Communication, TV and Jesmond Parish Church

What is a secular society?

A secular society is where there is little public reference to God - or so says one definition. On that basis Britain is certainly secular. However, it is a theistic rather than an atheistic secular society. People believe in God but do not feel they are allowed to speak about him in public.

The latest British Social Attitudes Survey shows 60 per cent of the population belonging to a specific religion. Of these 54 per cent are Christian while of the remaining 6 per cent, 2.6 per cent are Muslim; 1.2 per cent are Hindu; 0.8 per cent are Jewish; 0.8 per cent are Sikh; 0.3 per cent are Buddhist and 0.6 per cent are from other non-Christian religions. Then of the 40 per cent who do "not regard themselves as belonging to any particular religion" [the question the pollsters asked] 15 per cent, according to the official Census, while not "belonging" to the Christian religion have some allegiance to it.

These figures suggest two things. First, that it would seem wrong to classify Britain as an anti-Christian or atheistic secular society (in terms of majority opinion). Secondly, with such small percentages of other faiths, it would also seem wrong to classify Britain as "multifaith". But current political correctness has so influenced so many that conventional thinking is that the majority are committed to an atheistic secularism while the religious minority is pluralistic and multifaith. The consequence of this is that if you (wrongly) believe that no one faith attracts a greater following, you, therefore, will (wrongly) think that no one faith legitimately can expect, in a democratic society, a greater public exposure than any other. It is has then been a short step for political correctness to lead religious people to be silent in the Public Square while atheistic secularism accepts no such restraints. It has now been revealed in his interview for BBC One's The Blair Years that the former Prime Minister, Tony Blair, is typical of this new British, politically correct, theistic secularism.

Whatever his theology, compared with many Tony Blair is quite devout. Peter Mandelson reports that, "this is a man who takes a Bible with him wherever he goes and last thing at night he will read from the Bible." Tony Blair himself was so clear: "for me having faith was an important part of being able to do [the prime minister's job];" but while it was commonplace in the US and elsewhere for politicians to talk about their religious convictions, he added, "you talk about it in our system and, frankly, people do think you're a nutter." Not surprisingly on one famous occasion Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair's former Press Officer, said in tabloid fashion: "We don't do God."

Levels of communication

Such a taboo on talking about the Christian faith and the gospel in the Public Square is undoubtedly a huge barrier to evangelism and church growth.

Contrast this taboo with some African countries. What do you hear there on a main Radio News Bulletin on a Monday morning? As likely as not you will hear which church the President visited the day before! If he was giving an address at the church, it would have been fully reported.

The same, to a lesser extent, is true in the United States as Tony Blair admitted. It is easier to talk about Jesus Christ there, in public, than it is in the United Kingdom. For the moment it doesn't matter about motivation. Let us cynically assume that politicians, broadcasters, show-biz people and athletes who publicly and often talk about their faith in Christ are simply playing to the religious and Christian galleries. But even if that is so (and I do not believe generally it is), the Christian faith gets a public reference; and so it gets more and more 'public'; it ceases to be exclusively 'private'.

We have a huge way to travel in Britain before religion and Christian belief is properly in the Public Square. The trouble is that we are not yet free to communicate it. This may have less to do with religious rights or religious freedoms and more to do with a problem in communication itself.

In his book Why am I Afraid to Tell You Who I am? John Powell argues that we communicate on at least five different levels.

Level five is cliché conversation. This is very safe. It is saying, "How are you?" "How is the family?" And we get the reply, "I'm fine"' (even if we are feeling awful first thing in the morning); or "they're O.K."' (even if there is a serious problem at home).

There is no personal expression in this level of conversation. The phrases and sentences operate as pieces of etiquette.

Level four is reporting the facts. In this type of conversation no personal view is offered, we just report facts in a neutral way: "he said this", "she said that", "she has got a new washing machine" or "he has got a new car". Like the summary of the news on the Radio or TV we just tell factual stories. We do not commit ourselves with regard to what we think or feel about what we have said.

Level three is expressing ideas and judgements. This is where a greater degree of personal sharing and communication begins. "The person is willing to step out of his solitary confinement and risk telling some of his ideas and decisions." "I do not think it is right to spend too much money on clothes"; "I do not think it is right to spend too much time playing golf". At this level of communication the person is still cautious. If they sense that what is being said is not being accepted, it is possible to retreat.

