McKAY, Roy 1900-1993. Broadcaster.

He was the outstanding innovator appointed Head of Religious Broadcasting just when independent television began in 1955. It was a crucial appointment for the BBC and the Churches: RM came of radical stock: he was a member of the Modern Churchman’s
Union whose secretary had been almost tried for heresy in the twenties. Archbishop Fisher wanted Mervyn Stockwood but the BBC certainly did not: ‘too much charisma’ said DG Jacob - formerly in Churchill’s War Cabinet. His predecessors tried hard to present Christian belief to a nominally Christian audience; but RM was determined to get them to understand it. 

His time as Chaplain of Alleyn’s College of God’s Gift at Dulwich had made it clear that society no longer accepted Christian belief without question; it had to make sense and be at all costs intelligible. He had been the incumbent in a variety of urban parishes before Dulwich and lastly Chaplain at Canford School in Dorset. He had thus been face to face with parishes showing signs of decline and later, the changing attitudes of the young. Whilst at Dulwich he was instrumental in supporting a refugee hostel for Jewish children brought from Germany on the Kindertransport. All in all, and notwithstanding the resistance to some of his radical ideas, his reputation went before him and he was invited by the BBC to become Head of Religious Broadcasting in 1955 not long after Director General William Haley in a public lecture said that the BBC was committed to maintaining Christian values. Roy MacKay wanted to make sure that these values were above all intelligent, well-informed and widely discussed.

This meant bringing to the microphone and the television screen those in the churches willing to question and share their doubts before a wide audience, as well as being able to show how Christianity was the product of culture emerging from its Jewish setting. The Bishop of Woolwich was one among many. This was dynamite to the churches’ middle management and indeed, the bench of bishops! RM was in fighting mood: “we shall not gain in the end by fighting to protect church services against television.” * RM wanted to reach the vast masses in society: the ‘churched’ certainly but better the ‘unchurched’ and the ‘half-churched’ that formed the majority. By the time of his appointment in 1955, it was already clear that the churches were in serious decline as the post-war figures showed. McKay had once said that those who stand outside the church were more open to Christian truth than those inside it. One might imagine the wrath of the conventional faithful! McKay wanted to exploit television and that meant two things: putting a face to the new Christian authors; and secondly laying a foundation for documentary programmes: that meant money and by the seventies, a successful documentary maker, Peter Armstrong along with Don Cupitt gave shape to McKay’s legacy.

In the fifties, the so-called ‘closed period’ early on Sunday was when the screens went blank; imagine that today! Eventually, the BBC and the ITV companies agreed to exploit this slot. McKay said that at least, the BBC should use that time to do the three things stipulated in the BBC Royal Charter: ‘ inform, educate and entertain’. In January 1955, alas, the churches were taken by surprise; ITV’s ‘About Religion’ began in the closed-period and pipped the BBC to the post! McKay was incensed that the BBC had been held back by church opinion and soon had the Corporation’s support for his own series: ‘Meeting point’ - it would bring together all manner of leading clerics and others. The ITV companies were more ready to do the churches’ bidding. For McKay’s ‘Meeting Point’ it meant that - alongside such favourites as ‘Songs of Praise’ - an idea of Hugh Greene - the BBC should be airing some of the modern questions now being asked about sexuality, wealth, religious conflict, fundamentalism and the thorny question about the Christian Gospels: were they reports of what actually happened? or were they insights into the beliefs about the figure of Jesus held by those who came a long time later? Roy McKay attacked this question by screening Dennis Potter’s ‘Son of Man’ a radical contrast with Dorothy L. Sayers ‘Man Born to be King’ almost a generation before. The balloon went up! This was blasphemy said some and the BBC came in for a great deal of stick. He had Adam Faith face-to-face with Archbishop Donald Coggan and Ludovic Kennedy and an audience of about eight million! Roy McKay wanted to get behind the stories and the traditions to make it clear that not all Christian belief was set in stone; it had evolved and was the product of ancient cultures. Eventually the churches wanted him out and thus at the height of the row about ‘Honest to God’, Roy left.

Happily throughout his time, Roy McKay was always supported by the BBC hierarchy. The BBC was there he said, to do for religion what ‘Panorama’ did for current affairs and - eventually - ‘Horizon’ for science: examining origins and answering contemporary questions even if that meant going against mainstream opinion. The broadcasters were there to serve society by innovation; but the mainstream opposed him: the broadcaster, they said, should reflect the life of the churches and keep away from critical issues. Roy McKay published his basic ideas in 1964 ‘Take Care of the Senses’ and for this, no wonder the church leadership thought it was time he went: he was given a canonry in a City church where he infused new life into it and there in his Barbican flat, I spent many hours before the ‘horse’s mouth’ - sipping his favourite tea: lapsang!
Roy McKay was born at Sevenoaks, Kent 4 November 1900. He was ordained deacon 1926, priest 1927. After several parish posts he was appointed Chaplain, Alleyn’s College of God’s Gift, Dulwich in 1937. In 1943 his pacifist views alienated some of the College governors and he was asked to resign. There was an overwhelming expression of public support for Roy McKay and the governors were obliged to ask him to remain. Not surprisingly, he declined. He became vicar of Goring-by-Sea, Sussex 1943-48; Chaplain, Canford School, Dorset 1948-55; Head of Religious Broadcasting, BBC 1955-63; Honorary Canon, Chichester Cathedral 1957-93; Rector, St James, Garlickhythe 1965-70. Roy McKay died at Stamford, Lincolnshire 5 November 1993 aged 93. BG

* K.M.Wolfe ‘The Churches & the BBC, the Politics of Broadcast Religion 1922-1955. SCM Press 1984. p527

by Kenneth Wolfe