During the nine years I have been in my present role as Genre Head of RTÉ Religious Programmes, the continued broadcasting of Angelus chimes on RTÉ Radio One and RTÉ One television, has been debated a number of times in a number of different settings, from the letters pages of newspapers, to local and national radio and television debates and discussions.
While these are more straw polls than scientific surveys, I have noticed, on each occasion, that a clear majority seems to remain in favour of retaining the tradition.
Most recently, in March 2017, an Amárach poll commissioned for Claire Byrne Live on RTÉ One reported that “62% of a representative sample agreed with the Angelus being broadcast, while 27% didn’t and 11% were unsure”.
On that evidence, if RTÉ were to axe the Angelus, it would apparently be going against the wishes of the majority of Irish people, who still seem to value this unique broadcasting tradition of pausing for a minute for prayer or reflection during the schedules of one of RTÉ’s two TV channels and one of its 10 digital radio platforms.
Of course, that may change. As the recent census demonstrated, there are significant shifts going on in the religious demographics of Ireland, although not perhaps as significant as some people might think.
I have had quite a number of letters from people, who wrongly assume that there is a clamour from minority faith communities and leaders to scrap the Angelus. The feedback I have received from many different minority faith communities and leaders, including Muslims, is that RTÉ shouldn’t feel pressure to axe the Angelus on their behalf. They usually tell me that they like the fact that the national broadcaster still makes space for prayer or reflection.
I have certainly received one or two complaints about the continued broadcasting of this reflective pause, claiming that it is inappropriate for a national broadcaster in a society made up of people of many faiths and none to maintain this ‘Catholic’ tradition. Significantly, they seem to write on behalf of minorities to which they apparently don’t themselves belong,
More frequently, however, people argue not for fairer treatment of Protestants, or any other minority, but for secularisation. The point I usually make in response is that Ireland is not a secular society. Fewer than 10% described themselves as having ‘no religion’ in the 2016 census. In fact, you may be surprised by how few complaints RTÉ receives on this subject at all, and I understand that only four have been pursued with the BAI, the Irish broadcasting regulator, in the last 20 years. None of them was upheld.
Serving different communities: Senator David Norris’ recent comments on the Angelus were actually made in the context of a vigorous defence of RTÉ, reminding people of the excellent value for money our services represent to the licence payer. It would therefore be churlish to take offence at his glancing comment about the Angelus.
What I would say is that, at the heart of some of the very few complaints I receive about the Angelus broadcasts, there is one very legitimate point. Since licence payers of all faiths and none fund the national broadcaster, people ask me, why would RTÉ maintain a tradition that serves the religious needs of one community, albeit the majority Catholic community, above all others?
When I took up my job in 2008, a blow-in from the island next door, my response to that question was to ask whether, in fact, the Angelus broadcasts were exclusively Catholic, and if so, did they need to be. It had been a long time since those slots had featured Marian iconography.
Since people of all traditions and beliefs seem to share the view that it is valuable and important to pause and take stock occasionally, it struck me that it ought to be possible to find ways of doing so authentically, which were also inclusive of, and acceptable to, all.
The short films I have commissioned for the 6pm television slots since 2009 have had a clear brief to create “a non-verbal minute, conducive to prayer or reflection for people of all faiths and none”. I also wanted to use the Angelus slots to create a showcase for creativity, and so, every Friday, we now feature ‘The People’s Angelus’ in which aspiring filmmakers, artists and students are invited to submit short films for the slot.
Should those films be “more Christian,” as some have suggested? I leave that to the filmmakers. Responses have varied from highly-sophisiticated 3D animation to aerial photography; some have storyboarded narratives, some are more statically reflective. Is that “hogwash” or “bland”, as Senator Norris remarked? He’s entitled to his opinion but I would hesitate to write them all off with such a pejorative sweep of the hand.
Roger Childs is Genre Head of Religious Programmes at RTÉ. This piece was written in response to a request from The Irish Catholic, following comments made in the Seanad and elsewhere in recent weeks.