Level two is expressing feelings or emotions. The person here shares how they feel about certain facts, ideas or judgements. "I am angry that you spend too much money on clothes"; "I get cross when you spend too much time at the golf club".

Level one is completely open and truthful personal communication. This level characterises all really deep human relationships, for example healthy marriages. It is hard to achieve as it involves a certain amount of risk: pretences have to go. "I applied for that job, but I know that I'm not really good enough. In their terms I'm not a first class person, I'm only second class."

The religious discourse level

In Britain for a range of reasons, as we shall see, religious conversation only easily takes place when the level of discourse is at the last two levels - at levels one or two.That is to say, you have to be talking when you are in a deep or fairly deep relationship with someone and in a context that allows a deep, or fairly deep, level of communication. If the conversation is at levels four or five
- the fact sharing or cliché level - religious discussion is often embarrassing. At level three - expressing ideas and judgements - people with good social skills can sometimes turn a conversation around to talk about religion.

All this has practical consequences. If you go to a party or you are having coffee in the office, quite reasonably people do not want to be intense. They want friendly, light-hearted socialising. They talk mostly at the cliché level or the factual level (with a few 'ideas and judgements' daringly thrown in).

Because generally in Britain we do not talk about religious beliefs at these levels of communication or conversation, for someone to give a personal testimony at a party or during a coffee break, is not being fanatical so much as rude. They are unilaterally deciding to alter the conventions of the group and shift the discourse level on to a different plane. At a coffee break that may be the last thing most people want. Most of the other people are simply wanting to relax before going back to work in a stressful or tiresome job.

The situation is different in other parts of the world. Certainly in many parts of Africa (and to a degree in the United States) people can talk about the Christian faith on a matter of fact level. This has advantages for evangelism and church growth. But because we cannot so easily do that in the United Kingdom, evangelism and church growth (humanly) demand greater effort. An additional range of activities are needed merely to provide a context and a social setting for appropriate discussion.

For example, if you have a mission at a church or a Christianity Explored group or similar such group, many of the church members start off by saying that they do not have any non-Christian friends to invite to the events. "I have no, non-Christian friends" has frequently been said to me by committed Christian people. It is plainly false.

What they mean is this: they do not have non-Christian friends with whom they have a "deep relationship"; they, therefore, have no non-Christian friends they can naturally talk to about religious matters. This is because in our culture to talk easily and naturally about Jesus Christ generally you have to have reached a fairly deep relationship with someone (an exception is long journeys with a stranger).

Of course, these same Christian people are not recluses. They meet many people at work. Quite a number meet people at leisure activities. They have a range of contacts and people with whom to socialise. In fact they have lots of 'friends' - but they relate to them at more superficial levels.

Mission tactics

So in a local church when an evangelistic activity is planned often there is the following suggestion: "have less church involvement over the next three months so that you have more time to make friends to bring along to the events." But what is really being said is this: "try to cultivate a few of your friends at a deeper level." There then follows a round of sometimes frenzied activity as people get to work. They have friends round for dinner, they go out together for an evening, they go on outings, they play golf, they do all sorts of things in the softening (or deepening) up process. At the end of it all they are more able to talk about their Christian faith.

This, of course, is an exhausting and time consuming process. It seems a pity that Christians cannot just go out with friends from time to time - friends they know only superficially - and enjoy themselves without forcing the pace and trying to deepen the relationship (and probably making it unnatural). It is a fact that people can only sustain a few very deep friendships. According to the New Testament Jesus seems to have had only three friends at a deep level - Peter, James and John. These were the ones who 'shared' in his Transfiguration (Mark 9:2ff). But he clearly was friendly with many people.

Most Christians will only have a few 'deep friendships'; and these will naturally, if not inevitably, be with other Christians. That is nothing to apologise for or feel embarrassed about. So, obviously they will not have 'non-Christian friends' of that sort to invite to a local church evangelistic event.

Before long, consciously or unconsciously, some brave spirits decide that what is needed to help evangelism along is a change in the 'climate of discourse'. For what is needed is the possibility of discussing the Christian faith in conversations that do not presuppose a deep level of relationship.

