Belfast Telegraph

God only knows...

Sunday Sequence on Radio Ulster celebrates its 30th birthday this weekend. How has it lasted when its audience is so divided, asks Malachi O'Doherty

Logic tells you that a religious affairs programme for Northern Ireland is a bad idea.

In a society that is riven with religious division and in which most people still take their religious affiliation seriously, surely it could only lead to perpetual difficulty?

Many evangelical churches, for instance, do not regard Roman Catholics as Christian at all and would rather they weren't included in discussions of Christian principles.

Many Roman Catholics bridle at the use of that prefix 'Roman' and hear it only as insulting, while fair play would have to allow the consideration that other Christians call themselves Catholic, too.

Yet, though this may look like an uncongenial environment for open and inclusive discussion of religion, we do have a programme on Radio Ulster dedicated to 'religion and ethics' - Sunday Sequence, currently presented by William Crawley.

And this week, Sunday Sequence celebrates its 30th anniversary, having outlived every other programme format on the station, including Talkback, which has changed its whole character and even Good Morning Ulster, which retains the name it had 30 years ago, but little of the format and style.

Mind you, it is a little strange now to reflect on the interviewing style of inaugural presenter Trevor Williams, now Bishop of Limerick. Trevor's approach was one of perfect civility and patience.

Nothing could be further from the manner of the sharpest presenter the programme has ever had, William Crawley.

But Trevor's gentility was widely regarded at the time as the right, tentative way across a toxic sectarian landscape.

Most of the staff of Sunday Sequence then were clergy. Jim Skelly, the boss, was a priest. Other producers were Presbyterian ministers, Ernie Rea and Bert Tosh.

The journalistic edge at the start was Terry Sharkie, a civilian. Sharkie brought me in as one of several freelance journalists feeding reports into the programme. I have been with it, on and off, for most of the programme's span.

It amazed me at the start that the churches would allow clergy to regard broadcast journalism as their ministry and, without the boldness of those clergy in giving their prior loyalty to the programme, it would have been anodyne.

But the first bishop to sit in the studio and discover that he wasn't going to get an easy ride or be adressed as 'your eminence' must have had to gather his wits fairly quickly.

Where religious broadcasting in other programmes, like Thought for the Day or morning service was, like programming on Downtown and elsewhere, clearly focused on the promotion of devotion, Sunday Sequence was journalism. The BBC kept strong news and current affairs producers at the top, people like Terry Sharkie, Charlie Warmington and now Martin O'Brien.

A declared religious conviction was not a qualification for the job. No one ever asked me if I was a believer. Most assumed that I wasn't.

One high-profile local Christian left a Bible for me one day at BBC reception, thinking it would help me out of my unbelief; another took me quietly aside one day and said that he was surprised to learn that I was saved.

And Belfast Humanists, who took me at first for a rationalist atheist, were miffed to find I wouldn't go all the way with them in celebration of the victory of science.

But if we didn't huddle in prayer at work, there were times when it was handy to have a few clerics around the Beeb, when members of staff died, for instance, and Bert or one of the others would conduct the funeral service.

The different presenters down the years had their characteristic emphases. Davy Sims lightened the touch a bit. Alison Hilliard was soft and assertive, even a little reverential.

Patrick Speight tilted the programme towards developing world concerns. Etta Halliday was a tad evangelical. William Crawley is elegantly logical in a way that disarms many; he also sounds as if he enjoys it more than some of his predecessors, particularly Trevor's hushed approach.

But why does the programme work, when its audience is so divided?

Partly, I think, because division produces not only suspicion, but curiosity. A sheltered Catholic listening to Sunday Sequence can usually trust that the Evangelical Presbyterian will be properly unpicked and explained, as with the other way round.

And though this is a secularising society, we nearly all had religious induction in childhood and feel at home in this realm of discussion, though this is changing.

Some day we will not have producers with the expertise in religion and theology of Tosh, Skelly and Crawley, who will not know the Immaculate Conception from the Annunciation, or the difference between an evangelical and an evangelist.

I recently heard a BBC reporter explain that the Pope would next week beatify "a man called John Newman".

There are stories now which are common which were not heard 30 years ago, like the abuse scandals. That tells you that society and the regard for the churches is changing fast.

The achievement of Sunday Sequence has been to stay with its audience through those changes and to retain its respect.

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