Scott and Charlene

I am hearing that Neighbours is coming to an end. The Australian soap opera, that has been going for 37 years, cannot find a Channel to air it.

That was not the case in November 1988 when Scott and Charlene’s wedding was watched by no less than 19.8 million of the British population. 

Of course in real life Scott (Jason Donovan) and Charlene (Kylie Minogue) were number 1 in the UK charts with their duet Especially For You that very same month. Let me make clear that I didn’t buy that! BUT… what clever marketing!

I do confess that in 1988 Neighbours was a linchpin to the rhythm to my day. I was a young assistant minster in First Antrim at the time. I was living in a little flat in Central Park. I would go out and do some visits in the morning and would always be home for lunch during which, I would watch Neighbours. For me it was a strange obsession but it was an obsession.  

As a result of its huge popularity and the amount of it that I was watching it was only a matter of time that it became a constant reference point in my sermons and particularly children’s addresses. I remember my boss, John Dixon, suggesting that I do a book about how to teach the Catechism through Neighbours’ stories!

I cannot remember any of the various scenarios that I drew into children’s addresses and sermons between Harold and Madge and Mrs Mangle and the Robinsons apart from one…

The day after Scott and Carlene’s wedding I was doing an Assembly in Antrim Primary School. When I asked who saw the wedding the day before literally every child’s hand went up like their team had just scored a goal in the Cup Final. Every hand. In unison. 

Now that wedding for me is The Gospel According To… Neighbours. 

If you are old enough and can go back, and many of my congregation told me that they remember the wedding like it was yesterday, then you’ll remember that at the same time of Scott and Charlene’s wedding there was another Neighbours’ wedding. Paul, Scott’s brother, and Gail, Paul’s employee in his hotel, also got married. 

Now, there could not have been two more different marriages. Scott and Charlene were still teens. It was a romance of such wild abandon that before they wed Charlene jumped out of her bedroom window while being grounded for a quick kiss with Scott at the refuse bins. This was LOVE!

Paul and Gail however. Not so much. In order to woo a Japanese investor Paul had to look married and settled down so he asked Gail to marry him to help the business. There was a telling scene where Paul opens the drawer in his office and takes a glance across the contract to see what is expected of him… and her!

It was so easy for me to use these two different relationships to ask about how we see ourselves and God. Is our relationship with God a law keeping contract that we must keep or else? Or is it a relationship of love and adoration? We are excited to be around God.

Jesus said. “If you love me, keep my commands. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever— the Spirit of truth.” (John 14: 15-16)

In Galatians Paul writes about a shift from law to grace in the coming of Jesus - Before the coming of this faith,[j] we were held in custody under the law, locked up until the faith that was to come would be revealed. So the law was our guardian until Christ came that we might be justified by faith. Now that this faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian.” (Galatians 3: 23-25)

From there my sermon’s conclusion was simple. Paul and Gail… or Scott and Charlene. Law… or love? 


Sting 3

Sting has never been a man to claim any Christian interest. However, as he shared on a recent Later With… Jools he is interested in the spiritual questions - what are we doing here?

A careful glance across Sting’s catalogue and you can see references to the Scriptures. Even on his last record 57th & 9th he had “Moses driving to his promised land”. There was also a church bell tolling.

The Bridge continues with the Scriptural reference. We get Jonah and the whale and even have a song called The Book Of Numbers. Our bass playing Geordie likes the Old Testament it would seem.

There are also more church bells and even a song called The Bells Of St. Thomas where the bells are like the conscience of a man being seduced in what Sting himself calls a very strange lyric. On Later With… Jools, Sting spoke of the disciple Thomas and the scars of Christ’s hands and feet. No matter how strange these lyrics, listen for the chimes of doubt. In the song, unlike Thomas, the doubts seem healthy.

