Podcasting has grown into a Big Thing over the last few years, particularly though not exclusively amongst younger people. My children are constantly recommending podcasts to me—though to little avail, since I have enough to listen to on the radio!
Daniel French is the vicar of Salcombe, Malborough and South Huish, Devon, and is a regular podcaster, and I had the chance to ask him about this ministry and its impact.
IP: What is the name of your podcast? What sorts of issues do you cover, and how many people listen? How did this all start?
As it says on the label ‘Irreverend’ covers faith and current affairs, mostly but not exclusively from a UK/Anglican perspective. Listenership is around 4,000 downloads a week and is more if you add YouTube and Rumble viewerships. In the past two years we’ve had just under half a million downloads. Our January 6th episode on the transgender priest Rev Bingo Allison had near 13,000 downloads, which highlights how contentious the trans issue has become.
Revs Tom Pelham and Jamie Franklin started it from scratch during the autumn of 2020 and then a couple months later invited me to join their duo. Jamie is currently a curate in Nottingham, Tom is a vicar in Burwash near Tunbridge Wells, while I am the vicar in Salcombe near Plymouth. Tom and Jamie trained together for ministry at Cuddesden, Oxford. Jamie administers and edits the podcast and with an upcoming part-time appointment to a vicar in Winchester hopes to give more time to this.
For me the trigger point was after I befriended the American writer Rod Dreher on the back of an article I published in the Spectator which touched upon his seminal The Benedict Option (2017). The article went viral perhaps because I controversially claimed orthodox Christianity could soon find itself barred from the public space and marginalised with the established liberal churches. In the midst of a Brave New World we could end up with much of the parish system collapsing and end up operating as a subterranean discreet network. The hierarchy of the Church of England’s enthusiasm for Covid theatre and the lockdowns confirmed in my view that much of Anglicanism could easily capitulate to the secular culture and even self-immolate to an emerging digital technocracy. Dreher got in touch with me and introduced me to a number of people, and from there I got to know Jamie and then Tom.
IP: How do you choose the issues you seek to cover? Do the drivers here come from within—your own concerns and interests—or from without—what you see going on in the world around you?
I have to keep reminding people that we are an amateur outfit and so this podcast is gloriously unscripted. We do not have the production resources of a big operation. This is very much an iPhone-in-a-basement thing. Yet, our meagre outfit is having impact and making waves. I think we are saying things that a lot of people in the church feel too worried to voice.
As for the show structure, weekly planning involves thinking and praying through some of the big new stories while also picking up ecclesiastical news. There’s always some drama to report and the Anglican world keeps on giving. Our reputation is to argue the news from a non-woke basis and look at theological issues from a small ‘o’ orthodox viewpoint.
The initial driving force was our antipathy for the lockdowns. Tom, Jamie and myself are united in seeing this as a fundamental attack on our God-given human rights and liberties. Within weeks of Covid arriving something changed in the way western supposedly liberal governments regarded their relationship with citizens. The response illustrated not only disproportionate overreach but also a new appetite for authoritarianism and scapegoating. Who cannot be worried that the police who had bemoaned how overstretched they were in chasing criminals in 2019 could now find time to close playgrounds, stop birthday parties, patrol joggers with drones, and rush into places of worship to do headcounts?
Each of us were seething about the lacklustre response of the official Church. Justin Welby’s decision to lock priests out their own churches and not fight to keep these buildings open did irreparable damage. The day that announcement was promulgated I sat outside my church weeping. I thought I was having a nervous breakdown and nearly quit then and there. Something snapped within me, and though my faith is strong I struggle to have any enthusiasm for our denominational structures. I have ceased to be a ‘company man.’
IP: Did that lead to asking more questions of wider actions and attitudes?
A few episodes in and our podcast began to question much of the official government narrative. It’s been interesting to see this week how Big Brother’s Watch report to Parliament on 77th Brigade vindicates what a lot of us were picking up, namely that the propaganda machine went into overdrive and now saw voices like us deemed as enemies of the State. I suspect that on YouTube there was evidence of shadow banning of our podcast, likewise the same goes for my personal Twitter account (until Elon Musk bought the platform.)
Other issues include questioning vaccine mandates and highlighting vaccine injuries. We heard terrible things from Canadian Anglicans for example about how their local bishops were writing off the truckers’ protests as ‘alt-right’ from their pulpits and doing petty gestures like banning protesters from using toilets. So when faced with a genuine working class movement the Canadian hierarchy showed itself up and declined to get involved. So much for a church for and of the poor! Similar pattern happened in the UK where no prominent clergy attended the lockdown protests but were all too quick to join the more fashionable rallies, BLM or Just Stop Oil. It is not an overstatement to say many of us as lockdown sceptic Christians felt deeply let down by our church leaders.
