By John Martin

Critics have claimed for some time that religion on the BBC is being systematically marginalized. BBC Studios has now lost the production rights to Songs of Praise, which has appeared on BBC One on early Sunday evenings since 1961.

The Rt. Rev. Graham James, Bishop of Norwich, has warned this could be “another nail in the coffin of the religious literacy of the nation.” The BBC lost out under a new competitive process required by the government.

Nine Lives and Avanti Media will produce Songs of Praise for the next three years. Their pitch is said to offer better value for money and better programming ideas. Current hosts will need to apply with the new production company if they wish to continue.

For now there seem to be no plans to move Songs of Praise from its prime Sunday slot. But there are worries that religion will shrink even further on the BBC agenda. The corporation already had decided not to appoint a head of religion when Aaqil Ahmed announced his departure in November. Religion was absorbed under the portfolio of James Purnell, head of radio and education.

“I do fear that there will be a loss in the BBC of specialist expertise in broadcast worship, which has been a core element of its public service remit,” said Bishop James.

Some church leaders were untroubled by the change.

“An independent company may well bring a fresh approach to Songs of Praise, but the BBC should also continue to bolster its religious output,” said the Rt. Rev. Nick Baines, Bishop of Leeds. “At a time when the need for religious literacy and understanding is more acute than ever, the expertise of the BBC’s religious department is an asset that needs protecting.”

Fatima Salaria, the BBC’s commissioning editor of religion and ethics, said: “Songs of Praise remains our flagship religious program right at the heart of our religion offer. This decision secures its future for the next three years and reflects both a commitment to the ongoing success of this much-loved series and to religious coverage more broadly.”

“We are disappointed with the outcome,” said Mark Linsey, director of BBC Studios. “We take great pride in how we’ve nurtured and developed the series over many years, which continues to delight audiences.”

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