The show wants to make religion more accessible to a wider audience, but by doing so removes anything challenging from the faith

Do you ever watch Songs of Praise? No? Me neither. Though it has to be said that it is a programme that I have always been aware of, and have watched in the past. Quite a lot of us are in that penumbra, I imagine – people who know about the programme, who have a dim memory of its format, but who do not watch it any more. This is why the BBC have quite bravely decided to do a revamp. 

You can judge the success of the relaunch by watching last Sunday’s broadcast which is available here. I was invited to do just that by the BBC itself, in order to comment on the programme along with two other clerics for Points of View, which will air this coming Sunday. The new version is a magazine programme, and some of the segments are rather good, and some are pretty awful, it has to be admitted, but not quite for the reasons that you might think.

The programme consists of music spliced with various human interest stories. Two of these stories struck me as excellent. It was very good to hear (18 minutes in) from Johnny and Olfat from Aleppo, who are now living in England for reasons that we all know, but of which the wider public may be unaware. It was heartbreaking to see Aleppo, once one of the world’s most lovely and fascinating cities, in its current degraded state; and it was heartening to know that these Christians from Aleppo bear no malice in their hearts to their fellow citizens who have effectively driven them out. I very much liked what Johnny had to say: “Love is not weakness.” That was a truly Christian message. However, it was interesting to see that the Syrian family are now part of a Catholic parish, though this was not mentioned explicitly, and neither were we told where they were living. It would have been good to know how their new parish was benefiting from their presence, and learning from it, and how they had welcomed the newcomers.

The other “Catholic” segment in the new ecumenical Songs of Praise (though I have to admit I never found it very unecumenical in the past) was the story about Ann Maguire, the murdered Leeds teacher, and her family, at 8 minutes in. Like a lot of people who never knew her, I too find Ann Maguire a tremendous inspiration, and I am glad that her story is becoming well known; it was also good to hear her sisters talk about her Catholic faith. This was touching and moving, and there must have been many Catholics who were watching who had the same thought I had: namely that one day, perhaps a hundred years from now, Catholics will still be celebrating Ann Maguire, as we see her picture unveiled in St Peter’s Square

One thing that I felt watching the programme, and the two Anglican colleagues were in broad agreement, was that the faith element had been somewhat marginalised in the new programme. From my perspective, Songs of Praise was already pretty secular: singing hymns is something that even certain agnostics and atheists enjoy, one of the last remnants that survives from a hollowed out religion. The current programme has no real liturgical content. The songs come from various communities, but we never got to meet these communities in any depth at all. These were songs which were not rooted in any visible praying community. This of course might suit some people just fine, in that it sends out the message that you can be a Christian without being a member of a Christian community. Well, you can’t.

One can see, though, what the programme wanted to achieve. It wanted to make religion, never popular, more accessible to a wider audience. That is admirable. The trouble is, in so doing, you also risk removing anything remotely challenging from faith. The current Songs of Praise struck me as offering religion without faith, worship without risk, discipleship without cost. But maybe that’s too harsh. It was a good programme, and I liked it. Perfect fare for a Sunday evening? Maybe. Or do we need something more challenging?