shift of tone in the very last line; its relevance to the thrust of the message is unclear and its effect is a detachment of the ‘religious’ aspect of the Thought from the topical issue. Rather than using theology as the lens through which the topic is seen, this quotation is plucked out and crudely sewn on in order to allow the Thought to be pigeon-holed as a ‘religious’ one.
Indeed, for as many as a third of the scripts studied, the religious link enters like a rather forced afterthought, tagged on in order to legitimise or ‘baptise’ the opinions and comments upon which the Thought is grounded. One script from 15/10/09, for example, works well as a comment piece, reflecting on the difficulties of running an institution rather than simply spectating and responding, but lacks an overtly theological grounding. The heart of the message hangs not on scripture or religious doctrine but on a quote from Theodore Roosevelt: “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the one who is actually in the arena”. The final paragraph offers a mildly religious reflection, and a quote from Ignatius, but the thrust of the script would lose nothing by removing the final paragraph altogether.
Another such script reflects on the paralympic games. While the ‘message’ of the Thought in unclear, its import is clearly to bring to our attention the determination of sporting heroes that may otherwise go unrespected. As such it is, of course, a commendable message, and in keeping with the Christian message of value and equality for every created individual. Nevertheless, it offers very little in the way of theology that would make it any different from the average comment piece. In order to justify its position on a religious slot, St Paul’s image of the race - an analogy that has thrilled British vicars throughout the ages by justifying countless references to sporting events in sermons - is wheeled out at the end. Rather than providing a ground for the reflection it merely serves retrospectively to justify it as a ‘Christian’ act of speech.
The content of TftD thus at times defies the claims of its genuine distinctiveness, demonstrating occasionally a forced need to legitimise the comment as ‘religious’ by adding an explicitly ‘religious’ appendage at the end.
‘[The BBC has a] sponge-rubber view of religion that sees all faiths as essentially the same’  - Rev Richard Thomas, Diocesan Communications Officer for Oxford.
The BBC’s requirement that Thought presenters keep well away from any comments that could be interpreted as criticising another religion, has often been cited as making the show bland and insipid.  There is a risk that the colourful distinctions between text, stories and traditions, and the often profound divergences between doctrines and theologies, can become blurred. Phrases which come up time and again and suggest painstaking BBC editorial influence, such as ‘like all faiths’, and ‘whatever we believe’, as well as the Thoughts which choose to herald the benefits of ‘religion’ or ‘faith’ per se,  can contribute, in some of the blander scripts, to a dull sense of religious homogeneity.
This is not to say that the BBC’s strictures are inevitably in conflict with theological considerations. Indeed, one could say that the sensitivity and inoffensiveness required by the BBC’s guidelines for TftD could be seen to be theologically important. They contribute to a form of religious speech which seeks common ground rather than emphasising differences, prizes gentleness above confrontation, and should in theory, if done well, demand genuinely careful, time-consuming reflection, rather than falling into the trap of thoughtlessly aligning a particular religious position with a particular political/ideological stance.
Indeed, the potential for bridge-building between faith communities seems ingrained within many TftD scripts, not always just in rhetorical political correctness, but in what often extends to a genuine search for common ground. Unlike the debate around the slot in which we so often hear voices defending the rights of their own group or party, within TftD itself we often hear speakers seeking and praising the good in groups that they do not represent. Catherine Pepinster, a Catholic, uses one script to praise the work of Quakers. Jonathan Sacks reflects on the shared values of the Abrahamic faiths. Clifford Longley refers to what we can learn from Buddhist monks, and James Jones praises the work of Muslim prison chaplains.
Such examples of course open up the slot to accusations of watering down religious truth into a bland homogeneity. Nevertheless, in a society in which communities are often divided and groups clamour for their own rights at the expense of those who are different, such a spirit of generosity towards other faith-groups could be considered salutary. It is rare, particularly among the debates over religious speech today which are much of the time characterised by each group’s determination to defend its own talk-space, to come across language which seeks and affirms the good in whatever context it is found. TftD is by no means a perfect example, but the format seems to have the potential to offer us a glimpse of the kind of speech in which God’s name is evoked, not as a weapon to fuel division, but as peacemaker.
While theologically significant, this propensity is also evidently desired by the BBC’s viewers: an Ofcom qualitative research survey on religious programmes conducted in 2005  highlighted that the majority of people complained that there was not enough emphasis upon the common ground and shared concerns of the different faiths of the nation. Instead they considered that when there was discussion, it tended to be focused upon differences and conflict between different faith and belief perspectives.
Thought for the Day is described by the BBC as: “a unique reflection from a faith perspective on topical issues and news events” (BBC website). ‘Topical issues’ obviously covers a range of possibilities, and choices for subject matter range from celebrity scandals, to religious festivals, to political controversies, to scientific discoveries. Broadly, the main subject matter of the Thoughts can be classified into five types. The majority (34/72) have a political thrust – dealing with a current political or economic issue. These Thoughts tend to have an ethical message, or reflect upon the role that religion should have in relation to political ideology.
The second most popular variety of Thought reflects on the spiritual lessons of a particular aspect of culture, whether it be celebrity, sport, science or the arts. These Thoughts tend not to have such a direct ethical force but suggest parallels between the world of religion and the world of culture, often using the cultural phenomenon to teach a ‘spiritual’ or ‘theological’ lesson (15/72).
The third type is prompted by a specifically religious festival, tradition or event, which thus offers a natural starting point for a wider reflection on a certain aspect of religious teaching or experience (13/72).
The fourth category can be understood as more overtly ‘evangelistic’, and is characterised by discussion of the personal experience of the speaker’s faith. The effect of such Thoughts tends to be more of a promotion of a certain faith and what it offers to the believer (6/72). In these scripts, the theology shifts from being the lens through which the topic is viewed, to becoming the topic itself.
In an interview in November 2009, former presenter Leslie Griffiths criticised this variety of Thought, which uses the slot to advocate or explain a particular faith, rather than as a “theological reflection on current events”. He suggested that, “Sometimes for the minority faiths they feel it is incumbent upon them to tell the world about their faith; but I’m not sure that’s what it is all about. Of course, the fact that I’m a Christian and the essence of my Christianity gives me the angle from which I want to reflect, but it is the lens rather than the subject itself. I don’t want to talk about Christianity, I want as a Christian to talk about the news”.
