Dorothy Sayers provides a fascinating glimpse into how Christians used a 20th century form of mass media - what Archbishop William Temple called 'one of the most powerful instruments in evangelism' in his day.
New changes were coming to Britain between the world wars. There was a widespread decline of small communities, the expansion of mass media (especially the radio) and a growing interest in new forms of entertainment like the cinema. The beginning of a cultural shift from neighbourhood to network, as noted in Mission-shaped Church, was underway.
William Temple, as Archbishop of York and then Canterbury, recognised that while the Church of England had managed to retain a strong institutional presence in society, Christian belief was widely discredited among intellectual elites and disconnected from the everyday realities of the working poor. It was no longer assumed that the church was a place for answers to the larger or more difficult questions posed by modernity. So Temple initiated a diverse array of responses that would restore a 'Christian map of life'.
A renewal of crucial ties between Christ and culture came about, in part, through Temple's strong support for religious broadcasting on the BBC. He was active in founding the new medium, served on its councils, and encouraged the airing of religious programmes - sometimes meeting stiff resistance from those who worried that this might draw people away from actual church attendance.
According to his biographer, FA Iremonger, Temple was, himself, 'an admirable broadcaster, with a natural and effortless delivery well suited to the microphone'. The map of life he presented to a rapidly growing audience sought 'integration' of religion, art, science, politics, education, industry, commerce and finance. Not unlike Charles Kingsley, he was convinced that Jesus Christ had something to say to the modern world, through a church that served as herald and foretaste of the kingdom of God. Based on this keen sense of social witness, Temple encouraged artists, especially writers, dramatists and playwrights, to offer their gifts to religious broadcasting.
A landmark of broadcasting
Dorothy L Sayers was among the first to accept an invitation from the BBC to present religious drama for a popular audience. Her debut was in 1938 with the production of a nativity play for the Children's Hour. But it was in 1942, with the airing of The Man Born to be King, that she received - according to the Controller of Programmes - an 'overwhelming nationwide response' that would be long remembered as 'one of the great landmarks of broadcasting'.
Already famous for her detective novels, now she received some negative publicity as well - this as a result of her emphasis on the humanity of Jesus and use of contemporary language in the script rather than 'talking Bible'. Temple thought Sayers' work was a 'fine piece of Christian evangelism' and appreciated the need to present a more 'realistic' life of Christ.
For her part, Sayers assumed this was all part of what it meant to engage in incarnational ministry. To communicate timeless spiritual truth through 'the arts, all letters, all labour and all learning' was to take up the 'sacramental position' realised by Christ himself, she insisted. This defined the mission and ministry of the church as well - but a church now communicating the gospel well beyond the traditional parish locale.
An unexpected outcome
An unexpected outcome of these ventures into radio broadcasting was the spontaneous formation of networks of listeners around the programmes - even in local pubs! After another nativity play by Sayers was aired on Christmas Day in 1939, she was surprised to learn that a lively discussion on its message had ensued in the 'pub audience'. At a time when the BBC was attempting to sanitise her scripts, she was pleased to note that the conversations generated by her plays were prompted by a deep sense of identity with the gospel story.
Sayers had relied on her artistic instincts: 'I felt it important to get people to believe that the characters in the Bible were real people like ourselves, and not just "sacred personages" apart from common humanity.' From her standpoint, she thought this was the best way for the church to say something 'loud and definite' about Jesus Christ - especially in a world of growing complexity and, as another war approached, conflict.
To think incarnationally, with Temple and Sayers, is to think in a contemporary way about how the Word has become flesh and moved into our world. In the troubled decades of the early 20th century, materialism and atheism were already found wanting. What was needed was a fresh expression of a church animated by a missionary identity. Because each time the church rediscovers its missionary values, it rediscovers how and where to dwell with people in ways that address their deepest spiritual needs.
Sayers' pub audiences didn't develop the historic marks of church, but they were perhaps precursors of the café and pub churches that have sprung up more recently - of church taking shape within the culture of the people it is called to serve.