Would I do it again the same way?

The Sea of Faith, 20 years after—Don Cupitt reflects on the making of his historic TV broadcast.

The Sea of Faith first appeared in September and October of 1984 as a series of six 50-minute documentary films shown in prime time on BBC2. With it came a BBC book that has remained in print ever since, and—for a more specialised audience—a series of six articles setting out my philosophy of religion in the BBC journal The Listener, which were later reprinted in Only Human, (1985).

After each episode was shown I received a pile of letters, many of them beginning: 'I enjoyed your talk on TV last night...' -as if each programme had consisted of me ambling into the studio and talking off the top of my head, while behind me two or three people scurried about finding more-or-less appropriate pictures and holding them up. In fact, the series had been planned over many years, and took a full-time team about two years to make. The films contained about 2500 shots, and were made in half-a-dozen countries. They cost a lot of money—money that was never fully recovered, I suspect, chiefly because the Evangelicals (who else?) succeeded in keeping the show out of America. But the hard work and the film-making skill of Peter Armstrong and his colleagues received its due reward by vanishing, unnoticed. Ordinary folk in the audience assumed that what they were seeing was happening spontaneously before their eyes, just like that, in real time. They didn't know—hardly anybody does know—that what people think of as 'the Real' is always in fact a complex cultural artefact. We tend to hide from ourselves our own world-building activity, claiming that our own creations are objective, natural facts. That's 'realism'.

The story of the series had begun many years before. In the early 1970s I was occasionally being used as a contributor to religious programmes, and early in 1976 I was tried out as a writer-presenter in a little series called 'Open to Question'. Peter Armstrong, who was then already a highly-regarded programme maker, liked the result and set me to work with him on a two-hour documentary called 'Who Was Jesus?' (1977). This did well enough to persuade Peter to go for a big one: he wanted me to do a full-scale radical theology series. He would raise the money and assemble the team, and then he would make the films and I would be the writer-presenter.

There were three snags. I had only just (in 1976, at 42) got tenure at Cambridge, and was warned that it was much too risky to resign my academic job in the hope of a media career. I would have to try to fit the filming and writing around the edges of my Cambridge duties. Not easy, but in those days I was very strong.

Secondly, I had already become a villain, and was getting rapidly worse. Not only had I contributed to The Myth of God Incarnate(1977), I then committed suicide in public with Taking Leave of God (1980). This caused some consternation at the BBC: there was at that time something called CRAC, the Central Religious Advisory Council, a committee of Establishment buffers who didn't quite censor but sort-of leant upon religious broadcasting in order to make sure that it stayed upon the right and orthodox track. (I had myself once been invited to join it by Charles Curran, but had refused, saying that I personally thought religious broadcasting ought to be free.) Anyway, the acute disfavour I had now fallen into meant that Religious Programmes (Television) either could not or would not back our proposed series. Showing great personal courage and commitment to the project, Peter Armstrong replied by leaving the religious programmes department and instead joining Network Features, which duly became the department responsible for The Sea of Faith—and (by the way) got it a prime-time slot, away from the religious ghetto, for its first transmission. That was a very good thing.

But there was still a third snag: back in 1980 or so when we were planning The Sea of Faith, I wasn't yet ready to attempt a full-scale systematic statement. To do that in the media, you must be crystal clear and completely in command of your own ideas. I was not. Until 1993 or so I was more-or less chronically in intellectual turmoil, a condition in which you can perhaps write complicated, interesting books, but you certainly cannot do large-scale media work. Today I could do a systematic statement, but it's too late: I'm too old and too much out of favour. At that time, we perforce ended up designing a sort of history of how we have got to where we are, an archaeology of the religious present. The content of the series was pretty close to what a first- year Cambridge undergraduate would study for a paper entitled Background to Modern Theology.