There is no evidence, however, that scripts of this type are more common amongst the minority faiths; in fact within the selection it seems on the whole to be more of a temptation for the Christian speakers. 
The final category, which covered only four scripts from the selection studied, are Thoughts which are direct responses to a natural disaster, tragedy, or instance of human or environmental sufferings. Such scripts tend gently to analyse personal emotions with regard to the event, use religious resources to offer a framework with which to respond, and bring out a possibility for hope in the circumstances of the tragedy. Of such occasions, Richard Harries wrote that, “You don’t have to say anything very startling. What you have to do is try to capture in a sensitive way the mood of the audience and express that”. 
Speaking on the BBC’s PM programme on 17th November, Radio 4 Controller Mark Damazer argued that the slot should be judged by its content rather than its speakers. He claimed that the content of the reflections in fact offers a diverse range of views, rather than an overall consensus. A look at the scope of differing opinions covered by the 72 scripts studied here, however, does not go very far to support his views. While the contributions cover a wide range of subjects, comparisons of Thoughts with broadly the same topical tag rarely reveals any widely differing responses.
Three Thoughts within the selection deal with British/US relations with the Middle East, and the War on Terror. They all offer a new thought-provoking angle, but fundamentally all present a united front in terms of fundamental attitudes to the war: Oliver McTernan advocates a policy of engagement with extremism as a genuine human ideology rather than aggressive confrontation, 07/03/07; Indarjit Singh 06/03/07 criticises the possibility of a pre-emptive strike against Iran and highlights the similarities between the West’s extremist certainty of moral superiority and that of suicide bombers; Vishvapani 28/11/08 critiques the War on Terror rhetoric of the West and recommends facing ‘terror’ directly and responding with the reality of terrorists’ beliefs that they are themselves heroic fighters for a worthy cause.
Likewise, of the three scripts that directly deal with science and religion, the main thrust in all three cases is to defend against the idea of there being a conflict between the two (Clifford Longley 05/03/07) (David Wilkinson 18/06/09 and 10/09/08).
While a range of subjects is covered, then, the range of opinions expressed is not as diverse as it has been claimed.
THOUGHTS SPEAKING GOD
‘Public service religious radio, and perhaps Thought contributors, are under considerable implicit pressure to reflect this type of world-view, where the name of God is absent, and where listeners construct their own moral universe’. 
One of the criticisms sometimes directed at TftD is that its presentation of religion is so watered down as to be effectively secular. In the words of Rod Liddle, “God is almost never allowed to poke His [sic] nose into a broadcast, and when He does, His appearance is heralded with apologies and embarrassment. He does no smiting, He is never angry”. 
It is true that, in an astonishing 16 (22%) of the Thoughts conducted by theistic believers within the selection (Christians, Muslims, Jews, Sikhs, Hindus), the name of God is not mentioned, in any form.
Nevertheless, Liddle’s frustration about God’s absence from TftD scripts somewhat falls prey to the tendency to understand God as another ordinary object of speech and understanding. This is out of sync with the orthodox understanding of God from throughout reflective Christian theology, which consistently resists limiting God to the referent of a statement, or an ordinary agent that can step in and out of the action.
The predominant way in which God is mentioned within the Christian scripts studied is in terms of the divine role as creator; as cause and sustainer of humanity, science and nature. Those that have a more distinctive ethical application often speak of God as a source of values and the ground of morality. Because many Thoughts respond to tragedies or suffering in the news, God is often invoked as co-sufferer. Liddle is right to say that God is rarely presented as angry or vengeful. And it is true, further, that God is also rarely presented as saviour, redeemer, ruler, and only once, among the 72 scripts studied, as judge. This suggests that the presentation of God is indeed somewhat limited to the more ‘palatable’ aspects of God’s ‘public image’.
Only in one script is God’s wrath the focus of reflection; Joel Edward’s Holy Week message (02/04/07) uses unusually strong language in denouncing injustice in the name of God: “Holy Week is therefore a reminder that God stands firmly against Mugabe's brutality in Zimbabwe; he abhors the shameful neglect of the prisoner and the poor. He is outraged by over 12 million modern day slaves trafficked across the world to prison camps of abuse”.
The theology of the more conservative branches of evangelicalism, which has perhaps informed Rod Liddle’s understanding of the Christian doctrine of God, are not commonly represented by Thought speakers. Anne Atkins’ Thought from 11/09/08 is the only one to speak of the work of the cross in terms of sacrificial atonement. Likewise the more radical theological stances of the recent decades, such as liberation theology or Queer theology, are nowhere to be seen.
Ironically, an almost diametrically opposite argument to that of Liddle has been used to criticise the suggestion of letting non-religious speakers on the show. In an article for the Guardian’s ‘Comment is Free’ Mark Vernon suggested that the religious world view tends to be dramatic and tragic while the secular world-view tends to the pragmatic, which is “harder to whip up into an arresting Thought”. 
In terms of its analysis of Thought for the Day’s theology, Liddle’s depiction seems more accurate than Vernon’s. The overall tone of TftD seems to be gentle, reflective, and - in contrast to Vernon’s claims - largely pragmatic. The hope TftD scripts offer is often grounded in small local acts of faithfulness, neighbourliness, honesty, and the messages offered at the end of Thoughts range from doing a small act of kindness for an enemy; to judging people on the content of their character not their skin colour; to learning to compromise. The concluding ‘message’ is invariably couched in terms that can be put into practice in some small way that day by the individual listener, regardless of their faith or creed. Given this, it seems that the ‘pragmatic’ non-religious world-view might fit quite well into the current array of religious comment.
Consider these closing comments from various scripts:
1. May the forthcoming Jewish New Year come to us all for peace and friendship and a wee bit of prosperity maybe wouldn't do any harm. (07/09/09)
2. ...there is money to be made even when you act responsibly, inspired by strong values.
3. In the current climate, we should recognise that the ugly, as well as the beautiful, has the right to be heard, unless there is overwhelming evidence to the contrary. (20/02/09)
4. As a fellow human being at the start of a new year, I simply suggest that there is much much more to life than the short term - and the sooner we start planning for the longer term outlook - the better it will surely be for all of us. (12/01/08)
5. Much as we would like it to be different, there is nowhere else to start from; and often we have to be satisfied with just that first step.(15/04/08)
This is certainly not evidence of a world-view that is ‘dramatic and tragic’. While some Thoughts offer more radical challenges to the status quo (see Rowan Williams 06/04/07 and Giles Fraser 19/12/07) the tone of many other Thoughts is overwhelmingly pragmatic.
