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Cardinal's address at Sandford St Martin Trust TV Awards

posted on 05 May 2004
'The more I thought about what I might say to you today, the more I became intrigued by the curious possibility that programme-makers and preachers, or evangelisers, face a similar challenge.

How do you, and how do we, speak simultaneously to the prevailing scepticism of our time, and to the sincerely held beliefs of men and women of faith? How do we speak, or help others to speak authentically of religious truth when our audience may be predisposed, consciously or merely subconsciously to resist, to refute or simply to ignore those truths?

How do you make programmes which people will want to watch, as opposed to the alternative on the other channel, without betraying the subject you are treating? How do preachers attract people back to God without watering down the faith?

So it is with sincerity that I begin by congratulating you on your achievements and by recognising, with a mixture of gratitude and admiration, your courage. I may be wrong, but I cannot help thinking that making another game show would be a much easier option. However, I cannot also help thinking that it would be much less intellectually and spiritually rewarding and, dare I say it, less obviously in the public interest. So thank you for your perseverance, your imagination and your continuing faith in what you do.

One of the trials of church leadership is to be exposed from time to time to the full glare of the media spotlight. It is only human to feel a little ambivalent about that privilege. I have invariably found that however harsh the spotlight, the people behind are people of integrity who are a delight to meet, especially when the microphone is finally turned off! If that is true of news, it is doubly true of programmes.

Another thing I have invariably found to be true as a priest and a pastor, which seems to be reflected in the programmes you are making, including some which have won awards today, is this: behind and beneath every faith story is a human story which, if re-told faithfully and with sympathy, illuminates best the truths that lie within. Not wishing to be unduly prescriptive, I do wonder whether the best religious programmes do not conform to the same general rule as the best sermons: a true story illustrates the profoundest truths and the deepest human experiences better than philosophical or theological discourse. Which is not of course to dismiss either of these. They too have their place.

A couple of examples spring to mind. One is a story told by Archbishop Robert Runcie. For me it is a beautiful illustration of the true meaning of the Eucharist - a theological question which split Christendom in the 16th Century and over which wars have been fought. Archbishop Runcie was celebrating the Eucharist in Canterbury Cathedral. There was a man called Robert from one of L'Arche communities of Jean Vanier (which featured recently on Songs of Praise) who, like Archbishop Runcie, came from Liverpool. Archbishop Runcie describes him as somebody who might have been dismissed by a casual observer as awkward and inarticulate. He joined the line of those coming up for Communion or for a simple blessing. Robert seemed uncertain which he was asking for. Finally, he took the host, looked at it, broke it in two and handed half of it back to the Archbishop. This was proof, surely, of the extraordinary spiritual gifts of people with learning difficulties - expressing, as Lord Runcie, put it 'the truth that we are spiritually nourished not by the owning, but by the sharing of Christ's gift'.

A second, broader example, part of which is captured in Channel 4's documentary on the process of canonisation, is Malcolm Muggeridge's documentary about the life and work of Mother Teresa as well as his book-about-the-programme: 'Something beautiful for God'. Somehow the images in that book, and in the film - the photographs as much as the text - perfectly illustrate not only the daily working out of the vocation of the Missionaries of Charity, but also the work of the Spirit of God which inspires the whole of that work from the start to the end of the day. As we saws earlier film shot by the BBC in dark and unworkable conditions appeared, to use Malcolm Muggeridge's own words, to be suffused with an extraordinary and inexplicable 'divine light'. Sometimes words are just not enough.

Profound truth conveys itself as much through emotional as through intellectual responses - something we find at times hard to accept. It is not enough simply to ask why something happens, or why something is sincerely believed. We have also to ask the 'how' questions: How did it happen? How did you feel? How would you describe your experience? To approach the 'how' of belief, or for that matter unbelief, we must be open to the emotions, and to lived experience.

This is where perhaps programme-makers have the edge on preachers. The responsible use of images to convey lived experience, in support of a narrative, can make your story-telling even more telling than ours. I think of Brian Sewell telling his story, with words and with pictures on the road to Compostella - a latter day Geoffrey Chaucer, with camera crew in tow. It remains to be seen whether recognition of Brian's achievement by the Sandford St. Martin's Trust will be enough to ensure that in 600 years' time people will be enjoying him as much as we continue to enjoy Chaucer today.

So please keep telling your stories with imagination and sensitivity.

My final word is a word of thanks to the Trust, and to all present, for your great dedication and contribution to quality religious programmes which I believe we need more today than ever.'


Contact Details:
Austen Ivereigh
Telephone: 020 7798 9045 or 07905 224860
posted on 05 May 2004

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