Most intriguing of all for me is the song Loving You that had me propelled into the Old Testament story of Hosea. This is the tale of a man whose wife commits adultery but he stays true to the vows made in Church. There are so many similarities to Hosea and yet I have no clue as to whether Sting knows the story or was directly inspired by it. The chorus is almost (but not quite) perfect Hosea though:


I pray the waters of forgiveness

Will rain down on you and me

Just like newborn babies

In the cradle of a tree


And we will walk in righteousness

We will walk in rain and thunder

And what God has joined together here

Let no man put asunder


If that's not loving you, I don't know what is (I don't know what)

If that's not loving you, then tell me what it is

If that's not loving you, I don't know what is (I don't know what)

If that's not loving you, then tell me what it is.


Grace. Pure Gospel. I wonder if he knows. 



Three new Vicar Of Dibley Specials will be on our screens before Christmas. Not one. Not two. Three. I find that rather exciting. 

A claim to fame is that I sat at one Greenbelt Board beside Joy Carroll the Anglican vicar that Rev Geraldine Grainger played by Dawn French is loosely based upon. Joy went off and married Jim Wallis, the American Christian political thinker, author and activist. 

I found out about these episodes last night bY telephone as BBC Radio Ulster phoned to ask if I would come on Good Morning Ulster and talk about the show and my favourite moments.

I love the very first episode of the show. David Horton is helping a stranger off with her coat laughing that they are waiting for their new vicar and for a minute he feared that they had sent a woman. By the time that woman gets her coat off he sees the clerical collar… and off we go…

Introducing herself, someone gives her their name:

- You’ll probably have to tell me again. I have a terrible head for names. I can’t even remember the name of Mary’s eldest child.

- Jesus.

- Correct.


It’s quick, slick, simple and I find it funny.

My favourite characters are Jim and Alice. Jim’s “no, no, no, no, yes!” Never gets tiring. When asked about the greatest ever rock band - “No, no, no, no… The Nolan Sisters!” All round entertainer, “No, no, no, no… Noel Edmunds!”

Alice’s dimness is utterly loveable. When she talks about how she found a butter that tastes just like “Just Like Butter” that she has been using because it tastes just like butter. One of the biggest challenges with the new episodes will be how to replace Alice as Emma Chambers sadly passed away in 2018. 

Asked about my favourite scene I was immediately drawn to one that was funny, irreverent but spiritually right on it. It is Christmas again and they are planning the Nativity. The Vicar has a poster with The Greatest Story Ever Told on it. Everyone starts questioning that it is. Geraldine suggests changing it to “One Of The Best Stories…”

Then, she stops. She sits down. “No! This is a story about someone born in a manger. He taught us amazing things. Love your neighbour. Turn the other cheek. He then died for us all and here we are 2000 years later, worshipping him.” They agree to The Greatest Story…

I love that. The Gospel in its entirety in just a few seconds, right there is a comedy show. Some might find it irreverent but The Songs Of Praise Christmas Special might not be so bold, so explicit and so succinct. 

There are many reasons to celebrate The Vicar Of Dibley being revived in Coronavirus Times. We all need a laugh. Since it was previously on TV, Christianity has been a laughing stock across much of the British media. A comedy with the Church at its core has a subversive possibility. That it will deal with virtual church and Zoom etc will be a rich vein for humour and allow you to get a handle into my Covid-19 Times. I cannot wait! 


The Moores

This is the script of Danny Moore's commentary on Shallow from a Star Is Born at our Gospel According To... Female Pop Stars. He and his amazing wife Shannon then blew the roof of with a version of Shallow. 


Last year saw the release of the Oscar winning film, ’A Star is Born’. 

The story follows Ally, a waitress with an incredible talent who is desperately searching for her big break. 

Jackson Maine a famous musician stumbles across her raw talent one night after his concert and is convinced that she is a born star. 

And after getting to know each other for a while, he presents her with a once in a lifetime opportunity to perform in front of thousands of people. 

She is initially apprehensive about embarrassing herself and not convinced that this is the solution to her problems. 

But Jackson simply whispers in her ear, ‘All you gotta do is trust me. That’s all you gotta do’.

