You don’t get much more C of E than my family. My Dad is a former Parish vicar and Archdeacon. Both my brothers are currently vicars, and my mum has only just stopped leading a Parish church as a job share with my Dad in their ‘retirement’. You cannot throw a stick at a family do without hitting a dog-collar. Literally.
It’s a bit of a taboo within our family that I now go to a Baptist Church.
A lot has been written after the third series ended of BBC2’s comedy Rev which follows the trials and tribulations of an inner city C of E vicar. I have the box-set of the first two series and avidly watched the third series. As a show it just got better and better and it captured the struggles of a traditional church in the urban context brilliantly.
What I most like about Rev are the characters in it which echo vividly with people I have met through my work and also especially from my time living in Islington and Kings Cross.
My two favourite characters are Colin, the chaotic Mancunian who continually drinks in the church yard and always sits on the front pew and Mick, the crack addict who calls at the vicarage door with ridiculous stories to elicit cash. These tragi-comic characters are brilliantly conceived. The episodes in previous series where Colin got baptised or when Mick moved into the vicarage to get clean were genuinely moving.
Since the end of the third series, bloggers have been busy dissecting Rev and it has sharply divided opinion.
Some have taken offence at how it depicts black Christians, such as Adoa, as having a naïve and simplistic faith, when in reality it is black people who keep the urban church going.
Others feel it undermines the church by misrepresenting priests as well-meaning, vaguely spiritual social workers. Ian Paul has written that the one thing missing from Rev is God and Jenny Flannagan wrote similarly about how little it connected to her experience of church in an urban context.
Much of these criticisms are valid. I love Rev as a comedy but simultaneously I am depressed by the reality it conveyed.
Cult of failure
It makes me think the biggest problem with Rev is not so much the programme itself, but the the way it is received. Although Adam Smallbone is a likeable character working in a tough context, you cannot hide how inept he is in actually leading his church.
When I read some people’s responses I feel that it promotes the cult of failure within the C of E where ineffectiveness is celebrated as a sign of authentic struggle.
Over the years I have heard many ministers who prefer to wallow in the ineptitude of their institution rather than having the desire to reform it. Tough urban environments can exacerbate this feeling of disempowerment and it can mean that traditional churches, locked in decline through lack of leadership, grow even more irrelevant to their communities.
But this resignation to failure is not an attitude that is understood in churches which really are connecting with their communities. For every Adam Smallbone, there are dynamic leaders in urban churches who have the ability to lead well. Some of this is due to the skills they have – but a key part of it is due a passionate faith which is able to inspire and lift people.
And Ian Paul and Jenny Flannagan were right. God does not make much of an appearance in Rev. There is plenty of religion, but not much genuine faith in a God who can actually save and transform people.
And as Jesus and the Biblical prophets taught, genuine faith in God is the only thing that can save religion from its tendency to slide into meaningless ritualism.
And this is why the crowning moment in all three series of Rev was in the penultimate episode where God actually did turn up. When Adam was at his lowest ebb, having let everyone down, when he was losing grip of his church, his marriage and his sanity, he met Jesus. In a shell suit. Played by Liam Neeson, the voice of Aslan himself.
Forget all the church services, school assemblies and PCC meetings. Leave the pastoral visits and the night shelters for the homeless. Give up the church politics and theological debate. This encounter with a living God depicted the core of what faith is all about.
Postscript: Today (1/6/22), 6 years after posting this article, I received a really thoughtful comment from Paul Coker that made me realise I had interpreted this scene incorrectly (see full comment below):
Oh, that is NOT Jesus in a shell-suit…
It’s Dawn on Easter Day,
he is on the top of a hill
(where he has been carrying up a full-scale wooden cross)
he does a quick bit of ecstatic dancing,
he has come to his Calvary
(and acceptance) —
That is quite CLEARLY The Father;
NOT The Son —
That’s why He mostly speaks in PROVERBS,
Father Adam is standing In Persona Christi at that moment.
Communing directly, Son to Father