Sunday, May 4, 2014

An Open letter to the Editor, The Archers, BBC Radio 4.

Sean O’Connor
Editor, The Archers.
BBC Radio 4

5 April 2014

Dear Mr O’Connor,

As you have had a few months to settle into your new post, I wonder if it might be the right time to bring the Archers into the twenty-first century in one important respect.

We all know that the BBC in its Charter has a mandate to act as a propaganda arm for mainstream religion, but perhaps the time has come for BBC drama to be excused this duty - after all the Charter refers explicitly to religious services. There are many areas on the BBC radio where exaggerated deference is still shown to Christian belief, and I suspect that most people are ready to hear a more realistic version of village life.

Over the last thirty years or so, Ambridge has seen a succession of vicars. They have all been attractive, dedicated, liberal characters – just as they are across all of Radio 4. If you know any vicars, or if you read national or local newspapers, you will know that this does not reflect reality. 

At one end of the spectrum, real vicars are often barely Christians at all. To friends they will generally admit quite freely that they do not believe in nonsense like the Virgin Birth or the Resurrection. Some of them laugh at the simpletons who do believe such things. At the other end of the spectrum are conservatives, with no doubts at all, who espouse traditional Christian views: generally they barely conceal their homophobia, misogyny and racism. There are some very strange people indeed wearing dog collars - openly manipulating their female parishioners, hearing supernatural voices, speaking in tongues, preaching hell-fire, exorcising demons and so on.

In between, in the middle of the spectrum, real vicars are sometimes unpleasant characters. Some commit frauds and other crimes. Some are pedophiles. Some beat their wives – so many in fact that there is a special support organization dedicated to the support of battered clerical wives. Others have adulterous affairs. Real vicars are often involved in legal disputes with their own bishops, their own organists, their own choirs or their own churchwardens. They are also often accused of having influenced the wills of dying parishioners – a charge that has been common continuously over nearly 2000 years. Real vicars might watch porn and swear. A surprising proportion of vicars are atheists – they have lost their faith but carry on a pretence because they could never find another job in the real world (we know this because they will often admit it after they retire). Non-belief is so common that there are confidential support organisations for non-believing priests. Real vicars have skeletons in their cupboards. Some are alcoholics. Some take hard drugs. Some do little else but read out a standard sermon from the pulpit once a week. If your sole source of information about the Anglican Church were the Archers, you would never guess any of this. The picture painted is not merely 30 years out of date but also massively sanitized. Ambridge vicars are always caring, sensitive, responsible, liberal individuals completely free of spite, sexual peccadilloes, human weaknesses and criminal tendencies. 

The same is true of Ambridge villagers. Nearly all of them go to church – unlike the residents of any real village. At major Christian festivals like Christmas and Easter we are always treated to unadulterated Christian propaganda – listening in on Church services scripted to be as moving as possible.  Ambridge must be unique in Britain in having a conventional church that appeals to young people. Not one of the youngsters in Ambridge regards the Church as an absurd anachronism - another strong contrast to reality. The sort of characters who really might attend church, old women like Peggy Archer, are now made out to be wholly sympathetic. They are not like real church-going eighty year-olds, people like the embarrassing grannies many of us are familiar with: vicious, vocally Christian, anti-Semitic, homophobic and racist, still opposed to women priests, streaming with bile, and incandescent with rage at the idea of same-sex marriage. Some years ago, poor old Peggy was vaguely bemused by the idea of women vicars, but she soon came round to the BBC's approved progressive liberal view. She is also unrealistic quiescent about having openly homosexual relatives. She exhibits not a hint of anti-Semitism or racism. 

Unlike the real world, there no noticeable friction between High Church Anglicans and Low Church Anglicans. In Ambridge, Christians all rub along in perfect harmony without ever accusing each other of being obscurantist flesh-eating Papists or heretical Presbyterian iconoclasts, as they do in the real world. There is not a single Catholic believer in Ambridge for Anglicans to accuse of pseudo-magical hocus-pocus, as in real life. No Christian burns effigies of other Christians every year as they do in real villages, such as Lewes. Neither do we ever hear of a single wing-nut Evangelical or Pentecostalist in Borcetshire. No Christian parents indoctrinate children with Fundamentalist nonsense, a common and increasing problem in the real world. In Ambridge as in the rest of the Radio 4 fantasy-world, BBC Christians all fit onto just one quarter of the real-world Christian spectrum. We never hear of the quarter in the super-woolley end represented by in the real world by the likes of Bishop Richard Holloway, nor the half of the spectrum at the other end represented by traditionalists obsessed by sin and sex. There is not a single creationist in Borcetshire.

Again, unlike real villages, Ambridge boasts only one atheist – Jim – an eccentric who, despite his rationalism and education, never voices any rational argument against Christianity, and is easily manipulated by the vicar. Caroline who used to be a non-believer, now never voices any religious opinion. In the real world dozens of characters in a village like Ambridge would have abandoned their faith over the last thirty years. In Ambridge the total tally of apostates is nil. No one ever criticizes the Church, or laughs at Christian doctrine, or ridicules church-goers – not even in private – another unique feature of Ambridge. No-one ever complains about the constitutional advantages or massive tax breaks enjoyed by Churches. No one ever mentions all the exemptions negotiated by the Churches for themselves, excusing themselves from complying with equality legislation. In Ambridge, no one is ever forced to sell their house because of chancel repair liability, having to pay legally-enforced arcane Church fees of hundreds of thousands of pounds to fund repairs to the local church – another scandal restricted to the real world.

Joe Grundy used to hold the traditional belief that the Bible was true in a literal sense: Adam and Eve, Noah’s Flood, Talking Donkeys ... all of it. When and why did he stop believing all that? And when did he abandon his Methodism? Did the Methodist membership collapse in Ambridge as it did everywhere else, but without anyone noticing? Why do we not see Anglican Church membership collapsing too, as it is in almost every real village across the country?

When Alan, the present vicar, married Usha, a Hindu, there were two interesting consequences, one scripted and one in real life. The scripted one was some strange soul-searching by Schula and others. No-one objected for racist reasons. No-one lost their faith as a result. No-one threatened the vicar with violence. In the real world many Christian listeners were outraged and wrote in to the BBC to complain about the unrealistic blasphemy of an Anglican vicar marrying someone other than another Christian. These real Christians (who apparently had no idea that in real life several vicars had already married members of other religions) provided a striking counterpoint to Ambridge Christians. A bit of thoughtful soul-searching for Ambridge Christians. Nasty-minded foam-flecked bigotry from real-life Christians. If you look at the news on the BBC you will see that in the real world, there are plenty of racist, misogynist, homophobic Christians making anonymous death threats to pretty much anyone not fitting their model of a traditional Christian. In the real world men like John Sentamu, the black Archbishop of York, receive excrement and anonymous abuse through the post. Like women vicars, their crime, according to their fellow Christian correspondents, is to occupy Church offices while not being white men. In Ambidge, neither female vicars nor Usha, the vicar's Hindu wife, receive offensive mail. Usha once experienced a racist incident, but of course it was not religiously motivated. There are no right-wing extremist Christians in Ambridge, just as there are no rabid religious types casting around for excuses to challenge equality legislation. Such unattractive beings intrude only into the real world, not into Radio 4.

So, please Mr O’Connor, may we have a more realistic, up-to-date, unsanitised version of Christianity  in Ambridge in the future. Apart from anything else you have been missing hundreds of interesting story lines that resonate with reality.

Yours faithfully

James McDonald


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