At times the radical and subversive potential of the theology of Christianity and many other faiths appears to be watered-down into common-sense pragmatism with a veneer of theological justification. Nevertheless this doesn’t necessarily imply that the presence of God in the Thoughts is only ever an ‘apologetic’ afterthought. TftD may not make the most dramatic radio but its emphasis on reflection and, at times, personal struggle, could be seen to be theologically important. We should not make the mistake of assuming that a more ‘angry’ or ‘aggressive’ religion is more authentic. Indeed, overall Thoughts seem more likely to take as their very theme the ‘correcting’ of such mistaken views of God (James Jones 16/04/08 Mona Siddiqui 17/06/09 Akhandadi Das 03/07/07).
The tendency of the modern media to demand a dramatic, almost crudely ‘interventionist’ God can be seen as another symptom of the inherent tensions that arise when Christian theology meets the fast-paced, controversy-gripped world of modern media. In his lecture at Lambeth Palace on the Media, the Archbishop of Canterbury suggested that, “the difficulty most of the modern media finds in handling religion is not simply some sort of hostile bias to belief as such, but the extreme difficulty of representing in an 'urgent' medium experience or awareness that is apprehended in common practice over time”. 
OUT OF THE PULPIT AND ONTO A SOAPBOX?
“I think it has been let down by the tendency of some presenters to enter the political arena. It’s as if they want to be presenters of ‘Today’ not ‘Thought for the Day’. I think it should stay philosophical and religious, not be political”. 
The BBC’s Editorial Standards Committee (ESC), in its response to complaints about the slot, noted that the brief of the slot - to comment theologically on a current affair - is a risky one when it comes to protecting the BBC’s policy of political impartiality. Unsurprisingly, TftD’s theological and religious reflections are carefully monitored to avoid any obvious alignment with any one political position on a particular issue. The work of the producer with each writer is described as part of the “processes and systems in place as safeguards” against such a breach.
While this editorial intervention in the name of impartiality has at times been criticised for limiting the scope of Thought’s theological critique,  overall the policy of political neutrality tends to accord with the prevailing theology of Thought for the Day. Thoughts often emphasise a strong sense of the mystery of God, eschewing the possibility of making claims on God’s behalf in relation to specific policy decisions. Indeed, many take as their topic the need to extricate ‘God-talk’ from political ideology and power structures. Such scripts do not just give a theological reflection on a political issue, but take it upon themselves to offer a critique of the very ways in which theology should be used for such purposes. To this extent they are often self-reflexive, (see James Jones 13/10/09, Clifford Longley 08/09/08). Theologies with too direct a political agenda are often explicitly criticised: the habit in some quarters of Christianity of aligning faith with the American political right is often the target of theological critique, as is the practice of liberation theology as a political tool (08/01/08).
When Thoughts do stray into more political territory, they tend to direct their attentions to praising and affirming the democratic system itself, rather than placing themselves at any specific point on the political spectrum.  Where politically-sensitive areas are touched upon the language is carefully hedged so as not to betray any partiality. The majority of the more politically-charged Thoughts tend very broadly to be liberal in orientation: rehabilitative prison systems are advocated (16/04/08), the war on terror rhetoric is critiqued (28/11/08), imperialism is attacked (03/04/07), military action against Iran is opposed (06/03/07), and nationalist and isolationist ideologies are satirised (15/06/09).
Rod Liddle thus comes close to the truth when he writes that: “Whatever creed or faith the person who delivers TftD, they are almost always impeccably liberal and perfectly in tune with a 21st-century metropolitan liberal zeitgeist”. In one script, the speaker James Jones even groups himself and his listeners together under the label of “liberal-minded people” (16/04/08).
“The broadcaster’s first aim must naturally be to catch our interest and to hold it. This inevitably puts a premium on certain aspects of human experience which do this most successfully, and they are not necessarily aspects which are most applicable or helpful to religion”. 
A Thought for the Day producer, when struggling to find any Buddhists who could supply the type of scripts that the BBC wanted, once complained that “the way they think about things tends to be rather soft and gentle”.  While ‘gentleness’ is a quality upheld and praised by many of the major faiths, it is apparently not one which is naturally compatible with a successful radio broadcaster, particularly in a hard-nosed news programme such as Today. In a world in which conflict, controversy and confrontation make headlines, peace-making and bridge-building may sound like ‘platitudes’.
It must be admitted that good theology (that is, thinking which probes beneath the surface and negotiates modern ambiguity, plurality and complexity while maintaining strong attention to tradition) does not always make good radio. Nevertheless, presenters in the script selection studied use a variety of techniques in order to make their offering entertaining broadcasting. The opening to the script is crucial; according to Leslie Griffiths there is a need to pick up the pace of the busy studio and descend into the “deeper waters via a gradation that takes you down from the pace that’s all around you”, in order that it fits organically in the Today Programme.
While some scripts open with a joke, a rhetorical question, or a quotation, the most popular way of opening the script in order to engage the listener’s attention, besides a direct reference to the ‘topical tag’, is to offer a personal anecdote. Over a third (25/72) of the scripts studied contain a personal anecdote in the opening paragraph. Many of these anecdotes contain within them some kind of admission of personal weakness or mild self-deprecating mockery. This has a levelling effect, an attempt to belie the ‘breakfast pulpit’ nickname and appeal to a common sense of humanity between speaker and listener.
Just under one third of the scripts (21/72), use humour in order to entertain the audience. For the most part that humour is of a very mild, typically British self-deprecating variety, often gently mocking aspects of religion itself. Where the tone is humorous, it tends to be at the opening of the script, functioning to grab attention.
A little comic effect can be a dangerous thing, particularly when it comes to the sensitive issue of Thought for the Day, apparently. Anne Atkins, in the midst of a Thought on the “horror of excessive accountability” in an overly-litigious climate, attempted a humorous aside about the intelligence of people from Norfolk (11/09/2008). The humour was light, but the result was a barrage of vociferous complaints about discrimination and intolerance from a substantial body of people who had evidently been greatly offended by her implication. Her critics clearly missed the irony that their outraged reaction was proving the very point she was hoping to make.
