Show religion some respect, bishop tells broadcasters

London, England -- THE Church of England was at war again yesterday, not over homosexual clergy or Iraq but over the merits or otherwise of the popular BBC television sitcom The Vicar of Dibley.

One bishop accused the programme of being more offensive than Jerry Springer — The Opera, while another is using its star, Dawn French, in a campaign to attract more young people to become vicars.

The Bishop of Norwich, the Right Rev Graham James, highlighted The Vicar of Dibley as part of a wider attack in which he accused the BBC and ITV of condemning religion to a “ghetto”. Bishop James, who chairs the Central Religious Advisory Committee, which advises the BBC and regulators on religious output, said that he was far from impressed by Jerry Springer — The Opera, which prompted 50,000 complaints of blasphemy when it was broadcast on BBC Two this year. But he was more offended by The Vicar of Dibley special on Christmas Day.

Nearly 12 million viewers tuned into the show, written by Richard Curtis, the co-founder of Comic Relief, which featured a life-size chocolate baby Jesus and the vicar of the title, Geraldine, having her head dunked in a bucket of icy water to try to sober her up before her Christmas sermon.

Bishop James said: “I think in some ways The Vicar of Dibley was more disturbing than Jerry Springer — The Opera. I felt it was very poor for BBC One to produce such a disrespectful programme on Christmas Day. The jokes about Jesus were in pretty poor taste and the drunken performances at midnight mass lost touch with reality. It’s a programme that I used to enjoy that has gone to the bad.”

His hard-hitting attack came after Mark Thompson, the BBC Director-General, said that it was time to do more to “connect” with the 72 per cent of British people who described themselves as Christian in the recent Census. He said that there was a “huge resurgence” of Islam, while China was becoming more religious as it prospered and religion was part of the public debate in the US. Bishop James said: “None of this is reflected adequately in our current affairs reporting — especially on TV, where we maintain a huge number of political journalists, as if the world is entirely governed by secular politics. There are far more communicants on a wet Sunday in the Church of England than there are members of the Conservatives, Labour and Liberal Democrats put together.”

His approach contrasted with that of the Manchester diocese, which features Dawn French in her clerical collar on the front of next month’s Crux, the diocesan magazine.

The diocese has launched a recruitment video featuring Ms French alongside Father Ted, the Rev Timms from Postman Pat and the Rev Lovejoy from The Simpsons in an attempt to persuade more young people to sign up for ordination training.