Thought for the day: is it time to silence BBC preachers who keep women down? | Catherine Bennett

Too often, the flagship radio programme is being used as a pulpit for illiberal views

And welcome to the amoral maze, where our dilemma of the week is: just how insufferable does a spiritual leader have to be before he or she becomes unqualified to preach at the general public? Or to put it another way, why should the church have a monopoly on excommunication?

The question is not, emphatically, restricted to the case of the ubiquitous prelate, blogger and speaker, Giles Fraser, although with his recent blog – chastising women who fail to stay near home for the future convenience of incontinent fathers – he has done more than most to focus attention on the sort of qualities that should, ideally, distinguish a Thought for the Day contributor from, say, Jacob Rees-Mogg.

Actually, since the latter Brexit supporter is hardly less ostentatiously devout, is yet more ostentatiously fertile, is also hired by the BBC to troll its audience and believes – conclusive indicator of divine approbation – that women are designed for bottom-wiping, it seems almost unfair that he is not, like Fraser, invited to provide “reflections from a faith perspective on issues and people in the news”.

Partly because they are subject to editorial control, and no doubt because they would like to be invited back, TFTD contributors generally refrain, in this slot, from the overtly prescriptive, preferring to agree with their own recycled platitudes: sometimes bad things happen; money can’t buy happiness; it’s good to talk. Alternatively: I saw a nice film/sky/pair of shoes recently; it put me in mind of Jesus/the Prophet/Guru Nanak.

Traditionally, the Thoughts’ most resented quality was probably, as much as mistimed sanctimony, their banality. St Giles of the Changing Mat was not alone in saving more arresting observations for newspaper articles; fellow contributor “historian and writer for the Daily Telegraph”, Tim Stanley, knows similarly when to maunder about Alan Partridge and when to declare for martyrdom. Catholics, Stanley has written, “should go on and on about abortion until they lock us up for it, which they may well do. It’s the right thing for the faith. It’s the right thing for society.” Though possibly not for reciting on the Today programme. For his part, fellow contributor chief rabbi Ephraim Mirvis has yet, I think, to share with Today listeners his opposition to female ordination.

Render unto the Catholic Herald, the Telegraph – or Twitter – what is unsayable to a secular audience at 12 minutes to eight on what is advertised as a news and current affairs programme.

Fraser’s latest expressions of enthusiasm for patriarchal arrangements, whether it’s his support for censorship in a girls’ faith school or tweeted nostalgia for pre-feminist times (“Don’t say stuck in the past. The past was better. Much better”), suggest that the principal problem with TFTD may be less, today, that it tests listeners’ endurance, more that its Thinkers insult their values. There was probably a time when much of his UK audience would have agreed, quite happily, with Fraser, that career women neglect their families, or with TFTD colleague, the bishop of Norwich, that marriage is for men and women only. But these, along with other cherished religious prejudices, have become ever more irreconcilable – when they are not transparently discriminatory – with evolving secular thinking, in a country where more than half have no faith.

And whatever they might have to offer on topical issues, the very source of their speaking credentials surely renders many of these clerics if not actually unworthy of popular deference, no more obviously deserving than, say, the last black-cab operative who offered you his thoughts on women drivers. Accredited Anglican speakers still derive their authority, and thus their access to diverse, BBC audiences, from a church that remains split on women’s ordination, and opposed to same sex marriages.

Catholics, when lecturing the masses on niceness, now do so between headlines about their own church’s staggering moral failures. Notwithstanding the advance of virtuous journalists and spiritual randomers from the life-coach end of the TFTD talent pool, promotion within an established faith hierarchy remains the most reliable route to freelance preaching work, whether it’s in the House of Lords, on an independent commission or in defiance of the melancholy, long, withdrawing roar, on late-night news programmes.

No sooner had his nappy meditation been eviscerated by women who both work and care for their elderly parents than our tireless Pampers Savonarola, Giles Fraser, was addressing us again, from Newsnight, albeit in the more humble, ecumenical style that once seemed to fit so well with Guardian values. Was this why we never guessed that our own “Loose Canon”, who once excoriated his own church for promoting a cleric opposed to the ordination of women, would one day write: “It is the daughter of the elderly gentleman that should be wiping his bottom”? Also: “The attraction of socially conservative and traditional values are that they constitute a highly successful form of mutual care.”

If only we’d paid heed, like Giles, to the past. We might have remembered this 18th-century refrain: “And this is law that I’ll maintain/ Until my dying day, sir,/ That whatsoever king shall reign,/ Still I’ll be Vicar of Bray, sir.”

But it would be wrong to single out Fraser merely because, with the support of entranced progressives, he so often does so himself. His moral exhortations of a morning, evening or late evening – now that he reveals his patriarchal hankerings – are not necessarily more loathsome than those of more cautious colleagues. You can’t tell, from a brief, TFTD introduction, which of its Anglican bishops failed adequately to respond to allegations of sexual abuse, nor which of its regulars oppose same sex marriage, or deny women jobs or prosper by rarely mentioning that they consider homosexuality to be a sin.

Moreover, faith professionals enjoy an exemption, under the Equality Act, allowing them to discriminate for spiritual purposes. But what is the BBC’s excuse?

• Catherine Bennett is an Observer columnist

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Catherine Bennett

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