And at first she doesn't react. But in a rush of emotion Ally steps out in faith and trust, onto the stage singing a version of the song she wrote. And in that moment A star is born.

Lady Gaga who played Ally tells of how this song, ‘Shallow’ is a love song. A conversation between two people who are deeply in love. 

And with the lyrics of this song we quickly recognise the brokenness of these two people. We find questions being asked about happiness and emptiness, among a host of other things.

But it’s clear to see that Lady Gaga is telling us through these lyrics that brokenness is found in the shallow, our fears, our worries, our regrets and failures are found in the shallow waters.

And these two characters that are wrestling through these questions of life, they find their answers in the love and trust they have for each other, however temporary that may be. 

And if you have seen the movie you will know what I mean when I say that the love they share is so deep and genuine that it’s contagious. 

But what does that say to us? We have so many things in our lives that tell us that they can answer our own lives questions but very few can sustain. 

Our relationships, our wealth, our position all can be a major distraction and sometimes ultimately leave us broken. And when those questions of happiness or emptiness remain, what’s left?

So to use the lyrics of the song, tell me something boy, tell me something girl…Are you happy in this modern world, aren’t you tired trying to fill that void?

Or do you need more??

Because the Gospel reaches into the deepest, darkest questions of our lives and cripples them with love. 

The Love of a God, who has bled the same blood that runs in our veins, who has fought with the same thoughts in our minds that we think, who has fought the same daily fight of life as we do right now, and He cripples our darkness with love. 

And God sees us in shallow with all our brokenness and questions. 

And He calls us from the deep and says all you gotta do is trust me, that’s all you gotta do. In every circumstance, in every situation God says, all you gotta do is trust me, that’s all you gotta do. 



For ten years Fitzroy have performed and perfected a Gospel According To… format that has covered U2 (multiple times), Dylan, Springsteen, Cohen, Mitchell, Morrison and more. We have also dabbled in Les Miserables and The West End as well as rolling out Narnia, Lion King, Finding Nemo and Harry Potter for a family audience.

The music end has been a little old. For a long time I had dabbled in the idea of a younger pop night. My daughter Jasmine beat me to it. On a drive home from Ballycastle, in August, Jasmine worked through a playlist of songs that was a perfect template for such a night.

So, the young women of Fitzroy with a couple of male helpers took us on a journey into the heart of 2019 culture and sang about how the Gospel caresses and collides with it.

There were songs of identity crisis and the pressures on young girls particularly on eating, self harm, fashion and identity. 

Erin Humphrey and Erin Thompson, fresh from playing lead in the ir school musical Clueless, gave us Jessie J’s Price Tag with Jonny Fitch doing the rapping. The dilemma was laid down: -

“When the sale comes first,
And the truth comes second,
Just stop, for a minute and

Why is everybody so serious
Acting so damn mysterious
Got your shades on your eyes
And your heels so high
That you can't even have a good time”


Catherine Forde then sat down at the piano for a yearning emotional and incredibly mature performance of Alessia Cara’s Scars To Your Beautiful. It was faultlessly beautiful!


She don't see her perfect, she don't understand she's worth it

Or that beauty goes deeper than the surface


The vocals throughout the evening were stunning.


Talitha Bowman is only 14. A quirky vocal, strong with personality, she also has this ability to throw other perspectives. Tonight she makes Jessie J’s Who You Are her own, as fragile as the soul searching behind it. Only 14. Goodness! 