Another concern is climate alarmism and it’s too common anti-human sentiments. It seemed clear to anyone that an ideological rush to Net Zero would kill more people than Lenin’s Five Year Plan, forcing millions globally to choose between heating and eating. To us it seemed that Just Stop Oil, Extinction Rebellion, and Insulate Britain were quasi religious apocalyptic cults feeding off young peoples’ desire for meaning in the face of a declining Christendom. It’s tragic that so many clergy are sympathetic, some have even taken part in glueing themselves to roads and obstructing traffic. It beggars belief!
Ironically, our harshest critics come not from militant atheists but from other vicars. One residential canon Tweeted, that “Irreverend is a Post-modern conspiracy freak show”—whatever that is? Perhaps the clerical kick back betrays an incandescent rage that we dare to defy the official liberal narrative taught in almost all theological colleges since 1968, namely that God is actually behind the times and if only He would drop some of His more demanding commandments the public would flock back. Yeah right, as if!
IP: All three of you are ordained and in parish ministry. How does the work you do on the podcast relate to parish ministry?
Part of the podcast USP is that we are working vicars. Modern priests have got a reputation of being politically Left-of-centre and progressive, so our voices are a tiny way to offer a bit of a rebalance. However, in parish ministry I remain discreet about all of this, mindful that I don’t want to alienate parishioners. On the whole Salcombe is mostly a town of Daily Telegraph readers so those who know my take on things are not too bothered. I think it would be harder to get any sympathy if I were chaplain to some red brick university.
IP: Perhaps in line with your podcast title, you don’t appear to work too hard at tip-toeing around those with whom you disagree. Does that matter? Does it make a difference to the persuasiveness of your arguments? Is there sometime value in satirising the views you disagree with?
The show’s bombastic style is no doubt part of our appeal. I know that we are expressing what a lot of people are shy of voicing or struggle to be heard by those in power. Sometimes in the heat of the culture war you need to be a bit shouty. Theological disputes which are seemingly resolved solely by ‘good disagreement’ don’t always produce the most helpful or noble outcomes. We know Nicea in 325 didn’t emerge from bishops being nice to each other. Passions flared. The orthodox side had to fight hard to win the day, and then it took centuries of resisting the semi-Arian fudge before this all settled. Thank God, the orthodox bishops were pushy, otherwise we’d have an inoffensive bourgeois religion without the incarnation or the Trinity.
However, I don’t think Irreverend is in anyway as aggressive or unforgiving as woke progressivism even in its churchy iterations. But, let me underline how rattled folks are of getting cancelled or disciplined for wrong-think. Small ‘o’ orthodox ordinands feel especially vulnerable and the stories I’ve heard are hair raising. I remain astonished that the Archbishop of Canterbury has not put his foot down on this. Does he not see what is happening? Perhaps he genuinely believes he can “manage” the progressivists in the Church and keep the peace. This in my view is impossible when the tactics of the hard Left are in play.
I want to add that though we do lampoon and laugh at stuff Irreverend isn’t all bluster and rants. We aim never to be cruel. Above what we try to do is explore issues at a high resolution, and unpack complex theological issues as far as we can and make those ideas user friendly. So in our recent show on Rev Bingo it would have been all too easy to charge in and get personal but instead we invested a hour unpacking traditional Christian understanding of biology, the soul, matter, and so on. Bingo made an unusual claim about the imago dei in Genesis 1.27 that deserved closer examination. Having gone on Breakfast TV to make very particular claims about the Hebrew text this needed testing. Just because Philip Scofield is purring “Oh that’s a lovely way to look at the Bible,” doesn’t make it true. What our show encourages is ordinary people to push and test some of these woke philosophisings because most of it doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. I think ordinary people instinctively know this, almost in a subliminal way. Our show is about encouraging a confidence to question this stuff.
IP: Why is this medium relevant to the proclamation of the gospel in contemporary culture? What kind of people do you find engaging with it, and why is that significant?
People listening to podcasts are looking for content in contrast with the majority of the Internet and the legacy media because podcasting is more in-depth and less combative. Most social media platforms are about saying it in a 10 second sound bite or revelling in others being caught out. I think these fast n furious platforms drown out sustained exploration of any issue and make it intimidating for the majority of church leaders to participate. Few of us would volunteer ourselves on the mainstream news to play these ad hominem games and I suspect the public are increasingly bored with that kind of output. Podcasting in this way suits those of us familiar with the craft of preaching and delivering lengthy speech. I believe that the podcasting phenomenon highlights that there is an appetite for something completely different and that stretches our attention spans. I suspect that the invention of wifi earpods and smartphone compatible stereo in cars has also helped. Long car journeys or trips to the gym are a common way to listen and are supplanting commercial radio and the BBC.
