Back in 1944 the Archbishop of York, Cyril Garbett, wrote in the Radio Times that “the wireless and the English tongue are means by which God’s message of love and peace can spread through the world.” We may find it difficult these days to construe the BBC’s output over Christmas as taking on such a missiological flavour, but certainly in its early days Lord Reith, the first Director-General, saw religion as one of the four principal pillars which was to undergird the Corporation, the others being to cater to the majority of the public; to maintain public taste; and to provide a forum for impartial public debate, free from government interference. This led to what Simon Elmes identifies as the typical BBC Sunday: “a diet of services, religious talks, Bible stories, and histories of Christian heroes and martyrs, with little but the odd news bulletin and gardening programme to relieve the sabbatarian solemnity.”
Fast forward more than three quarters of a century, and at face value Reith would find little to object to in what the BBC offered its audience in Christmas 2015, as we learn from its Head of Religion & Ethics, Aaqil Ahmed, that “The BBC’s religious programming across TV and radio continues its fine tradition of bringing communities together and reflecting what is important to many of our viewers and listeners.” With Midnight Mass broadcast live on BBC One on Christmas Eve from St. George’s Cathedral in Southwark, to the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols live on Radio 4 from the candlelit chapel of Kings College Cambridge, it is undoubtedly true that there are “many ways for audiences to take part and celebrate Christmas, be it via music, tradition, reflection, conversation or live worship.”
Is it necessarily the case, though, that a substantive definition of religion, whereby the presence of a core doctrinal or institutional manifestation of religion is being flagged up, is the best or even the only criteria for identifying and evaluating the extent to which the BBC is disseminating religion on its airwaves? It is the premise of Stewart Hoover’s Religion in the Media Age, for example, that “The realms of ‘religion’ and ‘media’ can no longer be easily separated”, as he sets about trying to “chart the ways that media and religion intermingle and collide in the cultural experience of media audiences.” For Hoover, “They occupy the same spaces, serve many of the same purposes, and invigorate the same practices in late modernity.” We see similar arguments evinced by Jeffrey Mahan who observes that “in post-modern communities, religion is multivalent and the wall between sacred and secular is clearly porous.” From the perspective of Implicit Religion, too, the late Edward Bailey claimed that “it must be one of the most assured results of religious studies… that it seems to be impossible to exclude any possibility as to the location of sacredness”, a point reinforced by Karen Lord who writes of the “interconnectedness of religious and quasi-religious behaviour in society, and the need to redraw previously accepted boundaries in order to enhance the analysis of such behaviour.” At the heart of such thinking is the notion that if we were simply to limit the study of religion to its institutional manifestations then, as Gordon Lynch puts it, this could “therefore blind us to some of the most pressing questions about the stories, values, and meanings that shape many people’s lives today.”
Certainly, at Christmas today we need to revisit the role that radio has played in fomenting the sense of community and togetherness that was a staple of the early days of radio, when, as the Christmas 1951 edition of the Radio Times highlights, “The friendliness and joyfulness of Christmastide find their way into the BBC’s Christmas programme, at no other season is the broadcaster so closely in tune with his vast audience.”
In 2016, we might want to ask whether much of the BBC’s ‘secular’ output may be shaping the format and content of contemporary religion. The fandom generated each year by Christmas Junior Choice on BBC Radio 2, presented by the late Ed Stewart might, for instance, be no less fecund when it comes to exploring matters of faith, identity, beliefs, and values than programmes made within the auspices and remit of religious broadcasting. Listeners on Christmas Day 2015 wrote in to Stewpot, in what was to become his last programme before his death on 9 January this year, to say “Junior Choice has become a Christmas tradition for our family. We listen every year”, and that a record request for a song from one’s youth “instantly whisks me back to our happiest childhood Christmas days spent with [my mother] and my little brother, and whilst we are now all grown up doesn’t mean we don’t still treasure those memories.”
If, as Ninian Smart, the founder of Religious Studies in Britain, has suggested, there are plenty of people who “may see ultimate spiritual meaning… in relationships to other persons”, then Junior Choice might be a prime example of an alternative way of conceptualizing religion with its devotees who construe the two hours of nostalgia and reconnecting with the past on Christmas morning as a form of transcendent, even sacred, time. Might it even comprise no less of a commitment, even a ritual, than devotion to established religious traditions with its impact on several generations of radio listeners. Just think – next time you hear ‘Nellie the Elephant’ or ‘Sparky’s Magic Piano’ you might have unexpectedly encountered an instance of what Mazur and McCarthy identify as religious meaning being “found in activities that are often considered meaningless.” Religion may be intrinsic to the Christmas celebration, but might the festival’s secular components paradoxically amount to its most salient and fertile manifestation?
Featured image credit: Winter frost snow by sogard. Public Domain via Pixabay.