Don't lose who you are, in the blur of the stars

Seeing is deceiving, dreaming is believing,

It's okay not to be okay

Sometimes it's hard, to follow your heart

Tears don't mean you're losing, everybody's bruising,

Just be true to who you are


The Erins return for the first Lauren Daigle of the night. Daigle is a gift to teenage Christian girls. She’s a great writer, has a wonderful voice and brings spiritual depth to these issues of image and identity. I can hear this one being done on a Sunday morning…


You say I am loved when I can't feel a thing

You say I am strong when I think I am weak

And You say I am held when I am falling short

When I don't belong, oh You say that I am Yours

And I believe (I), oh I believe (I)

What You say of me (I)

Oh, I believe


As if this is not all special, we have a centre piece. One of our most talented voices belongs to Shannon Moore who married Fisherwick Youth Worker Danny in June. They had both shared with me their love of the movie A Star Is Born. I remember the moment when Jasmine and I came up with the idea that they would sing Shallow form that movie.

Danny led us in with a crafted piece, insightful in commentary and spiritually powerful. (read Danny's script here!) He compared the shallows and the deeper water that God calls us to. He placed significance in the movie when Maine whispered to Ally during her first big performance “All you gotta do is trust me. That’s all you gotta do”. Then these two newly weds sang a duet that blew the roof off, power, sensitivity, harmony. Goodness but these two are better as one!


I'm off the deep end, watch as I dive in

I'll never meet the ground

Crash through the surface, where they can't hurt us

We're far from the shallow now


We were now diving into the deep and Katy Perry’s By The Grace Of God started the journey home. Singer Erin Thompson as good as told the old guy to sit down as she shared how this song gets her up and out when she feels insecure and wants to curl up in bed:


I know I am enough

Possible to be loved

It was not about me

Now I have to rise above

Let the universe call the bluff

Yeah the truth will set you free

By the grace of God (there was no other way)

I picked myself back up (I knew I had to stay)

I put one foot in front of the other and I

Looked in the mirror and decided to stay

Wasn't gonna let love take me out


Joel ands Hannah


Another Lauren Daigle. Joel and Hannah Kane took this one on and after a nervous first verse they found their voice and took us powerfully into the heart of rescue that could be seen as a Psalm: -


There is no distance

That cannot be covered

Over and over

You're not defenceless

I'll be your shelter

I'll be your armour

I hear you whisper underneath your breath

I hear your SOS, your SOS

I will send out an army to find you

In the middle of the darkest night

It's true, I will rescue you

I will never stop marching to reach you

In the middle of the hardest fight

It's true, I will rescue you


We were now swimming and basking and finding our identity and image in the unconditional love of God. By an error in production Shannon and Danny were only told they were singing it that day. Though they didn’t feel they nailed it, no one else did. These two voices can carry anything. In this song Katy Perry releases all the fears and brings freedom in unconditional love.


Unconditional, unconditionally

I will love you unconditionally

There is no fear now

Let go and just be free

I will love you unconditionally


It was an archetypal Gospel According To… It collides with the insecurities of a young world and caresses it with unconditional grace. There was a little my press-jockeying had to add.





8pm at FITZROY

Sunday night's Gospel According To... in Fitzroy is a landmark edition!

For ten years we have been doing U2 (a lot of U2), Springsteen, Dylan, Cohen, Morrison, Mitchell et al. Of course we have also done Les Miserables and The West End and a Family series that included Harry Potter, Narnia, Nemo and the Lion King.

But... the music has not been too young! So, The Gospel According To... Female Pop Stars is brand new territory, hopefully bringing the average age of the attendance down! However, if you are an old fogey cynic this one might be more vital for you than any that we have done. Learn about the generation that took over from you a while back!

Even ore exciting is that this is a youth, more edgy edition, curated and performed by a younger edgier collaborative. Hear younger voices sing younger songs!

Come on down. It'll help you look at identity, the pressures of a youth culture and how God's good grace speaks into the yearnings of a generation. Expect Gaga, Perry and Jesse J among other writers covered!


Ken Joni

Some were saying on the way out that it was the very best Gospel According To… that we had ever done. Well, I wasn’t sure. There have been some great U2 nights, Van Morrison was pretty amazing and who’ll forget Christy Moore. 

However, it might have been the most exquisite in musicianship and overall the most beautiful of all our musical nights. As both I and my curating, commentating partner Andrew Cunning said, we asked a lot of our musicians. The players. Joni Mitchell's songs are intricate stuff. The singers. Joni sings in weird rhythms and lyrical lines. 