One way this used to be achieved in the UK after the Second World War was to invite Billy Graham, the American Evangelist, to conduct an evangelistic mission.For the record, Billy Graham came over in 1954 (London), 1955 (Glasgow), 1961 (Manchester), 1966 (London), 1967 (London), 1984 (Mission England - Bristol, Sunderland, Norwich, Birmingham, Liverpool, Ipswich), and 1985 (Sheffield).

What happened, then, when he came? Among other things this: the 'climate of discourse' changed and people could talk about religion at parties and over coffee - without embarrassment.

Religion could then be discussed when conversation was still only at the factual level. Why was this? At a human level, principally because of the media. Billy Graham got huge Radio, TV and press coverage.

First, he was interviewed directly on Radio and TV. Secondly, that interviewing generated further Radio and TV discussion and argument about the personality, politics, finances and theology of the evangelist and everything associated with him. Thirdly, there were then broadcasts (live and recorded) from his meetings in the various stadia.

In 1984 the BBC scored a first by transmitting live the Sunday evening Mission England meeting at Sunderland on Radio 4 (it also went out on the BBC World Service). When the BBC televised one of the Birmingham meetings, that attracted 7,000 letters. And, fourthly, the press provided extensive coverage. In 1984 the press generated 50,000 column inches of newspaper space (almost all in the provinces) on Billy Graham's Mission England. All this is one reason why Christians need to work to have greater access to the media and especially electronic communication in the UK. What is broadcast (particularly on TV) becomes publicly discussable at any level apart from level one (the etiquette level).

Carols by Candlelight and TV

Once again we had over 5000 people to Carols by Candlelight at Jesmond Parish Church for Christmas 2007. It is a fact that this has now almost become institutionalized to such an extent that it easy for people to invite their friends and discuss the carol services freely and naturally at a party or having coffee. Undoubtedly our advertising in the Metro railway carriages, along with other publicity, has contributed to this freedom. It is bound, to a certain extent, to have changed 'the discourse level' in which they can freely be discussed. Indeed, even people unused to going to church can freely and easily issue invitations.

As another small contribution in the New Year in this process of desecularisation – and legitimating public discussion about God - we are hoping to be able to televise at least part of one of our Sunday services on our own internet TV. Our start is going to be very modest. But every journey begins with one step.

For too long anti-Christian broadcasting has relegated religious discourse to the margins of the Public Square.

We want to begin to make a difference. One senior BBC drama producer said rather cynically that in broadcasting you can be committed to anything except Christianity. That was in the late eighties.

But have things changed much since then? I doubt it. Furthermore, the stealth and insidiousness of the impact of broadcasting must be faced. One senior controller at the BBC has said: "The main impact of television is not through single programmes, however controversial or newsworthy, but through the steady trickle of attitudes, views and opinions." The watershed was in the sixties and seventies. It was not always like this.

When you walk into (the original) Broadcasting House next to All Soul's Church, Langham Place, London, you see in Latin the dedicatory inscription. It is full of biblical and Christian allusions:

"This temple of the arts and muses is dedicated to Almighty God by the first Governors of Broadcasting in the year 1931, Sir John Reith being Director General. It is their prayer that good seed sown may bring forth a good harvest; that all things hostile to peace and purity may be banished from this house and that the people inclining their ear to whatsoever things are beautiful and honest and of good report may tread the path of wisdom and uprightness."

John Reith was a Presbyterian who wanted the values of the BBC to be Christian. Twenty-five years later in 1948 the then Director-General, Sir William Haley, could still say this to the British Council of Churches:

"There are many demands of impartiality laid on the Corporation, but his [about Christian values] is not one of them. We are citizens of a Christian country and the BBC - an institution set up by the State - bases its policy upon a positive attitude towards the Christian values. It seeks to safeguard those values and to foster acceptance of them. The whole preponderant weight of its programmes is directed towards this end."

The secularisation of broadcasting

But by 1965 'humanism' had taken over! Sir Hugh Greene, the new Director General, seemed only committed to "truthfulness, justice, freedom, compassion, tolerance" and an opposition to "racialism or extreme forms of political belief."

