My caller last Sunday evening was not angry but rather puzzled. “Have you watched ‘Songs of Praise’ this evening?” I explained that it was not something I often watched these days. My caller continued: “The theme was marriage, and after interviewing a young couple, they went to Scotland. There was a service being conducted by a Bishop but the couple were both men. When they interviewed the Bishop he said that he was glad to be offering marriage to gay couples … ”
The first time I took part in Songs of Praise was in 1974 when it was broadcast from St Wilfrid’s, Harrogate, in Yorkshire. The large nave was entirely filled with choirs from all the churches in Harrogate. The choir of St Wilfrid’s sang ‘Thee we adore, O hidden Saviour thee’ which is the English version of Thomas Aquinas’ ‘Adoro te devote’ – a hymn to the Blessed Sacrament. This was quite strong stuff for ‘Songs of Praise’, and I remember that the presenter recited those words of Queen Elizabeth 1 “Christ’s were the words that spake it” as an ‘explanation’ of the Eucharist which we could all agree on!
The second occasion when I participated in ‘Songs of Praise’ was in 1991, this time in an outdoor broadcast from Rathbone Street Market in Canning Town. In fact little of the market remained, because of the decision to drive the A13 directly through what had been one of the longest street markets in Europe. We began with a hymn specially written to the theme-tune of ‘Eastenders’ and sang ‘Shine Jesus shine’ and another song of which I can only remember the chorus which went
“nothing – nothing – absolutely nothing – nothing is impossible to thee-ee”
At the time I felt that a Protestant/Pentecostal takeover of the event had invented a mythical Christian East End to parallel the curious presentation of its life paraded by ‘EastEnders’. Moreover, it almost completely airbrushed from history the proud contribution of Anglo-Catholicism to East London over 100 years, represented by the great Dock churches, and its hugely influential religious community, the Society of the Divine Compassion, with its saintly founder, Fr Andrew Hardy. Nor shall I forget one of our women deacons patiently but firmly explaining that she was not wearing ‘robes’ (which had been ‘forbidden’) but the everyday working gear (the cassock!) of an Anglican cleric.
Last Sunday’s edition of ‘S of P’ raises for me a number of questions. I had assumed that the programme had remained firmly in the hands of the Evangelicals, but it would seem that the liberals are now back in the driving seat. It is less than a year ago that Parliament re-defined marriage, in the face of opposition from Catholics, Anglicans and the majority of the Free Churches. One is aware, of course, that there is a liberal minority – within the C of E and some of the Free Churches – which accepts this re-definition, and is willing to run with it. Nonetheless, one has to ask whether it is appropriate for Songs of Praise to ‘celebrate’ the new definition of marriage, in a Christian programme, even though the new ‘marriage’ is opposed by the huge majority of Christians worldwide.