Writers can also use the structure of the scripts to hold the listeners’ attention: some of the most successful scripts contain a structural ‘twist’ so that the crux issue is not immediately evident from the outset and the listener is therefore drawn in. Ex-producer David Coomes likens this technique to “a two-and-a-half minute detective story, where you’re waiting for a surprise or waiting for some development that’s not actually predictable”.  Anne Atkins reports that her typical structure proposes first the antithesis and then her thesis  - the script thus has a balanced shape and retains the all-important element of surprise.
On a microcosmic scale this technique can be used in the opening paragraph of the script to catch attention, as employed by Giles Fraser in one of his scripts within the selection (06/07/07). He opens with:
“The Old Testament is very clearly against it. The New Testament seems to follow suit, though more equivocally. Following Aristotle, the great theologian Thomas Aquinas dubbed it "unnatural." And in the Middle Ages, the Pope excommunicated all those who practised it”.
Withholding the subject creates a sense of anticipation. He then continues:
“So it's bad news for the high street banks and bad news for building societies. For I'm not talking about homosexuality - just in case you're wondering - I'm talking about lending money at interest”.
Through this technique of delaying the subject and then overturning his audience’s expectations, Giles Fraser introduces his topic in an attention-grabbing way, while simultaneously casting a satirical
glance at the unbalanced dominance of other church preoccupations.
“[The] readiness to be spontaneous, to be adaptable, to abandon stuff if necessary is all the baggage you bring to the actual writing of the thing”, comments Leslie Griffiths.
Writing a successful Thought script is not easy, and one of the BBC’s challenges is to find people who can do it well, not just once, but repeatedly. In addition to the challenges of time-constraints, editorial monitoring for offensiveness, and the need for originality as well as relevance, scripts also sometimes have to be scrapped and rewritten at the last-minute when an important news item breaks unexpectedly. It takes a strong writer and performer in order to be able to deliver a script that is capable of entertaining its audience, while also offering theological challenge and reflection.
In one memorable Thought episode, Rabbi Lionel Blue discovered half-way through the live broadcast that he was missing the second page of his script, and found himself stumbling in embarrassment to try to complete his monologue. Paul Donovan reports his later reflections on the event: “From then on I did quite a lot of Thoughts which stemmed from that, mainly about coping with failures in one’s life. I found from the correspondence that lots of people were weighed down with the idea of being successful. It was a burden on them”. 
This propensity to include in the slot at times an honest admission of one’s own failures is also evident in many other scripts, though to a lesser extent. While for a politician to admit failure on national radio often seems to be considered political suicide, these three minutes can be used as a precious glimpse of an alternative mode of self-presentation; one which acknowledges weakness and failure. David Wilkinson (19/02/09) admits his own tendency to shrink from the idea of death. Brian Draper (29/11/08) confesses to his own desire to sit back and let other members of society make sacrifices. Lionel Blue’s contributions are perhaps the most obvious example of using the slot in part for honest confession and personal vulnerability.
Furthermore, one noticeable characteristic of the Thoughts in the selection is the ability of speakers to be refreshingly honest about the failings of the faith-group that they represent: John Bell acknowledges the gender inequality exemplified in Christian architecture and liturgy (08/09/09), and Giles Fraser highlights the failure of Christians to condemn the practice of usury (06/07/07), for example. This therefore challenges the view that Thought for the Day simply provides a soap-box for the defence of various religious establishments, or a three-minute attack on atheism. 
Likewise, those Christians who maintain that the slot should be reserved solely for religious speakers should think carefully about what might actually constitute genuine Christian speech. Honest theological discourse must surely only be possible when it acknowledges its own position of humility before God, not claiming authority on its own merits but offering itself as provisional and under Grace. As such, it could be considered that whenever we speak with genuine humility and repentance, we are speaking theologically. In the words of Thought for the Day’s Mona Siddiqui: “Perhaps understanding God is less about faithful words and more about faithful deeds, less about self- conviction and more about uncertainty and humility”. Or as the philosopher Simone Weil once remarked: “If you want to know whether someone is truly religious, do not listen to what they say about God, listen to what they say about the world.”
HUMANISM AND THE BBC
“We'll also continue to do everything we can to reflect the UK's other faiths and to do justice to belief-systems which do not involve, or indeed deny the validity of, religious and spiritual beliefs”. - Mark Thompson 
The British Humanist Association claims that the religious monopoly of TftD contravenes both the spirit of the BBC Charter and also contemporary anti-discrimination legislation, citing the 2003 Communications Act which stipulates that public service broadcasting is obliged to provide “a suitable quantity and range of programmes dealing with each of the following: science, religion and other beliefs...” .  Lord Harrison raised the issue of Humanist representation on the BBC in the House of Lords in November 2009, arguing that, “By excluding us, the BBC implies that Humanists are bereft of a moral compass; or worse, that we are amoral or immoral”.
The BHA’s claim is strengthened by the recent landmark legal ruling in the Employment Appeal Tribunal in response to the environmentalist Tim Nicholson’s discrimination case, clarifying that non-religious philosophies are included within the remit of beliefs to be protected from discrimination.
The controller of Radio 4 however, speaking in January 2009, defended the BBC’s decision not to open up the programme to a wider diversity of voices in the following statement:
“Thought for the Day is a unique slot in which speakers from a wide range of religious faiths reflect on an issue of the day from their faith perspective. In the midst of the three hour Today programme devoted to overwhelmingly secular concerns - national and international news and features, searching interviews etc - the slot offers a brief, uninterrupted interlude of spiritual reflection. We believe that broadening the brief would detract from the distinctiveness of the slot.” 
This position has to date remained the BBC’s stance, and is also the angle taken by many Christian commentators who wish to defend the slot. 
Lord Harrison was right to point out the confusion inherent in this argument, however, when he
proposed that, “The BBC treats humanism as the absence of religious belief, ignores its noble and ancient history and underestimates the strength of the humanist community in Britain [...] In the BBC’s taxonomy, items on sport, politics or culture are bizarrely classified as humanist” . As he suggests, a distinction needs to be made between Humanism, which is a philosophy in its own right, and generic atheism as defined in terms of a negative response to God and religion. Equating the BBC’s religiously-unbiased news policy with a philosophy such as humanism shows very little understanding of such a philosophy. While it may indeed be fair to say that the democratic values that shape the BBC’s underlying code - freedom of speech, political neutrality, journalistic objectivity, open debate - may certainly be influenced by humanist and secularist views of the world, they have also been moulded and shaped historically by Christian ethics.
