Friday, 16 December 2011

'Rev.', the Sad Heart of Anglicanism

Having heartily disliked the BCC TV series Rev. the first time around, but aware of (and indeed encouraged by) some people who thought it was great, I have assiduously watched the second series up to the sixth episode (I gather there is one more scheduled — a ‘Christmas special’ perhaps?).
I am still polarized from its admirers. One reviewer in the Telegraph described it as having done “much to prove that sitcoms can ... still make you gag on your risotto with laughter” and I’m with him up to the last two words. However, I’m a bit clearer as to why.
The reason I dislike Rev. so much is, I suspect, that like Father Ted, it has actually captured quite well something of its subject matter. In the case of the latter, it is the madness of certain aspects of Roman spirituality and culture. The presentation, however, is frequently hilarious, regardless of the ‘situation’ bit of the ‘sitcom’.
Of course this can sometimes be painful, such as the excruciating build up to Ted greeting Richard Wilson (playing himself) with his Victor Meldrew “I don’t believe it” catch-phrase. You know its going to happen, but part of you is saying, “Stop!” Nevertheless, the release evokes laughter, not pity.
Rev. also captures an element of reality. Indeed, there was a rather neat coincidence in that the day I watched the episode involving the ‘exorcism’, I’d been asked to deal with something not dissimilar locally. (Interestingly, when I shared this with a clergyman, now retired, who used to work in the patch close to that covered by Rev. he told me it happened “all the time”.)
Unlike Father Ted, however, Rev. is shot through with pathos. At one level this simply means they are different and there is no harm in that. But the pathos of Rev. derives from the lives of those it depicts, and in many ways they quite accurately represent the sadness at the heart of so much Anglicanism. And yes, this makes me uncomfortable, but it is the discomfort of someone watching a fictional account of something painful they see in reality — and there is surely no harm in that either.
So we have the vicar’s wife committed to her husband but resentful of his job (though isn’t that true of other wives competing with other demanding careers?). We have the tiny congregation in the vast building (though contrast this with an Anglican church I know in east London which draws a multi-racial congregation of almost three hundred every Sunday). There are the vicarage ‘callers’ after handouts (a bane of urban ministry). And at the centre of it all, there is Tom Hollander’s well-meaning Rev Adam Smallbone.
Indeed the key to his character is the phrase ‘well-meaning’, for although he means well and tries his best, Smallbone is as lost as anyone else. He talks to God (in a whimsical way) but he leads a god-forsaken existence.
What keeps him in the job? Bearing in mind he is a fictional creation, nevertheless one would hazard a guess that it is his basic decency and a faith in something. But behind this there is an enormous amount of ‘force of habit’. This is what he does, he doesn’t know how to do anything else and for the time being there is (just) enough money left in the coffers to keep paying him to do it.
As he said in the latest episode, he feels he ought to be a priest. But if you asked him whether he thought anyone else should be a Christian there’d be, one suspects, a significant pause before you got an answer, and it wouldn’t be an unqualified ‘yes’.
Smallbone is definitely not an evangelical — not in the sense that he doesn’t hold certain doctrines, or sing certain songs, or have certain social attitudes, but in the sense that he has no word from God and no announcement to make to the world.
At the end of the most recent episode, there was a kind of Blackadder Goes Forth moment, as the lead characters each took a seat in Smallbone’s church, separated by miles of pews and lost in their own isolation — the benign but confused vicar and his loyal but semi-detached wife, the ambitious gay Archdeacon ‘outed’ as he was being interviewed for preferment, the lay reader who had tried to blackmail the aforementioned Archdeacon (who went along with it for his own career’s sake) but who was subsequently turned down for the priesthood, and the alcoholic ‘hanger-on’ fired from his latest job (where he had been cheating his employer).
As they gather, in the background Nina Simone sings “we have each other, and our love will see us through”, courtesy of an old lady we see Smallbone visiting in the opening scene.
What these people need, of course, is a saviour. The tragedy for them, and for many in the real-life Church of England, is that they are cut off from him by the very situation in which they find themselves in the church.
John Richardson
16 December 2011
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  1. John - did you see my recent post on Rev? I touch on your Strategy book in the midst of it... ( )

  2. Only a small comment - i do think Colin is portrayed as more than a 'hanger on' and his alcoholism is not a barrier to Adam's friendship and pastoral care -his baptism in this series was particularly significant.

  3. John, agree with almost every word. I posted on Rev at the beginning of the series and have seen little to change my views.

  4. Thanks for the 'heads up', Sam. I've posted a comment and I hope others read what you've said. We look forward to the book!

    Thanks also to Phil - again, I hope others read it.

    Alice, I didn't quite get the right phrase there, but I was under a lot of time pressure to do with Christmas shopping!!

  5. 'Rev' seems to me to be a classic study of Anglican nilhilism.

    Chris Bishop

  6. Thanks for this post, John. All good points, well made! Adam is a clergy character who attracts more sympathy than most fictional Vicars, but essentially he has little to offer - he's a very wet kind of hero.

  7. I watched the first series to the bitter end - and it was bitter, laced with PC cliches and fantasies (the thriving charismatic cafe church; the Muslim children's group - led by a woman! - who meet in the church because there is nowhere else in London for them!). I haven't bothered with the second. Maybe it reflects what it is like in some of the grimmer, damper stretches of East or South London. It isn't like any church I've ever belonged to. It corresponds to the BBC view of religion in general and the C of E in particular.

    Mark B.