Change of a Lifetime

It was probably a gift for my baptism. Today the pages are well thumbed, and the dust jacket is faded, curled and torn. A brief inscription on the flyleaf , written by my godmother and dated, suggests that this was the second Sunday of Lent in 1965. From conversations with my mother during her lifetime I know that there may have been a poignant sense of thanksgiving at the time. I had nearly died within weeks of birth. With understandable feeling my mother once spoke about an exchange with her mother during those difficult days. Packing some clothes to take to me in hospital my grandmother said to her: ‘do you think they’ll be needed?’ Clearly she did not expect me to survive.

An illustration from the book

The BBC series which gave rise to the book Jesus of Nazareth by Joy Harrington was a landmark. Only a change in censorship laws allowed an actor to portray Jesus in a public performance. In 1956, across eight episodes, the BBC broadcast this groundbreaking series. It was billed as ‘a cycle of eight plays’ – perhaps echoing the tradition of mystery cycles which once took place in many towns and cities. Scheduled on Sundays leading up to Easter it was at the time of day when children’s programming was shown. However, it proved a very popular production for adults as well. The care taken with the series included a number of ‘firsts’. While most of the content was live when broadcast, there were inserts of footage taken on location in Galilee and Jerusalem.

“Our aim is to awaken the interest of children in the origins of the most significant influence in their lives, and help them to understand something of the background against which the Christian story was enacted”

Freda Lingstrom, Head of Children’s Television, interviewed in the Radio Times in February 1956.

The website Television Heaven quotes an interview published in 1956 in the Radio Times which gives an idea of the gravitas attached to the production. At a time long before liturgical developments would move the Church of England beyond the routine use of the Book of Common Prayer, these plays were given in contemporary language. The Times Educational Supplement described the book’s publication as ‘an event of incalculable importance’.

The book was no less popular than the TV series and mine is a 4th impression, with the look and feel of a very different world. Lingstrom speaks with an unchallenged assumption that Christianity was the most significant influence on the lives of young people. These are not remarks made about children who go to church, but the children of the nation. It reflects a continuing confidence in the 1950s that Christianity could weld the country together – and formed the values and outlook of society. A young Queen had ascended the throne and there was no doubt about her commitment and sense of duty for the faith she had sworn to defend.

A church service in West Yorkshire, 2019

The Queen is still with us, but the presence, influence and power of the Church of England is a shadow of its former self. Much religious broadcasting has been pushed to the margins (or over the edge). A series such as Jesus of Nazareth would command a fraction of the audience it did in 1956 (‘as a BBC survey showed, next to the Coronation of 1953 in national appeal‘).

There are a vast array of reasons why these changes have taken place. Society has diversified in a range of ways which have contributed to the decline of churches. There is a plurality of religions; Sundays are no longer the exclusive preserve of Christian activity; as fewer people attend churches the social presence of religious language and ideas has eroded.

This kind of change in language has been addressed recently in a study by John Bernau in the USA. He examined in forensic detail the contents of a leading pastoral care journal over several decades to identify how the language had changed since the 1950s.

“To gain legitimacy in this secular space, chaplaincy has to eschew overt religious language in favor of modern individualistic spiritual conversations”

Bernau, J. A. (2021). From Christ to Compassion: The Changing Language of Pastoral Care. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion. Chicago

This question of language and meaning has been a recurrent theme during the 30 years of my ordained ministry. As most of this has been spent in chaplaincy the need to find words to build bridges between different contexts has grown. Perhaps the bridges have needed to be longer as the distance between the religious and other professions has grown. While much has changed for the good – not least a wider inclusiveness in ministry – the transition from Christendom to a post-Christian society has been rapid and far reaching.

In my next Blog I’ll consider where this swift and extensive change leaves the Church of England and Christianity in the UK today.

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