The one thing missing from ‘Rev’

Rev_-_main_castHaving missed (though recorded) the first episode of the new series of Rev, I managed to catch the second episode last night…along with (it seems) half of the Church of England clergy. Not surprisingly, the main plot line followed Adam Smallbone’s convoluted attempts ‘not’ to marry a gay couple in his church, but simply say prayers after a celebrating of the Eucharist. There were the usual simplistic swipes at the ‘traditional’ position (‘God will bless your relationship; it is the Church that won’t’), and the subliminal propaganda that the lively gay community could rescue the church from insignificance and dullness—if only the Church would let them. But I have to say it was still very therapeutic to have a good laugh around an issue about which so many have got so angry. Adam’s constant insistence that this was not a wedding, despite the expectations and the symbolism, and the inquisitorial dialogue with the Archdeacon afterwards, were perfect. The final scene [spoiler alert] of Adam actually performing the ceremony was a masterstroke, since it was entirely unclear whether it happened in reality or in Adam’s pastoral imagination.

More generally, the programme is acutely well-observed—I suspect because of detailed advice from people like Revd Richard Coles. This episode touched on just about all of the recently current debates. The ‘Save your Church’ course, which made Adam feel like he was having to ‘behave like a business man’ included a passing mention of the use of Myers-Briggs, much berated on Facebook by Mike Higton, now Professor in Durham overseeing the validation of training in the C of E and other denominations. Equally astute was the study of the forced, slightly artificial friendship with Adam’s most enthusiastic parishioner, Adoha, an issue faced by all clergy who are in a social context which is different from their own natural one. And the little details of longing for a break, misunderstanding in the corner shop, and the pressures and preoccupations of fulfilling multiple roles all ring true. Adam even managed to use the right service book for Communion—even if he waved the wrong one at the Archdeacon!

And yet something was missing. It struck me most forceably in the episode from the previous series, which was published last week in the Church Times. Nigel (the lay reader) is on the brink of suicide as he has not been recommended for ordination training—and it is all Adam’s fault.

You wrote me a bad reference, didn’t you? You know I’d be a better priest than you!

The dilemma here is a distinct one, and it arises (in a strange way) from an over-developed sense of awareness of process. In recent years, processes within the churches, including the C of E, have been articulated much more clearly and explicitly. In part this is a good thing, arising from reflection, but in part it is also a feature of our more bureaucratic, litigious culture. So everyone knows the criteria for selection for ordination; anyone can have a go at imitating the qualities that are specified; and anyone writing a reference has to match comments against these. And those being written about know that they know, and those writing references know that the candidate knows…and that they know they know! The real danger here is that the process becomes inward looking and self-referential, almost like a game of hide-and-seek…unless. Unless the whole thing is not actually about process, but about God. And that is the missing bit.

The Save Your Church course on Rev makes no reference to the idea that God might in fact make a difference, or be part of the process, or that this might all be about something bigger than the institution. God is clearly not part of the Church decisions about gay marriage; it all arises from politics and bureaucracy. As Adam says to the (gay, partnered) Archdeacon:

You don’t even believe in this law yourself!

When Adam prays, it is more a question of muttering to himself in the hope that someone, somewhere, might overhear. But no answers are really expected. And pastoral care is about ‘Bending over backwards to please everyone.’

Of course, the reason why Rev appeals to clergy is that it gives voice to many unspoken dilemmas, and in a sympathetic tone. As the recent Church Times series on the State of the Church showed, it is possible to feel that mission strategy is little more than a marketing exercise. The issues of finance and attendance numbers express the pressure to perform that many clergy feel, whether articulated or implied. Yet without the presence of God actually making a difference in the day to day, everything is reduced to mere processes. And the danger is that you might even get to the point of suggesting that the congregations themselves simply don’t matter—keeping the institution going is what counts!

On Sunday morning, I was aware that the person behind me was new to church. I wondered how he had ended up here; was he from another congregation, or new to faith? What would he be making of all that was going on? Then we reached the Eucharistic Prayer, the great prayer of thanksgiving which locates what we are doing and our remembering of Jesus in the whole sweep of God’s purposes for the world.

You fashioned us in your image
and placed us in the garden of your delight.
Though we chose the path of rebellion
you would not abandon your own.

Again and again you drew us into your covenant of grace.
You gave your people the law and taught us by your prophets
to look for your reign of justice, mercy and peace. (Prayer F)

What a wonderful expression of the good news! So how is it that only 27% of Anglicans feel able to invite friends to church, and still fewer feel able to articulate their faith? Because, in the end, it is not about words, or about processes, or about strategies—unless these point to encounter with God. All the external things are worth nothing without understanding and encounter—the very thing which appears to be missing from Rev.

