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Friday October 5 2018

Looking Back: Telstar the Spur

First published in October 1968


Andrew McLellan reports from an Oslo Conference on Christian Communication

AT THIS very moment, reading this page, you are taking part in the enterprise of communication. Someone is talking to you.

With each year that passes the mass means of communication become more significant. Press and TV, cinema and advertising speak in the most compelling way. The influence wielded is all the greater because what they say is accepted unconsciously. Before they speak, our defences are down.

Each year the General Assembly considers the power of these mass media. The Church and Nation Committee makes sure that the Church is kept aware of the possibilities. The whole field is reviewed. Of course this is important. But it is even more vital that such ways of communicating should be used for what is good.

We have to look far beyond the local situation. These voices speak with increasing strength across every national barrier.

An international conference was held in Oslo under the title: The Media and the Message – a Creative Tension? The emphasis was mainly on TV, and those attending were either professionals in religious broadcasting, or representatives of other interested bodies. The Church of Scotland was represented too.

What emerged was the formation of The World Association of Christian Communication.

This will surely prove a most useful ally in proclaiming the Gospel to the world.

We soon realised how fortunate are the Churches of Britain in the willing co-operation offered by press, radio and TV. Elsewhere, the mounting of Christian programmes may not only cost a deal of money but also meet sometimes with open hostility.

Work is waiting to be done too upon the form and content of religious programmes. The demonstration of programmes from many countries gave a glimpse of the endless opportunities for making the Gospel a living experience. The British showed one programme from Songs of Praise and Part I of The Life of Christ (the only one in colour).

The 242 delegates were from 41 countries: almost a minor ecumenical movement, comprising members of both the Reformed and the Roman Catholic Church, from the old world and the new, as well as some who may have had little formal Church allegiance.

Very Mixed Origins

The chairman in the earlier session was Dr. Fridtjov Birkeli, Bishop of Oslo. Born of missionary parents in sunny Madagascar, he later became a missionary too in that same island, and after some years was appointed head of the International Mission of the Lutheran Church. Acting in that capacity from Calvin’s city of Geneva he instituted the plan for the Voice of the Gospel broadcasts from Addis Ababa. Thus it came about that on the initiative of a Lutheran bishop of Norwegian blood, the message goes out to the Ethiopian Church, which by tradition traces its origin to an Ethiopian Church, which by tradition traces it origin to an Ethiopian whose story you can find for yourself in the Book of Acts (chapter 8: verse 27).

Another figure was Sherman Fung. Born in San Francisco, his parents were members of its huge Chinese community. As a small boy he began going to a Presbyterian Sunday School with his companions from the street. Growing into manhood Sherman Fung joined that church. Not only so, he became a missionary and was sent to the Middle East to minister to a small group of Presbyterians in Iran. So there he is, busy with a ministry in visual aids, in literature and broadcasting; Chinese by parentage, American by birth, a Presbyterian working in an Arab country.

He told me that Scots had first carried Presbyterianism to San Francisco. And every year, on Reformation Day, to remind them of their origins, a flag is carried down the aisle of his home church in Chinatown. On that flag is our own symbol of the Burning Bush.

A third figure was Bill Haddad. I could have wished his first name had been “Ben”. Ben Haddad has a fine Old Testament ring. And there is something of the Old Testament about him. An Arab who teaches English at the Eastern Orthodox Seminary in Beirut, he is, oddly enough, a member of the Church of England. Secretary of the Middle East Christian Council, he has added to his labours by accepting the commission from his own church to prepare a new hymnbook.

“I get me material everywhere,” he told me, when I asked him about sources. There and then he sang his own version of the 23rd Psalm in Arabic to what he claimed was the tune Wiltshire, but Wiltshire was never like that! Although an Arab, he was born a Christian. “And so were my father and my grandfather,” he insists. He explains that for 1,700 years Christians have been in his country; which takes you back a bit before Christians were in Britain in any numbers.

The tracks of the Church’s witness reach out and double back and cross and reach out again. Telephone messages and telegraphed reports join with signals bounced off Telstar and radio programmes and the advertisements and the presentations of TV. Potentialities are so great as to be almost frightening. But they are also a spur. The Church is already responding and the road stretches out before us.

At the time of writing, Andrew McLellan was minister of  St Andrew's: St Leonards, having previously ministered in Forres, Largs and Kilmarnock. He was the father of the Very Rev Dr Andrew McLellan, Moderator of the General Assembly in 2000.

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