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Responding to Rev

'Rev gives us no hint of the rich diversity in the Church of England.'Jeremy Fletcher thinks there should be no more blog posts about Rev—so this, I promise, will be my last (of only two!). But my reflection here is less on Rev itself, and more in reactions to it, and why they have been so polarised. This was shown starkly in comments on my Facebook post.

I loved last weeks and tonight’s episode, I found them both very moving.

The few times I’ve watched Rev, I really haven’t enjoyed it at all. I find it cruel.

I once watched about 10 minutes and found it unfunny and very dispiriting. Not worth wasting time on.

I’m so blessed to realise I’m not the only one who’ll be glad to see the back of it.

I simply don’t agree. I found last night a profound spiritual drama. I wept through much of it. I know there are more positive things missing. But as to the sheer vulnerability of ministry and prayer I could utterly relate to it. Well I guess I have been there – the experience of coming close to breakdown and trying to leave a ministry that somehow won’t let me go.

Isn’t part of the narrative of the psalms that OFTEN when we (God’s people) are feeling vulnerable, sinful, dispirited and broken…God is NOT present. There is waiting and lament but not necessarily the felt presence of a benign God. I lOVED the fact that there were not trite God loves us all moments. Rather Adam can make his complaint, lament and express his rage. And then there are whispers of presence through symbolism and interestingly (and rarely for TV) through the redeeming love and actions of his wife. Of course lots of us (clergy) love it for he articulates what many of us dare not or cannot. And he inhabits our world which is TOUGH, relentless and unforgiving, while we are called and expected to be caring, forgiving, endlessly available and invulnerable.

This diversity of views is also reflected in blogs. James Mumford in the Guardian thinks it is pernicious and damaging to the church:

Unbelievers who hate the church love the fantastic satire of an institution not long for this world. Unbelievers who like the church adore how it captures all those quaint little foibles. Believers who hate the church love how it lampoons everything they want to change. Believers who love the church also love it because it’s important to laugh about yourself. And vicars? Well, with a million viewers tuning in to every episode, they no doubt think that there’s so such thing as bad publicity.

But this love-in masks what is in fact a subtly damaging depiction of the church. Rev is insidious because it’s just so good.

On the other hand, Steve Holmes thinks at least part of this analysis is missing the point. A large part of what is going on is just  feature of how comedy works:

We did not protest thatThe Fall and Rise of Reggie Perrin did not accurately represent the fundamentally collaborative nature of British business, or that Yes Ministerdid not display the collectivist and cliquey nature of political life, and nor should we protest about the individual faith of Adam Smallbone. It is a fictional construct, recognisably so, which delivers the necessary context for the comedy.

And he prefers the depiction of Christian faith in Rev which suggests it is about spirituality, to David Cameron’s exposition in the Church Times which suggest it is all about doing stuff. (He has a thing about Olivia Colman too, but we will move swiftly on.) David Hilborn agrees:

So there was a message in ‘Rev’. But it was a message best discerned not so much through the lens of Church Growth Theory as through the lens of a classic British sitcom genre which finds humour in our thwarted ambitions, vanity and pride, yet which nonetheless shows affection and even compassion for those caught up in such things.

David also manages some theology along the way, mentioning Luther’s theologia gloriae and theology cruces. (And someone accused me of thinking too hard!) In fact, there is an important issue of theology of ministry which few have commented on, but which is  explored here:

The Church of England has long been built on a foundation of fudge. We aren’t really a denomination – we’re a national Church which is a variously dysfunctional association of congregations bound together by a shared history which we disagree about, an often-distant episcopacy, a rough agreement that the Creeds are on the whole a good thing, an immensely flexible liturgy that can be indistinguishable from either Rome or Vineyard, and a slightly grudging agreement to work together for the common good. One of the problems with this is that there are some fairly fundamental things that we really don’t agree on but never discuss, in particular the nature of ordained ministry.

As far as I can tell, there are two main ideas about the nature of ordained ministry in the Church of England – the ontological and the functional, or in less technical language “being a priest” versus “leading the church”.

I don’t think I quite agree with the complete dissociation John then makes between these two points of view—but he is right to note that this issue is fudged, and that Rev comes down pretty firmly on one side of this debate.