Furthermore, this stance is theologically misguided. The claim that while TftD is religious, the rest of the Today Programme is ‘secular’ and therefore essentially devoid of any religious or spiritual significance seems to be a symptom of what Simon Barrow has elsewhere criticised as the “god of the slots” mentality, a result of the confused division between sacred and secular.  The Rev Andrew Allcock of Telford aptly sums this up in a response to the debate: “Of course 'non-religious' voices should be able to share the Thought for the Day [italics?] slot. To deny them is to deny that God is in all human experience - which would, of course, be nonsense”. 
Given that many of the arguments surrounding the future of the slot rely upon a division between sacred and secular as competing forces in a battle-ground world, it is interesting that such division is notably absent from the content of TftD itself. Many speakers are in fact at pains to show their sympathy with some secular voices, or to challenge the implication that God only works through explicitly ‘religious’ instruments:
1. ‘The more secular of our newspaper columnists have howled with derision at these displays of pious sentimentality. I have to admit that, though a Catholic myself, relics are not normally my cup of tea either, not to mention pasty-faced 19th century French nuns. But there is something about Thérèse that confounds my scepticism’ (Clifford Longley 12/10/09)
2. Although I'd never downplay the power of the Christian faith to transform lives, the truth is that in Northern Ireland and in other areas of conflict there had to be a new political climate and courageous political leadership for that faith to have political effect. (13/10/09)
3. Because whether they believe in God or not and whatever their motive, according to the Bible, politicians are just as much the servants of God and instruments of his will. (James Jones 13/11/09)
The language of the 72 scripts analysed belie the combative and at times vituperative nature of the debate about the slot itself. TftD’s religious defenders must be careful not to hold too tightly to the argument from the slot’s ‘distinctiveness’, which risks consigning religion into a sacred ghetto that the actual content of the slot rarely warrants or upholds.
On the other hand, however, there is no evidence amongst the script selection of the ‘secularist-bashing’ of which the slot is sometimes accused by its opponents. This criticism was raised at the debate run by the Churches’ Media Council in October 2009 by a speaker from the floor who argued that, while specifically barred from criticising other faiths, the presenters on the slot were often critical and dismissive of secular philosophies and viewpoints.
In fact the prevailing discourse within the script selection is remarkably free from negative assumptions about non-religious viewpoints. The language and tone tends to be deliberately constructed in such a way as to avoid offence to all parties, and the religious reflection is for the most part very much presented as just a ‘thought’ – an exploration of one particular aspect of one particular faith as it pertains to the issue in question, mostly devoid of any assumption of superiority. Such politeness has, however, been received by some as ‘patronising’, because it amounts to weak sympathy in the absence of the direct voices of those commented upon.
Part of the picture, of course, is a rhetorical stance mandated by the BBC’s ‘inoffensiveness’ watchdog. But in many scripts it seems to extend beyond politeness to a deliberate attempt to breach the religious/secular divide which is implied by the slot itself. TftD speakers have been known actively to draw ethical, spiritual and moral lessons from those of other faith or no faith at all, rather than suggesting that the religious have a monopoly on moral courage or ethical wisdom.  Those who claim that the speakers belittle or attack secular world-views or non-religious people seem to be attacking a straw man, and the religious/secular territorialism often evident in the discourse surrounding the slot is surprisingly absent within many Thought contributions themselves.
Further, the presenters use quotations from a wide range of sources in order to illustrate their Thoughts, support their arguments, and deepen their reflections. The quotations chosen are by no means exclusively from writers who represent the same faith as the presenter, or indeed, from overtly ‘religious’ speakers at all, ranging in fact from Roosevelt, to Woody Allen, to the musical My Fair Lady. Of the more than 30 extra-scriptural quotations, in fact 20 are from ‘secular’ authorities while 12 are from figures who could be classified as ‘religious’ authorities. The speakers also draw together a range of other resources - both religious and secular - statistics from the Equality and Human Rights Commission, psychological research, and a YouTube video.
The Thought speakers’ use of supporting quotations demonstrates a ready ability to find wisdom in ‘secular’ philosophy and literature, from a range of sources widely divergent from their own religious group. Akhandadi Das (14/10/09), using the image of the Tate Modern’s installation of a pitch-black enclosed room, draws parallels with the unenlightened human, aware only of the darkness. While used to promote the Buddhist call to enlightenment, he draws an analogy with Plato’s cave – a philosophy which has informed both Christianity and also secular Enlightenment rhetoric. Plato’s thought undergirds much of Western thought, both religious and non-religious.
This mode of approach is common: TftD presenters are by no means averse to grounding their messages in ‘secular’ wisdom as well as, and sometimes even instead of, religious tradition. Richard Harries criticises the secular philosophies of liberalism and utilitarianism, arguing that they fail as they are not undergirded by a concept of the good; his criticism, however, takes its authority first from Aristotle, and then from the Christian scriptures. This approach again highlights common ground between Christians and humanists, many of whom cite Aristotle as one of the central proponents of non-theistic morality. But from a Humanist perspective it may also be seen as offering a particular reading with no possibility of an alternative view from those who are actually Humanists or otherwise non-religious.
However, the seeds of peace-making and a gentle challenge to religious territorialism are present in the way many Thought presenters use non-religious texts and wisdom. The message is often carefully worded, not so as to advocate one religion at the expense of a secularist philosophy, but to use theological tools to promote a message that can be applied regardless of faith, for example:
‘Which is why most of us could do with a lot more thanksgiving in our lives - and this, just as much for those who don't believe there is a God to thank, as for those of us who do.’ (26/11/2008),
‘Believers or not, we are all challenged by those who lie, those who break our trust’ (05/07/07).
Leslie Griffiths, a former contributor to the programme slot, affirmed at a debate in the House of Lords that, “I honestly believe that I could deposit the 198 scripts which I have written for the programme in front of everyone in this Grand Committee and that the noble Lords would not find one single occasion when I took a swipe at anyone who did not believe”. His sentiment is applicable to the majority of Thought scripts, which, while offered through the lens of one particular theology, are not prone to criticising secularists any more than they do other religions. This is the case for the vast majority of Thoughts.
