In Praise of Praise Be

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TVNZ have announced the axing of Praise Be. I hope they might reconsider in the light of the new Labour-led government announcing a shift back to support of public broadcasting. TVNZ have shifted away from that, preferring so-called reality shows and sports programmes and dissing their only weekly half-hour of hymn singing. They dismiss it as only attracting 25,000 and therefore not cutting their mustard. Given they play it at 8am on a Sunday I am not surprised at the low numbers, for most of those who sing so magnificently in the nations’ churches on the programme are likely attending or setting off to attend church at that hour.

For the last year TVNZ have saved shekels by repeating past recordings of congregations singing from their hymn sheets. At a time when choir singing is back on the rise, with overseas choir programmes popular on television, this so-called public service broadcaster ignores this major contribution to our cultural and religious heritage. Furthermore, it is a living celebration of our beautiful hymns sung by all ages, not just the grey hairs. TVNZ will screen overseas, usually British, choirs, but is canning its only publicly funded effort with our own.

For my part I always watch this half-hour of hymns because I love the music and the churches. It has to be cheap as chips to make, given that the performers do not charge. Point a camera at these well-rehearsed congregations singing their hearts and souls out, track around the organ and piano and other instruments, across the ornate rafters and naves of traditional Gothic and basilica churches and more modest modern ones like the Transitional Cathedral. Easy-peasy programming.

I can spend the rest of the morning watching sport if I wish, though the garden beckons. By cancelling Praise Be, I have no inspirational and enjoyable start to Sunday. Our village churches, including the one I would attend, are mostly closed, a few still faltering. It is too far for me to travel to other churches. Television is the best option, if it was to remain available.

For this half-hour I see churches all over the country filled with people of all ages, from the elderly congregations to choirs of schoolchildren and well-turned-out older choirs singing Bach and Handel and Beethoven, Irish and Scottish, Welsh and English hymns, American Gospel and even soft rock modern hymns. Today old favourites came up, the Irish May the wind be always at your back by a 40-year-old all-male choir and the powerful I believe for every drop of rain that falls a flower grows, then the 12th century St Bernard hymn from the best bliss that earth imparts. I have heard many versions over the years of the ecstatic Jerusalem and How Great Thou Art, especially memorable the Maori version of the latter. Is this all to end, and TVNZ ‘reality’ to replace it? Maybe the middle-aged TVNZ programmers don’t care about hymns, not part of their latte swilling mornings.

Holy Mackerel! Is it too much to ask? To see a cross-section of ourselves every Sunday singing their hearts out in exquisite surroundings, that is to me a price above rubies, as the Bible puts it. Or as the Beatles signed off, Let It Be.