Broadcaster inspires at media conference

Adrian Chiles
Adrian Chiles told church leaders they can reconnect with people who have lost their faith.

The TV and radio presenter Adrian Chiles has delivered a thought provoking lecture on how churches can reconnect with people who've lost their faith at the annual Church Media Network conference in London. He spoke of his own religious conversion and his belief many people are seeking to develop their spirituality but don't know how to go about it or who they can talk to.

"Everyone is seeking a spiritual dimension" he told the audience of journalists and communicators from a range of faith groups, including the Church of Scotland. "My mother, father and brother are all atheists. But I felt something was missing. I went to several different churches before I came to Holy Trinity Parish in Brook Green. I looked around and it was full of people I could relate to. I just felt at home and I knew I'd found what I was looking for."

His is a consumerist view of religion - a 'try before you buy' approach he believes works. "People don't talk about their faith. But every time I go into the bookshop I see the section on mindfulness and wellbeing expanding. To me, that's religion! People are interested, it's just shifting the focus. Churches must get better at putting their message across."

One reason for this, he believes, is that many churches get too caught up in the detail. "When I was converting to Catholicism, I was lucky enough to be guided by an old priest called Father Ben. He told me not to worry about the catechisms and all that. He said "Just be still and the answers will come to you." It made sense and it really helped me get through."

Adrian was speaking three weeks into a month of filming a new series on religions around the Mediterranean to be screened on BBC2 in January. It's taken him to meet religious leaders from diverse faiths in Turkey, Lebanon and Israel, with further filming in Rome and other locations is planned. While admitting he is no theologian, it's led him to a simple conclusion. 'We're all the same, we all worship under the same God, regardless of the traditions we follow. I've been surprised to find broad agreement on that between the faith leaders I've spoken to be they Christian, Jewish or Muslim. No one has a monopoly on the truth. No one can know. I like the fact it is mysterious."

Adrian believes the single greatest factor determining people's connection and experience of faith is the clergy they encounter on their spiritual journey. "At the heart of every faith story is a cleric, be they good or bad. In my opinion it's all about the cleric at the end of the day."

His opinions have been shaped by his experience of attending mass on 46 consecutive days at different churches across England and Wales. What he found was a variety of approaches and welcomes, not all of which worked. "I wrote a piece on the BBC website which simply put said 'Mass is too long and priests are too boring.' It got an incredible reaction and was the third most read piece on the entire website. People came up and thanked me for speaking out. But all I was saying was that next to believing in God, clerics next most important duty is to be nice, as they have the power to move people."

A conversation with his mother revealed an experience she'd never shared with him before. As a 7 year old girl growing up in a Catholic family, at her first confession she pretended she had taken some jam without asking so she would have something to tell the priest. But when she realised she was lying in order to please God. She could find no sense in being untruthful, and at that tender age it was enough for her to turn her back on faith never to return.

His conclusion? "When Christians are holier than thou, it's a turn off for people. I mean, who am I to judge? We need to encourage people to develop their spirituality, to find meaning in prayer. Everyone prays - I mean, there are no atheists in a penalty shoot out! It's just that they've lost focus. We just need to normalise faith and the Bible, to drop it into conversation, to be joyful and to do it with humour whenever we can. Then more people might find the faith they are seeking."

You can read Adrian's BBC article on his 46 day marathon of masses here

You can find out more information about the Church and Media Network here