Lord Griffiths went on to say, “If I could have the same assurance that British Humanists using the same slot would not take a swipe at people who did believe - there has been a little bit of evidence of that in the contributions made thus far - then it would seem to me that their place in the slot would be perfectly justified and justifiable”.
Richard Dawkins’ attempt at his own atheist Thought for the Day on BBC in 2002  is often cited in such contexts as evidence that non-religious Thoughts would inevitably consist of a certain amount of religion-bashing. It is true that Dawkins’ contribution failed to fulfil the brief of the slot and did not abide by the same editorial guidelines that govern the religious presenters; he denounced religion as “infantile regression”, and a “crybaby phase”, and his Thought was devoid of ethical content and had no obvious topical tag. While, as we have seen, most of the current BBC Thoughts are conscious of building links between different world views and seeking common ground, Richard Dawkins’ did the opposite.
Nevertheless, there is no reason to think that all potential secular Humanist Thoughts would be along those lines. The BHA argument for the inclusion of non-religious speakers declares that: “If humanists were allowed to broadcast, we should not be interested in attacking anyone but in putting forward humanist thinking”.  As an editorial decision still remains to be made about whether to open up the slot to non-religious speakers, it is necessary that we listen with truly open minds and ears to such proposals. In so doing, it may be hoped that the discussion could be moved on from a defensive territorial war, to a more creative and more positive discussion about how TftD can be kept thinking. 
KEEPING THOUGHT THINKING
In our analysis of the script selection, we have outlined some of the attributes of TftD as theological speech, in relation to the claims made about it by its critics, defenders and presenters. Listening afresh to TftD has highlighted some of the ways in which the two-and-a-half minute slot has the potential to be a constructive space theologically, offering a mode of religious speech that makes peace and seeks common ground. TftD plays an important role in offering religious discourse which does not share the extremist sentiments that more often catch the headlines. Nevertheless, the report has also highlighted some of the weaknesses of TftD, which need to be addressed if the slot is to stay alive. It is time that TftD is reconsidered afresh, with open ears, in order for it to be a genuinely creative space for prompting thought and reflection in the hectic world of BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme.
In response to calls by the BHA to open up the programme slot to non-religious speakers, one Church of England spokesperson asserted: “We would strongly resist moves to add non-religious voices to one of the few protected spots in the schedule where religious views on issues of the day can be expressed openly”. Our assessment of the content has suggested, however, that this presentation of “religious views on issues of the day” is quite limited, given the editorial guidelines and the narrow range of presenters chosen. Furthermore, we have seen that the scripts do not always fulfill their brief: at times, rather than using faith as the lens through which to view a certain issue, speakers in fact offer a description of a particular aspect of faith, or an opinion piece ‘baptised’ as religious by means of a religious appendage at the end.
Given that the content often depends not just upon a collective religious tradition but also upon the reflections of the individual and a diverse range of authorities and resources, the position of limiting TftD to religious groups that have a long-standing tradition of doctrine and liturgy upon which to draw, seems unsustainable. Thought for rthe Day runs the risk of diluting its potential for genuine thought while its range of perspectives remains so narrow. As we have noted, furthermore, the narrative and personal Thoughts can be more rhetorically and theologically forceful than those attempting to propound doctrine or mount an argument. The restriction of presenters to those who represent groups with a long-established liturgical and doctrinal base seems unnecessary, given that the actual content of their scripts does not always make such a requirement.
Moreover, such a restriction would exclude many burgeoning Christian groups such as Anabaptists, emerging churches, new churches, and Quakers, for example, as well, of course, as those from alternative developing strands of thought such as non-religious Humanism. It is becoming increasingly difficult to define religion in terms of groups with an ‘agreed body of doctrine’, as religious practices diversify in society. Indeed the history of all enduring traditions, not least Christianity itself, is not just a static set of doctrines, but a story of development, adaptation, and evolution; a narrative thought out and lived out within the vicissitudes of history and cultures. TftD, if done well, could be an example of the kind of discursive space for reflection and genuine thought which every tradition - from Confucianism to secular Humanism - needs as part of its developmental process.
This report also calls into question the rhetoric of ‘distinctiveness’ when it comes to ‘religious’ broadcasting. TftD speakers’ use of ‘secular’ wisdom and resources challenges the possibility of marking such clear-cut lines between religious and secular. If the role of TftD is genuinely to challenge our thinking, to “plant a seed of thought that stays with listeners during the day” as claimed by the BBC Radio 4 website, then this might be achieved by offering a wider spread of alternative views, including marginal voices speaking from theological or ethical viewpoints that might be less familiar to the majority of listeners.
Furthermore, given the current potential for bridge-building that is evident in the multiple examples within the scripts of seeking common understanding amongst different faith-groups, there is no reason to think that this stance could not be extended to those with non-religious philosophies. Seeking common ground does not mean glossing over differences. But it does involve welcoming the Other into a shared discursive space and genuinely engaging with both commonalities and differences, rather than simply labelling groups in negative terms by what they are against.
The practice of seeking connections between different viewpoints has the potential to nurture in us the humility to concede that the lines we draw as our own boundaries of truth and acceptability are at best provisional, at worst desperately misguided.
To consider the matter from a specifically Christian perspective for a moment: it could be said that one of the theological strengths of TftD is the possibility of pondering truth and celebrating it wherever it is found, rather than simply defending the ideology of a particular institution or sub-culture. In a programme in which news is often built on conflict, and in a religious climate in which texts are often ruthlessly plundered to defend the rights of a religious group or to justify aggression, the quiet search for whatever is true, noble, right, pure, lovely, and admirable, can itself be a subversive step in the path to an alternative approach to difference. This would be an important aspect of Christ-like communication; after all Jesus himself often chose his teaching examples not from amongst his own social or religious group, but from those who were seen as ‘other’ by dint of race, gender or religion. Choosing a Samaritan as the hero of one of his parables, praising the generosity of a poor widow, affirming the faith of a convicted thief, in his own day Jesus deconstructed the boundaries of ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders’ that we human beings continue to erect in order to to mark us out from our neighbours and to defend our ideological territory.
