Of course the UK is a Christian country (and we don’t need the PM to tell us…)

The Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby during the Easter service at Canterbury Cathedral in Kent.

The Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby during the Easter service at Canterbury Cathedral in Kent.

Hallelujah, brothers and sisters. The Prime Minister has found God. Just in time for Easter, it seems.

Rather than the usual platitudes and inoffensive quotes from the gospels, this year ‘call me Dave’ spoke of the importance of his own faith, assured us Britain was still a Christian country and told us we should be confident about the fact.

In doing so he somehow offended a bunch of people and even prompted a well-known collection of humanists (I thought we were all humanists, but there you go) to write to a national newspaper accusing the PM of fostering alienation and harming society.

What a load of rubbish.

While I find it difficult to stomach faith being used as ammunition by politicians, the hypocrisy of people being offended because the UK is described as a Christian country is laughable.

Indeed, I‘d go so far as to say that only in Britain would a debate like this even take place because we seem to live in a society where everyone seems terrified of upsetting someone else.

The fact is Britain has been a Christian country for around 1,500 years and, technically, we can still be described as such given that 59 per cent of respondents in the 2011 census indicated they felt an attachment to Christianity.

This figure may have fallen sharply since 2001 (72 per cent) but, nevertheless, it’s still a majority.

Yes we are a cultural melting pot and other religions are welcome and are flourishing. However, it is fair to say that – if pushed – a majority of people in Britain would still probably pigeon-hole themselves as ‘Christian’.

The problem is, of course, that a vast majority of people in this country don’t go to church and are not practising Christians.

Therefore, it is probably more accurate to say that most people in the UK aren’t actually religious at all.

Earlier this week public figures including writers such as Sir Terry Pratchett, Nobel Prize-winning scientists, prominent broadcasters and even comedians argued passionately that the Government has no right to “prioritise” religion or any particular faith.

Ironically, it is once again Christianity which is being challenged here. I suspect that had a leading politician spoke out in support of another faith no-one would dare take issue with it for fear of being labelled intolerant or worse.

You see, it’s easy to criticise the established faith of the UK and the followers of that faith. In fact, what surprises me is that Christian leaders and their flock are so timid in the defence of their religion.

Being an atheist seems to be rather trendy and cool these days. Social media, for instance, is full of sarcastic images and slogans denigrating religion. Some people without faith look down upon those who trust in God as if they have professed belief in fairies or the Easter bunny.

Personally, I’m glad that religion is being talked about and I do believe that our fragmented, struggling society can benefit from people of faith offering spiritual guidance. After all, you’re unlikely to find it at Westminster.

Let us also not forget that it is predominantly Christian organisations who are running huge numbers of foodbanks across the UK at this time of austerity.

I only have a problem with what Mr Cameron says when this proclamation of faith seems to come out of nowhere.

After all, we didn’t see much acknowledgement of Christian beliefs when the current Government was pushing through the gay marriage legislation last May.

I wasn’t bothered either way. However, it seemed to me that those who opposed gay marriage on religious grounds were often painted as out-of-touch bigots.

Now that doesn’t seem very tolerant, does it?

My view is that politicians, or rather political parties, make token gestures in order to garner favour with certain sections of the electorate – whether that be gay people or Christians.

I object to either being used, as and when it suits politicians, in order for parties to create the illusion that they stand for certain values or groups of individuals.

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Friday in The Sentinel

Verity’s still radio Ga Ga 30 years after her debut on BBC Radio Stoke

Verity Williams, as she was, was seven the first time she rang in to BBC Radio Stoke.

She wanted the presenter – a certain Jack Ward – to play a song for her: Love Me For A Reason by The Osmonds.

However, Mr Ward – a firm favourite of Verity’s nan – was having none of it and instead treated her to The Old Rugged Cross.

Amazingly, she wasn’t put off for life and at the age of 14 it was her prowess with a pen that earned her a part-time job with the station in Cheapside, Hanley, in 1981.

Verity said: “I actually wanted a job working in a shop but I was too young so my nan suggested I wrote to Radio Stoke. She was an avid listener to Jack Ward.

“My handwriting was very neat, apparently, and the bosses at the station were obviously impressed because they let me go in on Saturdays and answer the telephones and write down music requests from listeners. There were no computers back then, of course.”

It was another local legend – Bruno Brookes – who really gave Verity the bug for radio.
She said: “Bruno was wonderful to work with – such a lovely man who had a great way with all the people he met.

“However, he had a bit of a problem with his time-keeping. He would always turn up a bit late for his show which meant I ended up opening up the station, handling the switch over from Radio Two, introducing the first couple of records, and holding the fort for him. I would have been about 15 at the time.”

Back then it was records too – none of this digital playlist mullarky which yours truly enjoyed the benefit of when I did my first two shows on BBC Radio Stoke at Easter.

Verity, surname now Hilton and aged 45 and living in Bucknall, explained: “All music was chosen by the listeners or the presenters. The lazy presenters would just use the pile of records left by their colleagues while others did proper research in the old gram library.”

This autonomy meant each show sounded different – depending on the preferences of the presenters and their audience.

Verity said: “When the music began to be chosen by computers this was certainly more efficient and made it easier to put shows together. But it also gave the station a very definite ‘sound’, as the same type of tunes were heard with more regularity.”