Two things strike me out of all this discussion. The first is that clergy do feel vulnerable, and that this vulnerability is not recognised nor easy to express in the context of public ministry. Just in the last week I have had conversations with people about the following situations they are in:

  • Being encouraged by a bishop to apply for a more ‘senior’ post, then finding that the bishop doesn’t offer support when the application is made.
  • Being made redundant by letter after spending time with the person who wrote it, but did not mention it.
  • Having to move house and ministry, and find new schools for children, after a breakdown of working relationship with a colleague.
  • Being subject to a critical reporting process, about which the subject has little control or comeback, but which could affect that person’s future significantly.

I am sure we could all think of other examples, and I myself have experienced something similar to each of these over the years. In one sense, clergy are not unique in experiencing such things; they are experienced by members of our congregations all the time. But there is something distinctively painful when the people you are working with are supposed to be ‘on your side’, and the disappointments with people quickly turn into disappointment with God. Rev has clearly touched a nerve in allowing such vulnerability to be expressed.

But there is something else important about the story. As I have read the comments of those who enjoyed the programme, it has felt as though we were watching completely different programmes—and in a sense we were. Take the section in episode 6 where Adam Smallbone is working in the shop as two teenagers steal things from the shelves without him noticing, and the subsequent interview to be a management consultant, where Adam is distracted by the spire of the church he has left behind which he sees over the shoulder of interviewer. There are two quite different ways to ‘read’ this story:

1. Adam feels detached from the world, and also feels marginalised and irrelevant. He senses that he has been deskilled, through no fault of his own but by faithfully following God’s call on his life. And yet, in amongst the competitive pressures of the world, he senses God calling him back to ministry.

2. Adam has been deskilled, because that is what the church does to people. Like a typical clergyman, he lacks moral courage and is short of personal resources. Those around him are cruel and unsupportive, and church culture is hopelessly detached from contemporary culture. Although there is something valuable here, it is hardly significant in shaping the world around it.

These two ways of understanding the story could arise just from taking points of view within the narrative. But I think something more fundamental is going on.

In narrative criticism, it is noted that stories can function in different ways. Two contrasting methods are diegesis and mimesis. In diegesis, the story is told to you, often by a narrator who figures in the narrative. But in mimesis, the story works simply by showing you what goes on. (I think a good example is the difference between Mark’s gospel, which simply describes what is happening with muted points of comment [mimesis] and John’s gospel, which tells you what you must deduce from the story—the narrator is so present he is almost another part of the story, [diegesis])

Cleverly written and researched, Rev looks like mimesis but is in fact diegesis. It appears to let the story happen by showing you, but in fact it is so focussed on Adam’s perspective and his inner life that he is (in effect) his own narrator through the events, telling you of their meaning. Even his name—Adam Smallbone—testifies to it. He represents fragile, vulnerable humanity under the call of God. For those who can relate to that, the story is clearly diegetic and they go with reading 1.

But for those who are not privileged to share Adam’s context and experiences, I think the story functions much more as mimesis—it depicts how things are. This is a function of the way the programme has been researched; with ‘insider’ help, it portrays certain things very accurately, as I commented previously. But it also accords with media headlines about the church—it has too many buildings, attendance is in terminal decline, its ministers have lost their way, it is chronically (and pathetically) short of money. It is so clearly seen as mimesis that a London Imam wrote in the Evening Standard about how episode 2 painted an accurate picture of the comparative state of Christianity and Islam, and this was close enough to the truth to prompt London diocese to respond with a refutation.

I’ve just come across a remarkable piece, which illustrates these two ways of reading very well. Marcus Green himself had the kind of crisis/breakdown depicted in Rev. In relation to how it felt, he thought the show portrayed it very well:

I’m hardly alone in the clerical world in sharing Adam’s experiences of breakdown for real. It was strange watching what took eighteen months for me (longer, much longer if we include the whole road back) play out over two half-hour episodes of a comedy. It was doubly strange because although many of the characters and events of my story were here seen in caricature,  yet here they were.

But when it came to the ‘descriptive’ external aspects of the story, Rev got it wrong.

When the archdeacon sat in my kitchen and discussed how employable I would be beyond the church, I’m glad to say that he was a good deal more positive than Adam experienced. But we had that meeting. In that place. And my archdeacon (unlike Robert) was right: a good parish priest doesn’t look employable – you have to work hard at the CV, and at getting through the interview door, but the skills we have are enormous. This made me very cross as I watched the TV show’s very negative version. If someone was going through that now – if I had been going through that and saw that programme, the damage it might have done me… A vicar is a very skilled person. I’ve been both sides of the work divide. We have gifts others can only dream of.