Of course, discerning where to seek common understanding with other faiths and traditions, and where to stand firm to the distinctiveness of the Christian story, requires a constant struggle and God-given wisdom. So often we have got it wrong, either in our weakness failing to proclaim Jesus’ exclusive kingship, or in our pride refusing to celebrate God’s truth when it is in an unfamiliar context. Nevertheless, it is this very struggle which is central to the attempt to speak as Christians in today’s world. TftD could help us attempt to tread the delicate line of standing patiently persistent with the central core of our faith, while being quick to celebrate truth and beauty when they are found elsewhere. Whereas the debate about the slot is set up as one of struggle and competition between secular and religious, the content of the scripts often seems to have the potential to offer an alternative, more peaceful, discourse.
The current religious climate is certainly a shock to religious voices which, so used to commanding automatic respect after centuries of social and political authority, are now naturally feeling the unease of being at the margins, and losing privileges. As we see time and again in debates about religious speech, the natural desire to be heard above the babble of competing voices often leads to pushing oneself up a little higher, shouting a little more loudly, shifting a little further over to a more headline-catching position, one of greater rhetorical clout, at a more extreme end of the scale. This is a gesture that is all-too-human and all-too-familiar. But if God’s power is truly made perfect in weakness, then we should resist getting drawn in to this repetitive jostling for preferential treatment.
The Christian message is, undoubtedly, one which is bold, shocking, scandalous, and provocative. But we should not fall prey to the temptation to sacrifice the less ‘radio-worthy’ aspects of our faith, in our anxiety to be heard. TftD needs to maintain a careful balance between allowing the more controversial, subversive and challenging aspects of religion to come through, without pandering to the need to grab attention by courting controversy for its own sake. The truth is that a life of faith is very often incredibly undramatic, and that is one of the hardest things for religious broadcasting to convey.
In addition, the Christian doctrine of the Incarnation announces a radically new understanding of ‘religious’ communication: God speaks through the Word made flesh, first through the inarticulate cries of a vulnerable and dependent infant, not through the rhetorical prowess of a preacher or the authoritative commands of a political leader. Furthermore Jesus, during his short time of ministry, seemed astonishingly untroubled by the urgent need to maximise his talk-time. In fact, by all accounts he could be seen to have recklessly squandered golden opportunities to be heard; often withdrawing from the crowds to lonely places to pray, and on one occasion leaving a large and captive audience in Jericho to spend the afternoon in the house of the tax-collector Zacchaeus. His public ministry also absorbed but three of his estimated 33 years.
An incarnational model of communication therefore offers a chastening reminder to us when we attempt to defend ‘Christian speech’ by seeking to maximise the talk-time of a religious group, at the expense of seeking out the common God-given humanity in others. This is not to say that there are no occasions when it is right for Christians to speak out boldly and make themselves heard, and also to practise eloquence and rhetorical finesse. But we must be careful that the frustration with not being heard does not fuel responses that undermine the very message we were so anxious to proclaim in the first place.
Indeed, the manner in which we conduct our discussions and debates in this arena, the grace and humility with which we engage with our fellow human beings, may in fact turn out to be more significant than the minutes of air-time that we manage to defend.
To return to the horizon shared by people from a range of religious and non-religious backgrounds: Perhaps it is now time to move beyond the point-scoring arguments about whether Thought for the Day is truly ‘representative’, or ‘discriminatory’, or ‘exclusive’, or ‘inclusive’. As Aaqil Ahmed, Head of the BBC Religion and Ethics department, insisted when I spoke to him in November 2009: “I don’t think TftD sets out to be representative, it’s just the viewpoints of some religious people. I don’t think we do any programming that says it’s reflective of any particular kind of faith. It’s just a particular programme, spoken by people who are saying things within a faith tradition”.
All the speakers have some credentials as religious ‘experts’, and are chosen for a certain amount of broadcasting and writing ability. Nevertheless, having followed Mark Damazer’s advice to “look at the slot for what is actually said within it, rather than who it is that’s doing the saying”,  we have found at times a voice on air which claims not authority but weakness, not just a defence of religion but also an admission of personal and collective failings.
From a specifically theological perspective, this report suggests that this might in fact be of more importance than the most forceful of doctrinal assertions. God may be in our speech, not just when religious vocabulary is in play and ‘religion’ defines the content, but whenever our speech is characterised by love, vulnerability, humility, grace, repentance, and peace. When we speak with love, God is present. When we speak with humility, God is present. When we speak justice, mercy, compassion, God is present in that speech.
As Christina Rees said in the Church of England General Synod debate in February 2010, responding to on Nigel Holmes’ motion concerning BBC’s religious broadcasting: “Let’s open our eyes and ears to religion whenever and wherever we find it”. This, of course, makes the job of ‘regulating’ Christian speech much harder, perhaps, indeed, impossible. But perhaps this difficulty could itself play a vital role in our speech – attempts at regulation could move over and be replaced by discussion, interpretation, cooperation, which themselves could build up the bonds of love and community. It is love, after all, that should ultimately be the central end of any engagement in human discourse.
It is not enough for TftD to survive simply as a bastion of ‘religious’ speech. TftD will remain valuable, so long as it manages to offer a new angle on the stories making the news, triggering fresh ways of thinking, and so long as it is presented by high-quality writers and broadcasters, capable of contributing an arresting script that genuinely prompts reflection. Presenters must be chosen who can offer a script that seems organic to the programme, aesthetically of a piece, and who are capable of lifting the script off the page in presentation. This potential remains exclusive neither to religious, nor non-religious voices, but if Humanists wish to speak, they, along with all the others, would do well to find ways of avoiding the potential pitfalls that plague all Thought presenters, to which this report has drawn attention.
Finally, if BBC Radio 4 Thought for the Day is going to survive as prime-time broadcasting, and in an appropriate sense as containing genuinely valuable theological speech, then it must not compromise its potential to challenge the establishment and the status quo, and to strive for peace with humility in the face of tensions over difference. Equally, the sooner the church begins to listen, rather than simply defending its right to speak, the sooner the church – in particular – will be able to focus its energies and resources into refreshing its own speech, so ensuring that this speech is worth hearing.
 Jonathan Wynne-Jones, ‘Rethinking Thought for the Day’, Telegraph.co.uk, 17/10/09
 Paul Donovan (1997), All Our Todays: Forty Years of Radio 4’s ‘Today’ Programme, Arrow Books, p. 149
 Mark Thompson, ‘Faith And The Media’ Speech given at Cardinal Cormac Murphy O'Connor Lecture 2008 series: Faith And Life In Britain Today, Westminster, London 10/04/08
 Hansard report of House of Lords debate on BBC: Humanism, 4 November 2009 http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/ld200809/ldhansrd/text/91104-gc... 
