An examination of mass communications technology in the service of the Church by Philip Vickers*.
IT IS NOT often that an official Home Office report claims a superlative as it does in the case of cable and satellite television which it hales as representing the fastest rate of change "in the realm of communications".
Cable and satellite TV also represent the greatest ever communications opportunity to Christians because the new regulations take the transmission of the Christian message out of the embargos of the BBC Charter and the IBA Regulations.
Going much further the Government has encouraged the development of special religious channels and the opportunity for Christians to sponsor their own programmes even if they are still embargoed from participation in the ownership of cable operating companies.
Three basic attitudes have emerged: within the Church we hear expressions of deep concern over the lack of awareness and participation; within the industry, secular confusion exists over the divergent views of Christians of differing denominations while, at the same time, there is secular interest in a visible Christian contribution; among the public, a virtual 99 per cent ignorance of what is happening.
Some Christian groups are already deeply involved. Billy Graham spoke to 180,000 people in June via a satellite link (hovering over Nigeria) with 51 centres in Britain, as well as to France and Zambia simultaneously.
On a much smaller scale, the Order of Christian Unity made TV history when the first ever Christian sponsored cable TV programme in Britain went out over Swindon Cable on June 6 carrying an ethical discussion programme on the Enoch Powell Bill.
As an inter-denominational Christian organisation the OCU is in a special position to be aware of the work of the various Churches in this field. In 1983 the OCU organised the first ever Christian conference on cable and satellite television in Britain. It then carried out a national survey Christians in the Media which led, among other things, to a national Forum in London this March and, most recently,
to the formation of the Cable & Satellite Christian Association.
Discussions with the cable authority and others have confirmed that there is much going on "below the surface" but very little has yet emerged from Christian involvement in the venture. Opportunities are certainly being 'issed.
But pro .ms are considerable. ne satellite programme com,./anies will tell you of their fear of politics and religion as programme material: they are divisive subjects and programmers are seeking mass commercial audiences, such as are provided by "Music Box", while the need to cater for panEuropean audiences can drive down the standard to the lowest common denominator.
Costs can be high, though nowhere near as high as the I:12,000 an hour a comparable BBC programme might cost. Cable TV only makes an impact where it is actually available and public access to satellite receivers was only liberated by the Government a matter of weeks ago. But, when the wheel was invented the world did not shout.
Speaking at a recent workshop on cable, Andrew Barr (of BBC Religious Broadcasting) said that the history of cable and satellite religious programming will be written by those who make it happen, and it will be completely new, not an imitation of the networks. Perhaps the greatest underlying fear is of the advent of the American "Electronic Church", so eloquently depicted by Colin Morris, and at the OCU we have received a continuing stream of trans-Atlantic visitors probing the United Kingdom potential_
The Muslims are organising a major investment and the Mormons have been conducting experiments for some time in Britain. Inter-denominational rivalry has created selfcompetition. There are also many practical problems: more training is needed; better programmes must be created; more Church and financial backing is required. Many believe that cable innovation represents a truly God-given opportunity for Christians to win back the airways for Christ.
Progress that has been made has been achieved through prayer and the Holy Spirit. That more progress has not yet been made may be simply due to a lack of our commitment to Christ in this field. Mea culpa.
*Catholic Director of the interdenominational Order of Christian Unity.