Perhaps those who interpret Rev as mimesis do need to hear the other perspective, and recognise its diegetic qualities. But those who relate to it as diegesis perhaps also need to note that many others particularly those outside Christian faith will see it as mimesis—and, as David Hilborn notes for himself, have no desire to be part of it as a result.

Earlier this week I attended my Deanery Chapter (Nottingham South). The meeting was positive, productive and purposeful. We shared strategies for development of lay leadership. Most of the churches represented there are growing, and in very different social and cultural contexts. Church attendance across the deanery is growing, as it is in the diocese. But of course (as Steve Holmes rightly points out) there is not much scope for comedy in this situation.

Humour is great—but humour can also be a defence. My hope is that Rev has engaged people—but my worry is that the humour is used to protect people from reality. There is plenty of antipathy towards the church in our culture just now, as the letter in response to David Cameron’s comments showed. Rev’s comedy might encourage sympathy for the church. But the opposite of antipathy is not sympathy, but respect, and I am not convinced the show done much to help this. And if you think that it is ‘just’ a comedy, consider for a moment the impact that ‘The Vicar of Dibley’ had on perceptions of women’s ministry.

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11 Responses to Responding to Rev

  1. John Gay May 2, 2014 at 2:52 pm #

    I found it ironic that very recently the Christians have been encouraged to be more evangelistic and tell the Christian story by the Prime Minister, while our former Archbishop appears to have given up the ghost by saying that England is a post Christian country. An example of diegesis and mimesis perhaps, though which is which would be up for debate. I felt the most accurate character in ‘Rev’ was the wife, whose character more than one clergy spouse could see in themselves I’m sure!

    • Ian Paul May 2, 2014 at 4:41 pm #

      Yes, I always think it odd when people describe any culture as ‘post-Christian’. How can that be? ‘Post-Christendom’ maybe, but the other term suggests that people have tried faith and found it wanting, when in fact it has not been tried.

      Steve Holmes was also clearly taken with the wife!

  2. Kevin Lewis May 2, 2014 at 3:16 pm #

    This is interesting, and could be applied to much discussion about faith, theology and ethics. The internet is partly to blame though – or at least the way fumbling humans use it, distilling thought-through and deeply held complex opinions into a sentence or 2, which are then argued as pro- or anti-, and all we do is throw statements at each other.

    Personally I think Rev. has been far more helpful to the church’s reputation than it has been damaging. This is because it continues some stereotypes people already have, like the buildings and numbers etc…, which is annoying but not news; but what it does is humanise the clergy. I have had more conversations about my job, with non-churchers, since Rev. and about Rev. than ever before.

    • Ian Paul May 2, 2014 at 4:43 pm #

      That’s interesting Kevin. But I am not sure I would agree that it ‘humanises the clergy.’ It humanises one clergyman, but the others (area deans, archdeacon, happy clappy rivals) are distinctly inhuman. And of course humanising also appears to de-divinise…hence my earlier comment that God is absent.

      • Kevin Lewis May 2, 2014 at 5:21 pm #

        Yes, I take those points… but I think you (and many of us) are in danger of over-analysing and finding only the answers we want. It does dehumanise the peripheral characters, but that’s because they are only there as a vehicle for understanding Adam, in this sitcom. It doesn’t do Bishops in depth, or Archdeacons, or female clergy, or Nigerian parishioners… but that’s because it isn’t about them. It’s about Adam.

        To the outsider, the non churched, for whom it is written, I don’t think it is thought of in the same way.

        And yes, the way that God is talked about, and to, and not heard from (barr Liam Neeson!), is a different conversation. But what Rev. has done is put the church at the centre of the inner city, not just the chapels of Eton or cathedrals of bishops; it has reminded people that caring for small groups of struggling people is immensely important and staggeringly difficult; and it made a lot of clergy feel their lives have been noticed.

        If only that would happen in real life.

        • Ian Paul May 2, 2014 at 5:55 pm #

          ‘To the outsider, the non churched, for whom it is written…’ If it were, why take so much trouble about the detail? All the advisers are insiders.