 Rod Liddle, ‘My thought for the day: God has left the BBC building’, Sunday Times, 19/07/09
 (05/03/07-10/03/07, 02/04/07-07/04/07, 02/07/07-07/07/07, 17/12/07-22/12/07, 07/01/08-12/01/08, 14/04/08-19/04/08, 08/09/08-13/09/08, 24/11/08-29/11/08, 16/02/09-21/02/09, 15/06/09-20/06/09, 07/09/09-12/09/09, 12/10/09-16/10/09)
 Leslie Griffiths in conversation with Lizzie Clifford, November 2009
 http://www.bbc.co.uk/bbctrust/assets/files/pdf/appeals/esc_bulletins/200... 
 Anne Atkins, October 2009.
 Robert Runcie (1986), Religious Broadcasting Today, Centre for the Study of Religion and Society, Pamphlet Library no. 13, p.7
 Proverbs 29:20 – “Do you see a man who speaks in haste? There is more hope for a fool than for him.”
 See 20/12/07, 21/02/09, 12/09/08, 17/12/07
 Donovan, All Our Todays, p. 155
 Coomes, interview 1996, in Jolyon P. Mitchell (1999), Visually Speaking: Radio and the Renaissance of Preaching, T. and T. Clark, p. 108.
 http://www.ipsos-mori.com/researchpublications/researcharchive/poll.aspx... 
 Figures taken from Office of National Statistics: ‘Population of Great Britain by religion’, April 2001.
 One TftD in the last three years was given by a Quaker: Kevin Franz on 31 December 2009, chosen by the Today Programme’s Guest Editor P. D. James.
 See Mark Damazer in debate with Ekklesia’s Jonathan Bartley on BBC Radio 4’s PM Programme, 17/11/09.
 Rowan Williams lecture at Lambeth Palace, 15/06/2005
 “The BBC is not impartial or neutral. It’s a publicly funded, urban organisation with an abnormally large number of young people, ethnic minorities and gay people. It has a liberal bias not so much a party-political bias. It is better expressed as a cultural liberal bias”. – Andrew Marr, the Daily Mail, 21/10/06
 A similar percentage to the number of MPs who are Oxbridge educated, see Sutton Trust Report 2005 http://www.suttontrust.com/reports/PoliticiansBackgrounds_09-Dec-05.pdf 
 Statistics taken from official Church of England figures for 2008 based on total clergy (stipendiary, NSM and OLM) http://www.cofe.anglican.org/info/statistics/churchstats2007/statisticsp... 
 This term is used here to cover all the sacred texts from different religious traditions available to the speakers: the Torah, the Christian Bible, Bhagavad-gita, Qur’an and Puranas are cited within the script selection.
 See Mitchell, Visually Speaking, p. 117
 Donovan, All Our Todays, p. 153
 See National Secular Society’s open letter to BBC chairman, May 2005
 http://www.secularism.org.uk/bbcthinksitsjobistopromotereligi.html 
 Donovan, All Our Todays, p. 164
 Rod Liddle, ‘My thought for the day’
 See Clifford Longley 14/04/08, Rob Marshall 12/01/08
 Ofcom Report on religious programmes, qualitative research survey, conducted by Counterpoint Research on behalf of Ofcom, May 2005
 See, for example, 07/04/07, 09/03/07, 27/11/08, 07/01/08
 Donovan, All Our Todays, p. 157
 Mitchell, Visually Speaking, p. 132
 Rod Liddle, ‘My thought for the day’
 Mark Vernon, ‘Making Thought for the Day Work’, Guardian Comment-is-Free, 14/07/09
 Rowan Williams, ‘The Media: Public Interest and the Common Good’, lecture delivered at Lambeth Palace, 15/06/05.
 Former BBC Chairman Sir Christopher Bland, quoted in Donovan, All Our Todays, p. 151
 For example, the 1990 controversy sparked by the BBC’s censorship of Eric James’ Thought in support of protests against poll tax.
 See Mona Siddiqui 17/08/09, Rob Marshall 20/06/09, Colin Morris 02/07/07
 Runcie, Religious Broadcasting Today, p.7
 Quoted in ‘God Slot’, David Hendy, New Humanist.org.uk Articles > Volume 122 Issue 5 September/October 2007 >
 Coomes interview 1996, quoted in Mitchell, Visually Speaking, p. 118
 Anne Atkins, October 2009.
 Paul Donovan, All Our Todays, p. 160
 See complaints to BBC that contributors attack secularists and atheists, http://www.bbc.co.uk/bbctrust/assets/files/pdf/appeals/esc_bulletins/200... 
 Mark Thompson, ‘Faith And The Media’ speech
 http://www.humanism.org.uk/_uploads/documents/BHA-Position-Paper-Thought... 
 http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/ipm/2009/01/thought_for_the_day_a_genuinel.shtml 
 Steve Clifford, General Director of the Evangelical Alliance who argued that: “It strikes me that the secularists predominate in the other two hours and 55 minutes [of the Today Programme], so is it really asking too much for religion to just have a small chunk of dedicated time?”
 Hansard report of House of Lords debate on BBC: Humanism, 4 November 2009 http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/ld200809/ldhansrd/text/91104-gc... 
 Simon Barrow, ‘Why we need to rid ourselves of the 'god of the slots',’ Ekklesia, http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/5160 
 Rev Andrew Allcock, Telford, http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/today/reports/archive/features/thought_mail.... 
 See David Wilkinson on Bobby Robson, Vishvapani 17/07/09 and Dom Anthony Such 13/08/09 on Aung San Suu Kyi.
 http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/today/reports/archive/features/thought_for_d... 
 http://www.humanism.org.uk/_uploads/documents/BHA-Position-Paper-Thought... 
 http://www.bbc.co.uk/bbctrust/assets/files/pdf/appeals/esc_bulletins/200... 
 Speaking on BBC PM programme debate on the day the BBC published its response to criticisms of Thought for the Day.
For further background, see Ekklesia’s earlier report, ‘Introduction to the Thought for the Day debate’, http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/research/thought_for_the_day 
Lizzie Clifford is a graduate of the University of Cambridge, tutoring and researching in theology and English. She has a postgraduate degree in theology, and has a particular interest in theo-linguistics and the relationship between theology and the arts.
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