I have observed that when it comes to evangelisation, women tend to belong before believing while men do the opposite—they are more comfortable believing before belonging. Of course, this is a bit of generalisation but we also forget just how intimidating the initial prospect of belonging to an unknown mysterious gathering is to a lot of men. My experience is that guys want to go away and think about Christianity and chew it over in their own mind. They are less naturally trustworthy than women and need to be personally convinced and invested before making a commitment to attend. Podcasting is the perfect medium for men to quietly take it all in and in the privacy of their homes make up their minds. Fans of our show have said that it is like Top Gear done by vicars. This was not a conscious thing on our part, but we have noticed that the show does seem to effortlessly engage with men and their concerns.
IP: What stories do you have of seeing people engaging with faith issues? Do people actually come to faith as a result of engaging with it?
“Dear Rev, your podcast Irreverend is a lifeline. Since finding faith I’ve struggled to find a church nearby that isn’t woke and your show is keeping me sane.” These lines were scribbled in a Christmas card from a listener who tells me he is the owner of a car sales dealership and is typical of regular letters and emails that find their way to us. This is typical of the hundreds of letters and emails we get.
Certainly the three of us are seeing a significant number of people who can articulate either a religious experience or intellectual conversion. In two years we’ve been privileged to hear several thousand such stories. Something seems to have happened spiritually under the surface since the first lockdown in 2020. A lot of these new Christians have migrated from New Atheism on the back of the Jordan Peterson Bible series. Another interesting constituency would describe themselves as “awakened” to the prospect of digital technocracy or what Rod Dreher calls ‘soft-totalitarianism’. I would put myself in that category though I think it is less the product of a shadowy cabal as the sinfulness and vanity of Man.
It also highlights for me a nagging feeling that the Church of England in its current liberal guise has chosen the wrong apocalyptic narrative by going full gung-ho with Greta Thunberg and climate alarmism. A more theologically correct apocalyptic lens would be that of the French philosopher Rene Girard or Benedict XVI who foresaw the winter of civilisation due to the breakdown of social cohesion and the unmasking of raw power. But, I think for the Established Church to grasp this it would need to reconstruct its moral theology to something more than a tribute act to John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’. This as we know cuts right through the Culture Wars inside the Church because such an apocalyptic reading of the times asks believers not to be victims in some Freudian-Marxist sense but to take personal responsibility for our inner lives, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Ephesians 4.23) while also seeing our ultimate salvation in a saviour, Jesus Christ.
Much of the current posturing from the official Church puts the salvific work of Christ on the edge rather than in the centre. When did you last hear a bishop go on the airwaves and talk about Christian conversion, salvation, repentance, sin, and so on? Sadly the Church’s intellectual gravity well remains overly middle class and so it is theologically far safer to argue that we need to save the planet than save souls. I suspect that the Church doesn’t want to talk about our souls because it fears consumer resistance and so offers little bar constant affirmation rather than the hard work of conversion. My point is that the wider public and enquiring Christians pick this up, and truth be said they want a denomination motivated by a concern for the inner life and our salvation.
Tragically, I have lots of stories of new Christians braving their local parish church only for their conversion stories to be scorned by the vicar as he or she rolls their eyes, “We don’t do that supernatural stuff anymore.” Well, Irreverend does and people appreciate it.
IP: What would you say to something who is interested in developing this kind of ministry? What do you think the institutional Church should be doing about it?
I would encourage Christians (clergy or otherwise) to have a go. The most basic secret to success is regularity. At the very least make a commitment to do a short series and upload it at the same time every week. Unlike trying to do YouTube, the basic equipment need only be a smartphone or laptop, and a subscription to a platform. We record our podcast conversations by ripping the sound off our Zoom account. It’s all easy enough to pull off.
As I am not a fan of the institutional Church delivering relentless corporate output I am not sure what advice I would give. My worry is that those within the engine room of the Church of England would airbrush out controversial voices or make their own versions not very meaty. In my view it would be best if they stepped back and let podcasting be the grassroots movement it already is.
IP: Daniel, thanks so much for your time—and for your ministry through the podcast!
Ordained 25 years ago, Daniel French is the vicar of Salcombe, Malborough and South Huish, Devon. He is married to Frances who has recently been ordained too. Since 2020 he has written for various publications including the Spectator, unHerd, Mallard, Country Life, and the North American Anglican.