It would be a great honour indeed to be interviewed by the Archbishop of Canterbury and explore complex contemporary ethical issues and nuanced moral-political dilemmas in the context of the plurality of religious belief and the centrality of the Christian faith. It is an honour indeed for the Archbishop of Canterbury to have been invited by the BBC to host such a series of interviews with prominent and influential people, to delve into that space where faith, morality and spirituality subsist, in the hope of enlightening Radio 4 listeners (if not the country) with nuggets of Christian wisdom and theological insight while his guests wrestle with their inner demons as he digs into their muddled thoughts or murky motivations.
“It’s such a privilege to be able to spend time interviewing fascinating people from different backgrounds for this series,” the Archbishop said. “I relish the opportunity to be the one asking the questions rather than answering them. There are few better ways to get to know someone than to enquire and listen.”
And for ‘The Archbishop Interviews’, guests are indeed drawn from diverse backgrounds: former Prime Minister Sir Tony Blair; author Stephen King; the CEO of Citizens Advice, Clare Moriarty; former Chief of the Defence Staff, General Sir Nick Carter; British-Turkish novelist and political scientist, Elif Shafak; and psychologist Dr Susan Blackmore.
We read: “These will be candid encounters between the Archbishop and his guests. In each half-hour episode, the Archbishop will ask his guests about how they have navigated their inner life alongside their public profile.”
We are told: “This series is an exciting departure for the Archbishop and a journey of discovery. He is curious to explore how others view the big questions about humankind. This is an opportunity for him to turn the tables and become the person asking the questions.”
The Archbishop adds: “I want to hear about people’s lives, and the events and underlying frameworks that shape their views, and I’m extremely grateful for the generosity extended by each person in giving their time, honesty and sometimes their vulnerability as they tell their stories. I hope the series might give those who listen to it the curiosity to look at others who are different to them, to wonder who they might truly be, and how we might build relationships that cross divides. I pray it would be an encouragement to each of us to have conversations that seek to understand and know one another more fully.”
No doubt we will be presented with polemic and reflection; passion and culture; spirituality and idolatry. And it will be for Justin Welby to immerse himself in their worlds and probe their hypocrisies and fragilities, or discover their hungers and loves, or challenge their self-perceptions and legacies. In an age of great spiritual need, we really don’t need another platforming chat show of secularising conceit or self-aggrandizing policy heroes. People yearn for spiritual refreshment and the bread of life, at least episodically. It is possible that ‘The Archbishop Interviews’ might be a mode of mission – a profoundly pastoral one – because each of these guests will hopefully reveal more of themselves than they have ever done before, and that takes courage and vulnerability on their part, and vision and discernment on the Archbishop’s, who will need to love in order to coax, and respect in order to reveal.
Whether he finds any messages of genuine redemption will depend very much on how deep he delves, and how much he challenges perceptions of Christianity (and the Church) beyond sentimental welfare humanitarianism.
But on these “diverse backgrounds”…
One doesn’t have to delve too deeply to find those who rail against the forces of conservatism, endorse socialists, or hurl ‘racist’ at those on the right with whom they happen to disagree. And one could dig deeper: seek and ye shall find. It’s radio, so faces are imagined, but it comes as a relief that ‘The Archbishop Interviews’ will focus more on what these people have to say than how they appear. It’s a fair bet, however, that rather like the Archbishops’ Racial Justice Commission, there is only one conservative among them.
This wouldn’t be the Archbishop’s fault, of course: invitations to guests would come from the BBC. But when you are seeking “deep reflections on the moral, spiritual and faith lives of a fascinating range of people”, it helps if that range is as broad politically and theologically as it is professionally, especially when the focus is faith and morality. And on that theological breadth, what’s the betting they’re all on the social-theological liberal wing of spirituality?
‘The Archbishop Interviews’ is produced by Dan Tierney, who is among the BBC’s most experienced and finest. He completely understands the broadcasting virtue of political and theological diversity among guests, so let’s be constructive. For the next series, how about redressing the balance with an equally fascinating range of people?
There’s a space to fill – suggestions welcome. But if the Archbishop of Canterbury were to interview these people, not only would it be iron sharpening iron (Prov 27:17) – politically, spiritually, morally, sociologically and theologically – but Radio 4’s audience figures would go stratospheric.