          ‘what Rev. has done is put the church at the centre of the inner city’. I am not sure it really has. Adam and the church make almost no impact on the community, as evidence in the contrast with the Imam. And, as I comment, this has been read by those there as being a quite accurate depiction. Grace and vulnerability might be there, but it makes no impact on those outside. Which I guess some will find quite comforting…!

          I love Richard’s comment below about deifying failure.

  3. Richard Sudworth May 2, 2014 at 4:23 pm #

    I’ve loved the series: enjoyed the humour and uncomfortably accurate portrayal of much of the Church and parochial ministry. I guess i’d like to wade in by voicing my misgivings over the final two episodes. As i watched the Good Friday episode and began to see how Adam was being portrayed as a crucified victim literally carrying a cross down the street i had two reactions:

    a. geez, that’s heavy-handed and unsubtle (note this is an artistic objection: if you have to spell a dramatic point out, then you’re in the realm of Janet and John or polemics)

    b. come on, don’t try equating inner city parish ministry with being crucified! I speak as an inner city parish priest and if any analogy fits, it may do for Christians who genuinely die for their faith elsewhere in the world. I know we are all called “to carry our cross” but there is just a faint whiff of Anglican self-importance here: martyrs to a cause. I like Rowan Williams’ reminder that the Church (note the capital “C” for the Church Catholic) is “absurdly, both necessary and unnecessary”. I’m not sure that those outside the Church warm to being mugged by a message that “this particular manifestation of the Church” is utterly vital to their communities.

    I love the parish system, the sense of being rooted in location, and it is a grief to see it being rolled back in sometimes inevitable and necessary ways; and sometimes pernicious ways. There is a stream of kenotic theology evident in Rev that glories in self-emptying in a manner that splinters christology from doctrine. Thus, the pattern of the Christian life is modelled by the self-sacrifice of Christ but the nature of that self-emptying and trinitarian dynamic of kenosis is lost. What you get instead is an ethic of powerlessness and failure. The Easter Sunday scene in Rev, for me, was a caricature of resurrection that was all about “belief in Adam” and “belief in the Church of England parish church”. Good kenosis theology might lead us to acknowledge that some aspects of the parish system need to die because God can continue his work of resurrection without us. I guess that’s a very theological response but Rev was being very theological; just badly.

    • Ian Paul May 2, 2014 at 4:47 pm #

      Richard, thanks for your masterly analysis.

      I agree with you on the cross/resurrection thing. I always worry when the theology of the cross is simply turned into ‘This dignifies our suffering’ when surely a key part of the NT proclamation is not that Jesus did something that we all do, but that Jesus did something for us that none of us can do for ourselves.

      I think you hit the nail on the head when you talk about ‘an ethic of powerlessness and failure.’ In some traditions this does seem to be elevated, as if Jesus died and rose again to make us useless. I do take seriously the question of all human ‘success’ but it is difficult to characterise the resurrection as ‘failure.’

  4. deacongill May 2, 2014 at 5:22 pm #

    Fascinating analysis and comments! I too have mixed feelings about Rev. I suspect its main attraction is that it deals with cliches about the Anglican church (so lots of people can feel superior and sorry for us – or not) but in a way that shows the vicar at the centre is a real person with recognisable failings and laudable concerns – thus giving some weight to the content. It also constantly raises the question ‘why is he putting up with all this?’

  5. Paul Seymour May 3, 2014 at 7:15 pm #

    I felt very upset with the last episode and angry, latter when the tears had gone I realised that it was too close to home. My church is growing but it’s finances are a matter for despair and I have that conversation with the diocese this coming week.

    No great theology here but it reminded me of Blackadder goes forth, in that after all humour came the real story in that program they go over the top in the teeth of the machine guns and the real cost of the war is revealed, in the Rev series there is much humour and pathos etc but right at the end the real message of the Christian faith is given Ressurection.

    Yet I remained kinda disturbed by it and prehaps that’s right ressurection should be a Challange, in terms of Christ, of course but of our local churches and selves too.

  6. Brian May 4, 2014 at 10:09 am #

    I think the late John Richardson said it very well in one of his blogposts: the living God is absent from the world of ‘Rev’. The world of liberal catholicism (lite) is a dreary and unappealing one, and Anglicanism of this kind is only held up for pity or contempt, or a combination of both.

    This is to say nothing of the PC clichés of the BBC mindset that generates this despairing stuff. I still can’t forget the one where a Muslim children’s Koranic group – led by a woman! – met in the church because there was nowhere else in East London for them!

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