If you were given the opportunity to guide eight people through an experience which would introduce them to the Christian faith, what would you do?
Personally, I might be inclined to take them on an Alpha or Christianity Explored course. But I can understand why the BBC didn’t choose that option. It’s been done before, for one thing. And I would question the wisdom of allowing something as spiritual and intimate as Alpha’s Holy Spirit away day to be filmed and analysed in that way. Spiritual experiences don’t always translate well to the medium of television.
Instead, the Beeb opted to recommission Pilgrimage, the show where some well-known-ish faces trek an ancient Christian path in search of spiritual insights. This second season features celebs walking part of the Via Francigena, a 1000km route which was first established in 990AD and runs all the way from Canterbury to Rome.
The participants are former Strictly dancer Brendan Cole, actors Les Dennis and Lesley Joseph, comedians Stephen K Amos and Katy Brand, Olympian Greg Rutherford, Eurovision winner Dana and TV presenter Mehreen Baig.
Of this list, the only “pilgrims” who adhere to a religion are Mehreen (Muslim) and Dana (Catholic). The fact that a devout Muslim who eats Halal and abstains from alcohol, was willing to go on a Catholic pilgrimage should be commended. Aware that “judgement often comes from a place of ignorance,” Mehreen agreed to take part in order to better understand others who don’t share her faith. It's a noble motivation (some of her fellow participants were more interested in enjoying a lengthy stroll in the Italian countryside than anything else).
The majority of the group are agnostics or atheists. It’s an intriguing set up which raises all sorts of questions, not least, how will these people with wildly different beliefs each interpret their shared experience? Commenting on his Catholic upbringing and later confirmation in the Church of England, Les Dennis says he’s been “searching for answers” for all of his life. Stephen K Amos, meanwhile, has been wondering “is this it?” after losing two people close to him.
As I sat down with the celebs for a press screening of the first episode, I wondered, will these people find what they're looking for? The hour that followed was surprisingly entertaining. There are plenty of laugh out loud moments as the group form a tight bond and walk across the Alps, through the vineyards of Tuscany and finally to Rome. Upon reaching Vatican City, they’re even treated to an audience with the Pope.
After the screening, most of the participants engaged in a panel discussion about the show and us journos were able to ask them questions. The bottom line is no one had an epiphany. In fact, the former evangelical Christian Katy Brand has said the experience helped confirm her atheism. When I asked if anyone else’s beliefs had shifted as a result of making the show, the answers were disappointing. Brendan spoke about having a “new insight and respect into how other people feel about their religions”. A worthwhile outcome, but it’s hardly ground-breaking, is it?
It’s also a bit worrying that Stephen K Amos appears to have come away from the experience thinking that all faiths are largely the same: “It gave me more faith in the fact that even though these different religions have a different name or doctrine they follow, certain aspects of them all are the same. The idea that as long as you are a decent person and you don’t judge anybody because we’re all equal…that was enlightening.”
With that in mind, you might be wondering whether this show is worth your time. But Pilgrimage: The road to Rome is a worthwhile and thought provoking piece of television. All of the pilgrims testified to having many spiritual conversations (although a lot of them apparently took place away from the cameras) and this should not be taken for granted. Whether it’s our fear of offending others or not knowing how to broach the subject in an increasingly secular world, the truth is many of us struggle to talk about the weightier matters of life. The programme gave these celebs a unique opportunity – perhaps even an excuse - to switch off their smartphones, experience the wonder and beauty of creation and talk at length about God, the universe and everything. They don’t appear to have reached many conclusions in the process, but given the current climate, there’s certainly no harm in them modelling how a respectful and intelligent dialogue about faith is possible, not to mention desperately needed.
The programme gave these celebs a unique opportunity to talk at length about God, the universe and everything
If you’re expecting an hour’s worth of deep theological debate, you’ll be disappointed (try Unbelievable? instead). While this doesn’t quite fit the reality TV label, it isn't really a documentary either. At its core, the show is designed to be a piece of entertainment with a light dusting of religion and history. At times, it actually feels like the faith element is being side-lined. Perhaps the producers think that serious chats about faith need to be mixed with light entertainment otherwise viewers will lose interest? Maybe I'm naive, but I’ve every confidence that BBC Two’s audience are in fact able to follow more than four lines of dialogue about faith at a time.
As the pilgrims draw closer to Rome and it is revealed they will have an opportunity to meet the Pope, some are reluctant. Those who are critical of the Catholic Church don’t want to be seen as endorsing it. A suitable compromise is reached where the group will meet him, but they’ll also be allowed to ask difficult, searching questions of the Pontiff. It hasn’t yet been revealed what was asked, but that hasn't stopped the tabloids today reporting their speculation (that the conversation was about homosexuality) as fact. All we know for sure is that Stephen was "floored" by the Pope's response to his question. "There wasn’t a dry eye in the room," he said.
Viewers will have to wait to find out what was said during that meeting. But those of us who take our faith seriously might want to pray we see a little more depth as this series unfolds. This is a welcome opportunity for the BBC to broadcast intelligent and thought provoking conversations about the meaning of life. Let’s hope we see more of that as this Pilgrimage gets underway.
Pilgrimage: The road to Rome begins on Friday 5 April at 9pm on BBC Two