We agreed in broad outline the contents of the six programmes, and I quickly wrote the first version of the book. This was used as a guide by the programme makers, who were currently doing things like location research and picture-research. Filming trips were arranged to coincide with my vacations, and I rewrote the book as we went along. During filming I had to put implicit trust in Peter Armstrong's judgement, both of my performance and of the content of what I was saying. I felt at times like a Hitchcock blonde, but the relationship worked. More than that, the whole thing worked, and most of the credit belongs to Peter Armstrong. My only regret is that it was shot on 16 mm colour film, which now seems to have faded somewhat. The very warm public reaction came, I think, chiefly because so many people discovered to their surprise and pleasure that there really is such a thing as serious religious thought, and that it has a long modern history. Their personal doubts and questions were not new, but have arisen from a tradition of enquiry and debate that has involved many great figures over several centuries. People were thrilled, not merely by the answers that were offered to them, but by the new landscape of thought that was opened up.

The general point here is familiar: to the British 'books' means 'novels'. Non-fiction books are not real books, but guidebooks that tell you how to cook, garden, decorate your house, make dresses and find your way around in foreign parts. Of course everybody has their opinions - and often strong views—about right and wrong, but how many people have ever read a book about ethics, or are even aware that there is a secular literature of moral philosophy that goes all the way back to Plato?

Why is it that to such an amazing degree people in Britain are kept unaware of the existence of thought? I think the main reason is that for about the last three centuries the Establishment in Britain, terrified first by Deism and then by the French Enlightenment, has battled hard to prevent any thought from entering the country. 'Thought' means free, critical thinking. 'Thought' means new ideas about religion, ethics, politics and so on, emanating chiefly from the traditional source of all evils and threats, the dreaded 'Continent'. It is the duty of all educated people, and above all of the clergy of the Established Church, to protect the innocence of our youth and the peace of our institutions from ever being disturbed by ideas. The best protection is a regime of hearty team sports and simple faith, as summed up ih the great Victorian phrase, 'muscular Christianity'. It works wonderfully well.

You may think I am joking, but I am not. British schools and churches really did battle to keep ideas out of the country, and with remarkable success. And I am not talking only about the Evangelicals. Of course they lead the way, and we must give credit where credit is due; but they are by no means the only totally mindless Christians. Where in the whole of Britain today is there a church at which you can rely on finding an interesting and well-argued sermon every week? And while we're on the subject, where is there a church in which the average attender is actively encouraged to develop and articulate her own views?

Over the past few centuries a wholly new civilisation has arisen in the West, and has now spread over the whole world. Not surprisingly, the basic problem for all of modem thought in the Arts subjects is the struggle to understand how we got here, and what has happened to us. Our situation is quite new: we are people who no longer have a readymade, ordered world with a readymade rule book to live in and by. We don't and can't live by Tradition in the same way that almost all earlier human beings did. What are we to make of our strange new condition?

The Sea of Faith aimed to deal with that question, and to show that religious thought remains central to it. What answers we do or do not arrive at does not matter so much as the fact that religious thinking - real religious thinking - remains supremely demanding, interesting, and important for the future of humanity. Furthermore, I wanted to involve people in a completely free and undogmatic kind of religious thinking - which is of course the kind of religious thinking that we pursue in the Sea of Faith Networks.

Sometimes I have thought that if the same opportunity were to arise again, I'd like to attempt a big systematic presentation of my own ideas. In recent years I have at last come to the point at which it could be done. Large-scale systematic thinking has always fascinated me - but how do I know that people in general would find it interesting? Perhaps I'd do better to acknowledge that the way The Sea of Faith turned out was fortunate after all. Somehow, it caught on and gave rise to the Networks, which still flourish. The idea of Sea of Faith, as a new kind of open religious society, has been 'a seed growing secretly'. It has slowly developed, over some twenty years now. I'm very glad that it has all turned out in the way it has. If I were starting again, I might want to be more confident, explicit, ambitious, systematic and generally bossy. But in that case I suspect that things would not have turned out as well as they have. So I'll follow my own precept and simply say Yes to what is. Around ten years ago we did briefly discuss refurbishing the series, updating it and adding a couple of new topics. But though today it would have to be done a little differently, the main thrust of the series has turned out --somehow, and I'm not quite sure how—to have been about right. As proofreaders say: stet, which means 'let it stand!'.