(I did learn about the visitor after the service, over coffee…)

Our culture does find it very difficult to articulate experience of God, or know what to do with such articulation, which is one reason why it is hard to own up to being a Christian in a workplace environment. And there is also good reason to be sceptical about God-language, since it is so easy for this to be power-language in disguise. But if we give up on it, then all we are left with is cynicism—and self-referential processes.

So I will continue to enjoy Rev and its observations—but will want to add in one other ingredient too.

Additional note

James Mumford offers a similar comment in the Guardian today, though goes further in arguing that the depiction of church life is actually damaging:

Yet it remains an outsider’s perspective. An insider view of the church would, by contrast, revolve around the reality of shared faith. From the outset, Rev’s operating assumption is that faith is individual. The Rev Smallbone’s prayer monologues are purely personal. Faith is not something held in common. Nor is it transformative. Which is, rightly or wrongly, what people of faith think it is. Perhaps the show’s most wonderful character, the drug addict Colin, is a parishioner Adam is genuinely friends with. But there’s never a question of faith freeing him from addiction.

In imposing its own outsider viewpoint, Rev defies the deepest ideal of a liberal, pluralistic society. In Rev the devout do not speak for themselves and therefore are not permitted to sit at the high table of our national media.

One of the comments below the article compares Rev with Father Ted, and thinks we should be able to laugh at both. But I think James has a point: unlike Father Ted, Rev does appear to claim to offer a window on the reality of church life.

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33 thoughts on “The one thing missing from ‘Rev’”

  1. I’m not sure it’s fair to say God is left out. Though I don’t remember the details I often recall a sense of God being wonderfully present when Adam finally went on a visit he’d been putting off, quoting Isaiah as he went. Was that the last one of the first series? And though his prayers seem feeble, in some way they often get answered – wow!

    You could say it’s just another way in which it really is very Anglican – a sense of God in the fabric of things (in the communion prayer at St Nic’s after all!) and Oh so reluctant to say so.

    Beyond the observation of detail, what I’ve enjoyed about Rev, consistently, is the redemption at the end of every episode. It’s sometimes quite wry, and this time is certainly teasing and not the redemption we’re looking for (go to Michelle Guinness’s ‘Archbishop’ for that) and that seems at least as much of a shout for our God who saves as we can hope for from a state broadcaster.

    I think you’ll enjoy the first episode.

  2. Ian, could it be that what you describe about Rev, that God seems to be missing, is true in the lives of many clergy and congregations? Or at least, that God is perceived in a deistic sense, as one who is out there but has little to do with life (and even with church)?

    It is clear that this is how the creators of Rev perceive the church and the lives of its ministers …

  3. Ian, I think it may be a very clergy thing to assume that it is really difficult to ‘own up to being a Christian in a workplace environment’. It may well be true for some but many I know are very open about it and people know exactly where we stand. there is nothing to hide and God is very much a part of our 24/7 lives, not just encountered on Sunday at church.

    How many clergy do you know that actually go out into people’s workplaces to find out what it is really like?

    Rev is great and appears very ‘real’. The ‘God’ bit is a relevant issue but it does imply that many clergy and others in the higher echelons or in political power etc within the CofE don’t appear to be or live as Christians and that it is just a another job.

    • ‘How many clergy do you know that actually go out into people’s workplaces to find out what it is really like?’ Good question. I have quite often, and used to say this to ordinands. (I phone you at yours!) But not common I agree.

      I think the article on being a Christian in the workplace is written by a lay person isn’t it?

      • Helen Coffee is a reporter and is obviously trying to create an interesting article. However, she appears to misuse the EA’s report about how people “… thought they would get into trouble for saying what they believe in a professional context.” and confuse it by then talking about ‘coming out’ as a Christian. There is a difference and I can understand that some people might feel constrained from saying what they think ‘within a professional context’ because there have been cases where ‘the system’ or their bosses have taken prejudicial action against them just because their actions or, what they have said, has been deemed inappropriate within their particular work situation at the time.

        She then talks separately about whether people actually know that we a a Christian within our work environment and how people might react to this revelation. What we believe other people may think of us often doesn’t turn out to be reality and we can still be a ‘normal’ person who happens to be a Christian. It is often our own perception that creates a false reality but the actual reality is often different.

        People will have different beliefs about all sorts of things but that doesn’t mean that we can’t still get on ok just because we happen to hold different or even opposing beliefs.

  4. How is that going to help, as opposed to being evangelical?

    BTW, Lukas Paul, who roomed with one of your students and is among your FB friends, is a nephew of mine …

      • And I’m sure that you’re not saying that only charismatics expect to see God at work in the present are you Ian?! Or perhaps you’re redefining charismatic!