But the freedom (subtly) became "freedom from positive Christian values" and a freedom for the validating of immoral behaviours and gradually the depiction of them in pornographic form. Far from this being a benign tolerance it was the beginning of the illiberal suppression of those religious values that opposed some of these developments. They were not able to be clearly stated on television. You had instead (subtly) the positive statement of the religion of humanism while parading itself as a neutral secularism.

The result of this has not been tolerance but intolerance. The orthodox and mainstream Christian community now finds itself gagged. It is not able to enjoy freely the responsible expression of views and values via the electronic media that such large constituencies in the country should enjoy. Such limited expression as it is permitted is courtesy of an overall humanistic editorial and programming establishment.

Nor is it possible to change things much by "getting involved". As a curate in the late sixties I helped set up religious programmes at the new local radio station, BBC Radio Leeds. I encouraged students to become producers. After that when teaching at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford, a theological college, I wanted students to get involved in BBC Radio Oxford, but there were time constraints for us all - I was only able to produce very little. However, I was aware that unless Christians could somehow get a better stake in the evolving electronic media, humanly speaking there was little hope of stemming the insidious tide of secular humanism that would more and more erode, if not destroy, the Christian faith of millions. So after Wycliffe Hall, I believed I should seek an appointment in the BBC. However, while exploring that possibility, out of the blue I was asked to consider coming to Jesmond. This seemed right. Media interests had to go onto the back burner.

However, after six years at Jesmond I formed a consortium to bid for the North East television region - to take over Tyne-Tees. We were partially successful in that along with the other two applicants, Tyne Tees and Norseman, we all were offered a third stake in a new contracting company. We refused as we wanted all or nothing and even then our achievements from a Christian point of view might have been minimal. For this was not a company overtly to promote Christian views (which the Broadcasting Act of 1981 forbade as it still had in place censorship of all religious programmes). Rather it was intended more as a piece of social leavening.

Changing the law

It was now clear that the only sensible course of action was to try to change the law to let Christians own stations and channels. So while on the Board of Social Responsibility of the General Synod, I worked with Donald Anderson, the Labour MP, to ensure that the new Cable Act 1984 allowed Christian groups to participate in the ownership of operating companies (while still not having a controlling share) and allow them to own or lease individual channels. This was a significant development. An important principle was being established. Since the eighties this legislation has enabled Christian Satellite and Cable channels.

Christians were now beginning to see the importance of the electronic media and the consequences of their failure in not working to reverse the general slide into degeneracy. A group of us then started a campaign prior to the new Broadcasting Act of 1990 called Christian Choice in Broadcasting (the politics and struggle behind the campaign has now been written up in Hidden Agendas, the book by Professor Andrew Quicke). Positively, we secured the right for Christians to own local and regional independent Radio Stations, but nothing more. When new regional franchises were on offer, we in the North East formed a Christian company called Sound FM to bid for the new North East region (with many folk from JPC involved). A London group, Premier, formed to bid for the London region. With only one of the many new franchises likely to go to a Christian group, London had a head start with a reach of 10 million to our 2 million. Not surprisingly they were offered a franchise. We were not offered one (however, Premier’s current manager was the manager we had lined up for the North East, Peter Kerridge, from Gateshead).

A new age

Eighteen or so years later, things are now very different.

Churchwise there has been further serious decline, nationally, since 1990. Television has gone from bad to worse, with the nadir being the production two years ago of Jerry Springer the Opera on BBC Two (see the Coloured Supplement April 2006). The BBC is now seen as reducing its proportion of clear Christian programming while increasing its amount of other faith material, gay material and straight pornography.

The latter is very serious at a national level. It has been suggested that a sex or pornographic culture demotivates communal effort. An individual, says E.J.Mishan, may well ask himself about people who seem happy to tolerate such a culture …

"… are these the sort of people for whose society he must stand ready to make sacrifices? ... Can anyone care very much what happens to a society whose members are continually and visible obsessed with sexual carousal - to a society where, in effect, the human animal has been reduced to a life-style that consists in the main activity of alternatively inflaming itself and relieving itself?"

So much for the bad news. However, there is good news. Huge change is in the air. It is all to do with the internet. Lord Currie, the Chairman of Ofcom, has put it like this:

"As broadcast television overtook radio, then newspapers, so internet-delivered video content will overtake broadcast television."

