BBC ‘burying’ Songs of Praise in lunchtime slot: Northern Ireland faith leaders
Senior religious figures in Northern Ireland have voiced their disappointment at the BBC's decision to move the broadcast time of Songs of Praise from afternoon to lunchtime.
This follows a claim by Church of England sources that the broadcaster is "burying" the programme by moving it.
Songs of Praise has been running for 57 years and has been broadcast from Northern Ireland many times, with a long list of well-known local presenters including Eamonn Holmes and Claire McCollum.
In addition, Ulster-born hymn writers Keith and Kristyn Getty have performed, and their work is frequently featured on the programme.
A Presbyterian spokesman said Songs of Praise was more than "just a religious programme and has been a special time of praise and worship enjoyed by a significant number of people over many years".
He added: "Its permanent move to the 1.15pm slot makes it less accessible to many Christians, who would have been at their place of worship on a Sunday morning.
"It would also be disappointing if this decision leads to the further demise of what the BBC describes as its flagship programme.
"Those who are unable to attend worship, especially those in residential homes, will no doubt be the most disappointed at the new time because it coincides with lunch, leaving many of them unable to watch.
"It will be interesting to see how the change will affect viewing figures and if the BBC will think again, should the decision have a negative effect."
Methodist President the Rev Billy Davison said his first reaction was "disappointment".
"There are a lot of older people in care homes and elsewhere who watch the programme, and they might find the earlier slot inconvenient," he stressed.
"I am not sure why the BBC has taken this step, but I have worries about the way faith issues are being dealt with in a secular age."
Peter Lynas, director of Evangelical Alliance Northern Ireland, added: "It is estimated that 400,000 people regularly attend church in Northern Ireland, which is about a quarter of the population. Given this fact, there is room for both quantity and, more importantly, quality of coverage.
"I believe that moving Songs of Praise to a lunchtime slot is a small sign that the broadcasters do not get this."
The Rev Steve Stockman, of Fitzroy Presbyterian Church in Belfast, said: "It happened to me when at one stage the BBC in Northern Ireland changed my Radio Ulster Sunday night programme to 8pm.
"That was when all my listeners were still at church or at youth groups, and it was the youth we were particularly targeting. I think that this was a lack of thought rather than deliberate marginalisation.
"However, the latest move is a sign that the placing of other programmes in the schedule was being considered more, and Songs of Praise just had to fit in."
The Rev Earl Storey, editor of the Church of Ireland Gazette, expressed his "surprised" at the move.
"The format of Songs of Praise in recent years has helped to communicate the vibrancy of Christian faith," he said.
"I am surprised by the move of the slot to a lunchtime because the afternoon slot it formerly occupied made it accessible for a lot of people, who will be very disappointed by the move."
However, his wife, Bishop Pat Storey, chair of the Church of Ireland's central communications board, said the change "could be helpful for people unable to attend a morning service and who may not otherwise have the chance to enjoy a regular time of collective worship".
She added: "As with any significant change in programming, it is understandable that moving Songs of Praise to a lunchtime slot has led to debate.
"While acknowledging that not everyone will agree with this change, we are grateful for Songs of Praise as an invaluable benefit to Christians all over the nation."
The BBC said it moved Songs of Praise because it wanted to make the programme easier for viewers by ensuring consistency in the schedules and by avoiding displacement by any sporting events over-running in the afternoon.
A petition to return the show to its later slot has received 1,000 signatures so far.