Well, these guys smashed it, in the gentlest of ways. Claire Nicholl and her sister Laura Campbell took on Big Yellow Taxi with intuitive harmonies driven along by Gareth Black’s acoustic guitar and Peter Marshall’s fluid bass.

Perhaps the musical star of the evening was Peter Greer. His guitar playing in Little Green was a perfect blend of precision and soul. He even played it on a guitar that he had made himself. Then he sat down at the piano and played River in all its poignant melancholy. Apparently though he didn’t make the piano!

On top of Peter’s brilliance were two stunning vocal performances. Caroline Orr brought her near Gospel Soul voice to the yearning Little Green and Shannon Clements somehow used her near classical voice to reach some high notes in the sad Christmas song, River.

Top of the musical bill though was Ken Haddock. Ken is, for me, one of the voices of Belfast city. Oh, I know we have Van Morrison and the Brians, Houston and Kennedy, and Duke Special but Ken plays in the bars of the city, almost every week. He was heading from Fitzroy to his residency in The Empire. Ken covered Joni’s Both Sides Now on last year’s live album One Night In Willowfield and gave it his own signature. My big ask was for Ken to do A Case Of You, the song that both Andrew and I think is maybe the best song ever written. 

That Haddock voice! Ken has this gift of a vocal sound, smoky and smooth. You could listen all night long. He also has this ability to rephrase the classics and eke out a different word, or rhyme or emotion. In his hands tonight - “you said, Love is touching souls/Surely you touched mine ‘cause”… “I'm frightened by the devil/And I'm drawn to those ones that ain't afraid”… and when he threw his head back, opened that voice box for “Oh you are in my blood like holy wine/You taste so bitter/But you taste so sweet”… goodness me!

In commentary, I stood back tonight. After a short reflection from my chapter on Joni in my book The Rock Cries Out I handed over to Andrew Cunning a young exceptional mind who’s theology of the ordinary will see him publish a book on Marilynne Robinson called Theologian of the Ordinary. 

I love Andrew’s freedom of perspective. He doesn’t come with an agenda for the songs to fit that I often feel pressured to do by the evangelical boundaries. He doesn’t have the theology and find the quotation that fits the doctrine. He interrogates the lyric and pans the dross to see if there is any gold in the mix. With Joni he finds lots of gold. Here are some of his best bits:

“I really want to avoid doing a ‘theology’ of Joni Mitchell (patronising). Instead, what can theology learn from Joni Mitchell.”

“And it the humanness of the horizontal that Joni tells us to remember. As Christians we often have a vertical sight - looking always beyond the world to God or to heaven. In Joni we are reminded that the incarnation brought attention to the here and now, we are to BE HERE. Blue is incarnational - embodying the messiness of human encounters, of heartbreak and love, or difficult decisions and desires. It refuses to be blind and what Joni Mitchell sees is documented. Warts and all.” 

“Blue is an album that has no judgement in it, and it deserves to be listened to in the same spirit. This is the kind of listening Jesus would have liked when he reminds us not to judge. This is ‘being with’ type of listening.” 

“Joni Mitchell is a horizontal theologian - she hasn't much time for talk of God and heaven, but she has all the time in the world for the absolute precise particulars of life. Which, to me, seems just as Christlike as talk of redemption. You’ve heard it said that some Christians are so heavenly minded that they are of no earthly use? When we listen to Joni Mitchell we are kept fully anchored to the present, to the ordinary, to the heartbreak and boredom of real material life.” 

Andrew convinced me that Blue is the colour of the incarnation, that horizontal theology needs more time than we have been giving to it and that Joni Mitchell was even more of a soul bearing genius than I had previously appreciated.


Andrew Cunning is speaking at this year's CS Lewis Festival under the title God, Jesus and Joni Mitchell's Blue... watch Soul Surmise for more details...