        • I am defining ‘charismatic’ (I know it ought to be ‘pneumatic’ but that sounds odd) as anyone who expects God to work today. If God is not at work by his Spirit, how is he? Cessationists believe it is all by reasoned deduction from Scripture.

      • Thank you Ian for saving me writing a blog post. I have been mulling this since the last series.

        I agree with being Charismatic as an important identifier – Wolf some Charismatics are evangelical, some might define as Catholic, Lutheran, or other framework. The charismatic movement is a bigger catagory than evangelicalism. I love my evangelical friends but acknowledge my sacramental theology and soteriology is more catholic.

        As for the wider church – as someone who works outside the charismatic mainstream, the huge majority of Christians I have met have had profound encounters with God. However so few have been given permission to talk about it and embrace it.

        You don’t have to be charismatic to embrace encounter with God – or evangelical or catholic. But there are no easy terms to describe a wider openness to the supernatural action of God.

  5. I haven’t seen this series of Rev, as I haven’t managed to watch series 2 yet, and have a horrid need to watch things in order. I will say though that if you perceive God to be absent, it might well be because the writers etc of the show want you to. Isn’t that the point of some Churches? God is present, but it’s whether we decide to pay him any attention that matters. We can’t make him present or not present, but we can decide to acknowledge him or not. I think the portrayal of the minister in Rev as someone who hopes the God he prays to is there but isn’t sure anymore (that’s how it seems to me) is just one more uncomfortably close to the mark element of the show. To remove it would make the show too “Christian” for most people.

  6. This business of trying to articulate our faith in a secular marketplace of competing ideas, ideologies and fantasies, is the very reason why I decided to start a blog. Christians can come in for astonishingly vituperative comment, and the challenge is always to ask ‘what can I say that will create some respect for my faith?’

    My evolving understanding is that people with faith are respected if they are seen to be sincere and to respect the ideas of others. And the biggest evangelistic weapon that we have is, quite simply, our own enthusiasm for Jesus. If you look at many TV programmes – cookery, hairdressing, building – it’s the people with enthusiasm who communicate.

    Having my own blog is also an excellent way to engage with people about their own faiths or ideas. Although I do insist on mutual respect 😉

  7. I see what you mean. I guess I am thinking of evangelicals like George Verwer and the like: don’t know many charismatics who so radically expect to see God work …

  8. One of the things that I like about Francis Spufford’s Unapologetic is that it focuses on the experience of faith rather than seeing it simply as assent to a set of doctrines.

  9. I am very much with Ian on finding God to be the missing ingredient in so much religious activity. As a pointer to leaders who want Him to be experienced I’d say be looking out for Him and (especially) give Him some space to reveal Himself (with continuing apologies to those wishing for a genderless pronoun). We have quite a bit of content in our services which sets the scene for God to speak so let’s listen then before galloping into the next bit. Do consider inviting congregants to tell of something God has done or said. This will often give a clear link with everyday life.
    I really want to see stuff happening that would not happen if God were not real. Don’t you?

  10. Like Alan Jenner, I’d like to see more space left for God in all services. Much has been said about ‘shopping list’ Intercessions: it is not difficult to offer 2-3 original short topical prayers with space between them for private prayers in response. Is silence an issue? There is often an impression of people with their heads down, eyes fixed on the printed word, just always missing the glory. How I long for the whole congregation to lift their eyes and attend to the miracle that is Holy Communion…

  11. Firstly it simply isn’t The Vicar of Dibley!

    Having said that it is at least on occasion amusing.

    I felt this particular episode was a little sad in taking a very live and for some a painful issue and boiling it all down to adopting a pro gay approach and The Church and everyone else was simply wrong. Perhaps the issue could have been explored in greater depth over the series rather than in one episode? But then that’s probably a very naive thought.

    I do wonder if at some point Adam will meet some of his other friends who are Christian but are then forced or arrested for refusing to offer goods and service for a gay marriage!

  12. I know I don’t really need to say it, but your wish for “one other ingredient” was fulfilled in spades in Easter Monday’s episode! 🙂 It was so poignant, I only just managed to hold it together.

  13. I must be mistaken then when I thought Rev was just a sitcom. The writing skill was that it attracted reasonable viewing figures which exceeded by far the numbers attending church each week, although these started falling when, in this series, the issues became more serious. So credit to the writers and actors for taking the brave step of portraying the conflicts for Adam between his own belief (in God I suspect) and the institution as they became starker. I am optimistic that it left 1.3 million viewers with a better understanding of the church and faith. A sitcom cannot be expected to achieve more.

    • Peter, thanks for commenting. On my other posting at I make a couple of observations:

      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.

      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.


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