What is happening is all due to "digitalization". To quote this time Rupert Murdoch, the Chairman of the News Corporation:

"The boundaries between media and adjacent sectors, such as broadband and telephony, are disappearing and this is creating an unprecedented change in the landscape."

Broadcasting, the telephone system and the internet are all converging. The new boy on the block is IPTV - this stands for Internet Protocol Television (Internet Protocol being a technical term for a networking technology).IPTV is where digital television services are not delivered through a satellite dish, an aerial or a cable, but across a broadband data network which, of course, can use a telephone line. The change is coming about because of the transition from the analogue to the digital domain. Once in digital form a telephone call or a television programme can be delivered over the same digital network. In their IPTV Guide, Cooper and Lovelace explain it in simple terms:

"In the analogue world, sounds and images are stored and transmitted in a form that has some direct correspondence to the original … As a result, analogue signals need to be kept separate, to avoid them interfering with one another . They also suffer from losses whenever they are stored or copied. In the digital domain, sounds and images, together with text, graphics and other information, can be encoded in ones and zeros and stored and transmitted as binary digits or bits. In this form they can be stored on the same disk or transmitted over the same network without interfering with one another. It is also possible to create an unlimited number of perfect copies from the original."

The future

So now telephone lines that once merely carried voice communications are able to provide broadband data services capable of delivering both live and on-demand television programmes, in standard and high definition formats, to set-top boxes connected to television screens, as well as to personal computers and other devices. "There will be an exponential expansion of channels and a proliferation of programmes available on demand" (Cooper and Lovelace). Much is uncertain. What is not uncertain is that there will be great competition between the various transmission sectors – cable, satellite, broadcasting and telephone companies together with little limitation on potential output. With a proliferation of channels and programming the viewer becomes king. And quality becomes everything – in terms of securing significant numbers of viewers. Furthermore, there will be channel hopping for all. The good programme producer of new material will be also another king. Continually multiplying channels means the market is very hungry for new high-quality, but lower cost, TV productions, including Christian material.

Currently there is a great emphasis on the new technologies and business models for the new media. At the end of the day, however, content will rule.

But with so many new possibilities of programming, who can produce new material week in and week out? One answer is the Christian churches where there the gospel is preached and the bible is taught. There is a huge source of untapped material to which the public can respond.

How important, therefore, that churches are up to speed in these early days. Hence at Jesmond Parish Church we want to be able to produce audio visual material that can both benefit ourselves but also at the same time, by using IPTV, (and, in conjunction with ) benefit thousands in the developing world where especially there is need of mainstream, orthodox, biblical teaching. We can also use other channels who would like to use our material.

Jesmond Parish Church is committed to Godly Living, Church Growth and Changing Britain (and through our mission and international work help others bring change for the good). We are committed to making disciples (literally "learners") and committed to the "maintenance and promulgation of sound scriptural and evangelical truth" – our founders vision. Because we put our sermons up on the website right at the start of the internet revolution thousands worldwide have already made use of our material and many have said they have been helped. What we are planning is an extension of that work. It is more complicated. It needs considerably more skills. Thank God for all those with skills working to help bring this extension about - Zoë Earnshaw and those working with her.

Our vision currently is very modest - simply to film to broadcast quality an edited version of one of our services for regular broadcast. This may involve some minor sacrifices but the opportunities are a great privilege for us as a church. The beauty of digitalization is that anything you film can be put onto a DVD. So DVDs can also be used as teaching materials. We are wanting to produce teaching materials for our own use. But most of what is valuable for us will be valuable for others as well. Our vision is to pioneer and experiment so that we are up to date and ready to use, for the gospel, all the new opportunities that lie ahead. Furthermore we want to help other churches make use of these opportunities. In this way we may, among other things, be able to start a revolution that changes the public "discourse level" so that Christians can more easily talk to their friends and their neighbours about Jesus Christ. Television is not the answer to Godly Living, Church Growth and Changing Britain. But it is one way to help "maintain and promulgate sound scriptural and evangelical truth". The way is for God to work – which he seems to be doing - and for us then to play our part. May we pray that we do so faithfully and competently and then act.

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