Jesus in a shell suit: the best moment in BBCs ‘Rev’

Liam Neeson in 'Rev'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.

Convincing characters

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.

Dividing opinion

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.

Passionate faith

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.

Crowning moment

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.

11 thoughts on “Jesus in a shell suit: the best moment in BBCs ‘Rev’”

  1. Do you think the ‘God doesn’t show up in Rev’ bloggers have forgotten that Jesus spoke in parables?
    Didn’t every episode end with an extraordinary coup de grace?
    I loved it (I’m vicar of an edge of town estate well known to Jon).


    1. Hi Steve and thanks for the comment. Yes I loved it too – I am not saying that God was not present or that examples of grace, love and mercy were not illustrated – I think they were in every episode. It is just that genuine faith was generally not that represented in the programme – more often it was the cynical side of things such as church politics or institutional failure which were covered. Growing up in a vicarage and working in an urban church I am well used to such things – but I also know that it is genuine faith which continually breaks through this stuff to bring real hope.

      And its not just faith represented through the love of others – such as people’s kindness – but actually an encounter with a God who is real and alive. Without this the church becomes a nice, slightly mis-managed social club doing quaint things which are hard to understand – and this generally is how the church was represented in Rev. Whereas with the Liam Neeson bit Adam encountered God and it was transformational.

      Be good to know more about why you, as a vicar, loved it Steve?


      1. OK – first attempt to spell out why I enjoyed ‘Rev’ so much.
        1) I enjoyed laughing at it so sometimes I wanted to hide behind the settee as when watching Fawlty Towers (it would be too awful if he … he has) though not the belly laughs Cleese went for.
        2) I love a happy ending and often thought they’d gone too far to find one, yet they did – without fail? The darkness of the last series made this all the more moving. And I thought they were really happy endings – not e.g. vindictive but win-win. I don’t watch enough drama to be too critical but I thought it was better than mere sentimentality (I admit that could be because I read in more of a sense of God’s presence than the programme makers intended).
        3) Steve Holmes on the Fulcrum site (your link?) reminds me that the place of Adam’s prayers in the development of the plots is underplayed by the ‘God doesn’t turn up’ line. As with Alex’s prayers and resolve at the end … there was plenty to ‘keep the rumour of God alive’.
        4) I loved the affectionate frankness about the real failings of God’s precious church. We’re so glad the church is often otherwise, and we’re glad there are many churches where the faith is more clearly understood and where growth in discipleship or numbers can be measured and we might rather project that sunnier side of the church but, as Wimber is supposed to have said, ‘when we talk about the bride of Christ we’re talking about a mature woman’ – with some blemishes.
        There are 2 related reasons for 4)
        5) No doubt 4) follows partly from being the leader of a church that isn’t growing but shares in the heartbreak of hopes not quite fulfilled.
        6) No doubt 4) follows partly from sharing a sense of a church hierarchy not really on a wavelength with churches that are less than super.
        7) Despite 4) I’d be glad to talk about ‘Rev’ with the church’s critics but alas, it’s not much viewed where I am!
        There’s a start on why I enjoyed it. Perhaps I just don’t expect the state broadcaster to go further than the excellent story telling. Instinctively I’m content that they have left it to the real church on the street corner to live the parables and explain them. Please God help us to do it better!


  2. I’m a bit of a fan of Rev and I agree, that episode was inspired, inspirational and beautiful: I was quite moved, both by the encounter with Colin denying he knew Adam 3 times and by the encounter with Jesus in a shell suit. I also like your assessment above and can see where you’re coming from in terms of the programme’s portrayal of vicars and church.
    But I love the ‘real’ness of Adam’s faith, the conversational way he prays, and the variety of ways that his prayers are answered in each episode.
    ‘This encounter with a living God depicted the core of what faith is all about’: yes and no. This was a ‘mountaintop’ (or hilltop!) encounter – experiences which are not for most Christians an everyday occurrence. Most of the time, we walk by faith, living out that faith in ordinary acts of love towards homeless people and others who need practical and emotional love, as Adam Smallbone demonstrates so well. For me, this makes Rev’s portrayal of faith attractive, realistic, attractive reachable.


      1. Thanks for the comments Steve and A man under grace (I was going to shorten that to AMUG but I thought that sounded rude). I found your comments helpful and thought provoking. I think the point that Rev offers clergy some solidarity in their struggles is important and is clearly true and I think the point that the Liam Neeson bit was a mountain top experience is a good point.


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