Has TV finally rediscovered faith?

"I've tried atheism and I can't stick it. I keep having doubts. That probably sums up my position - if I'm a Don't Know, I'm a C of E Don't Know".

"I've tried atheism and I can't stick it. I keep having doubts. That probably sums up my position - if I'm a Don't Know, I'm a C of E Don't Know".

So wrote Ian Hislop, Have I got News for You? wit and Private Eye editor, in Why I am Still an Anglican (edited by Caroline Chartres). Hislop is one of the few people on television who makes me laugh out loud; his view on the C of E is the "default" position of millions like him.

But his Canterbury Tales series on Channel 4, giving a 20th century history of the C of E, was very positive, "full of terrific and illuminating stories of incredibly decent people," he says, "beacons of witness, which telling the story made me appreciate". The C of E is "part of what we do in this country", he writes, "the things we traditionally laugh at are the Bar, the Pulpit, the Throne, so, whatever our national church, it would have been the object of fun. All the best jokes in Chaucer are about religious figures".

There are recent signs that even the BBC is beginning to take religion in general much more seriously.

The fact that the screenwriter and producer behind Prime Suspect and Bleak House are co-operating on a £4m BBC1 drama series about the Passion of Christ, to be screened in 2008, seems to suggest a new appetite for religion among broadcasters.

It is not so long since the 'R' word was taboo in TV circles. Religion was written off as authoritarian, intellectually backward and decidedly 'uncool' by those TV executives who went to university in the 1960s and 70s. It was seen as the kiss of death for TV.

Most Read

But, no longer, it seems.

"Since 9/11", says Norfolk's Michael Wakelin, who has succeeded Alan Bookbinder as head of BBC religion and ethics, "religion has shot up in the nation's and the world's agendas, and people clearly want to know more about what's going on and what makes people do what they do".

The rise of fundamentalist Islam has certainly forced people to take religion more seriously. And, fundamentalism apart, they have come to look afresh at the strong faith of Muslim communities in our major towns and cities, and to wonder if they themselves are missing something.

Muslims are not afraid to speak out about their religion.

"Religion and faith are right at the forefront of our agenda. And not just for people involved in religious programmes", says Adam Kemp, BBC TV's commissioning editor, "but also for those involved in current affairs. Religion was once seen as a little bit of a backwater in television, not one of the hottest genres, like science and history. But not any more."

The BBC2 series The Monastery and its follow-up, The Convent, were unlikely subjects even in the current obsession with reality shows, but had an astonishing impact. And the documentary series on York Minster and its inner workings was one of the most popular ever. I am not so sure about the "Seaside Parish" series, first Boscastle after the flood, and now the Scillies.

The ministry of the woman priest following the disaster was impressive in re-establishing the shattered community, but it also made a star of the bumbling, comical bishop, who has continued into the Scillies programme.

BBC3's Manchester Passion was one of the biggest hits of 2006, with thousands of people on the streets of Manchester for this original telling of the Passion of Christ through music. I did not see it personally, but it was said to be very moving, and a truly original piece of broadcasting.

Songs of Praise is a long-running, peak-time favourite, with a cosy religious glow, and people do love singing the hymns, old and new. But there is still a huge black hole where regular televised Sunday worship used to be. I remember the heady days of Anglia TV, with Peter Freeman and then Ivan Bailey, when the station actually closed down after midnight, but not before a brief religious "Epilogue" for which we local clergy were drafted in and trained to give an uplifting message.

Both the BBC and Anglia used to broadcast a wide range of live worship from churches of different denominations on Sunday mornings.

When the BBC dropped this (they now only broadcast live worship at Christmas and Easter, I think, and Choral Evensong on Radio 4 just survives) Anglia took on the worship slot for all the regions for some years, until that too went.

These live services were beautifully produced, and greatly valued by many who were no longer able to get to church, and were useful in opening up the whole spectrum of Christian worship. In view of the hours of live broadcasting devoted to other sectional interests such as sport, this is an unfair and sad loss, and leaves a great gap.

But we must at least be thankful that religion and faith are now at the forefront of TV's agenda, worthy of prime time, and attracting talented production people.