It was 1984 when Verity began working for BBC Radio Stoke full-time and she worked for the station on and off until 2000, as well as enjoying stints as a researcher for BBC Breakfast television and as the Beeb’s producer for the Stoke-on-Trent Garden Festival.

She said: “In the 80s local radio really was all about the local audience. There were an awful lot of local people involved and there was a great sense of community.

“There wasn’t so much regional input into shows as there seems to be today. It was very much about what was happening locally.

“Even the local commercial station – Signal – was of the same mindset and they became a great rival for a time.”

Verity is perhaps best know for her work with partner Sam Plank – real name Terry Hilton – whom she went on to marry, but she also enjoyed working with many other well-known names such as the late Bill Humphreys and Mel Scholes, Grant Leighton – who now works in the U.S. – and my mate Pete Conway.

But what was it that made Sam Plank so special and so loved by locals that, at one time, one in three listeners to local radio in North Staffordshire was listening to his show?

Verity said: “I think the station bosses saw something in Sam back when he was working for the council and he would drop in and try to get publicity for various things.

“He was very chatty – a real people person. I remember once he was sent off down to London on a training course and they told him he should refer to the Stoke-on-Trent North MP as Ms Walley.

“Sam said: ‘If I start calling Joan ’Ms Walley’ then she’ll have to call me ‘Mr Plank’. Dunna be daft’.

“That, in a way, was his charm. He just wanted to talk to people – to hear about their lives. He would play daft games like asking listeners what was in his cup. He didn’t really want them to say what was in the cup – he just wanted them to ring in so he could have a chat with them.”

Technology may have changed local radio in the past 30 years, but nothing has diminished Verity’s enthusiasm for it.

She said: “I still love it. I still get a real buzz whenever I’m on air. It’s a great feeling and a real privilege.”

It’s sad the church’s message falls on deaf ears

It’s sad but true to say that, just like Christmas, Easter simply doesn’t resonate with most people on a spiritual level these days.
Hands up if you actually went to church. I thought so. Neither did I.
For the vast majority of people Easter is simply an excuse to take a few days of annual leave, link them up with the Bank Holidays and have a week off work.
Many children don’t even have a clue what we are celebrating – having been weaned on tales of the Easter Bunny and annually plied with their own body weight in chocolate eggs.
It’s sad because the Easter story is the Christian church’s most powerful message of love and hope and yet it is falling on so many deaf ears.
I may not attend church religiously, if you’ll pardon the pun, but I am a believer and, as a good Methodist lad, I do take note of what the movers and shakers within the Church of England have to say – especially at important times of the year.
This is because they are among the few people who actually speak out altruistically in this spiritually-bankrupt country of ours.
They also talk a lot of sense and often say things that go against political-correctness or highlight the vacuous nature of our celebrity-obsessed culture.
For example, I was struck by the Archbishop of Canterbury’s idea that the rich and powerful should be required by law to spend some time every year helping the poor and needy.
Rowan Williams said a return to the medieval tradition when monarchs ritually washed the feet of the poor would serve to remind politicians and bankers what should be the purpose of their wealth and power.
This is an idea so bizarre and so unlikely to ever be taken up, and yet it chimes with me as the Prime Minister continues to trot out his mantra of a Big Society while assuring us that “we are all in this (financial mess) together”.
Dr Williams has suggested a new law that would make all Cabinet members and leaders of political parties, the editors of national newspapers and the 100 most successful financiers in the UK spend a couple of hours every year serving dinners in a primary school on a council estate, or cleaning bathrooms in a residential home.
I’m all for such a law, but I would widen the net even further to include a few more meritorious individuals.
For example, I’d take the highest-paid footballers at every club in the top flight and force them to flog pies and raffle tickets to fans of a struggling League Two team on a wet Tuesday night in November.
At the same time I’d have the Premier League and FA big-wigs staffing the turnstiles to highlight the gulf between the haves and the have-nots which is killing our national game.
I would also have our top 10 best-paid and generally most-nauseating television and radio personalities – certainly anyone from the X-Factor – working a shift with the Citizen’s Advice Bureau to give them a taste of the real-life they bleat on about but are so far removed from.
But what if we could ensure that this conscription of the great and the good dribbled down to a local level?
For starters, I’d have all the senior managers at the former RENEW North Staffordshire living in terraced houses for a week in one of the areas left in limbo by the agency’s slash and burn approach to regeneration. Middleport, for example.
Then I’d have the former Council Managers and Chief Executives of Stoke-on-Trent City Council brought back to the Potteries and force them to collect rubbish from the homes of taxpayers who have been short-changed in recent years by untouchable public sector top brass who survive and thrive by moving from job to job.
You see, the Archbishop’s idea may be fanciful but it has great merit in my eyes.
Many of the most wealthy and powerful individuals in the UK are completely out of touch with the lives of the ordinary people over whom they have so much influence and are utterly unaccountable for their actions.
Sadly, Dr Williams’ idea to “remind leaders what the needs really are at grassroots level” has as about as much chance of being heard and acted upon as Jesus has of winning a popularity contest against the Easter Bunny with the children of the UK.