David Cameron’s several interventions during Easter week concerning his own faith and his perception of the UK as a ‘Christian country’ aroused much interest, and more derision; by contrast, in it’s third series, the BBC2 sitcom Rev has apparently reached that level of popularity which requires newspaper columnists to take pot-shots at it (see Tim Stanley in the Telegraph and, much more interestingly in my estimation, James Mumford in the Guardian).
Unravelling the various lines of a media and social media feeding frenzy like the one that surrounded the Prime Minister’s comments is not easy. His narrative of his own faith journey, which has clearly deepened in recent years following the death of his son Ivan, deserved much more respect than it got – a judgement I base simply on an ethical commitment to decency and respect in the face of personal tragedy; his line about a ‘Christian country’ was a soundbite that was largely meaningless without further specification of what a ‘Christian country’ might actually be; it successfully baited a predictably shallow response from the rent-an-atheist crowd, whilst inviting more thoughtful writers to propose potential meanings for the term and to test them against the evidence (see the present Archbishop of Canterbury here and his predecessor here).
One, seemingly repetitive, feature of this furore offers an interesting contrast with the portrayal of Christianity in Rev: although neither term fits entirely comfortably with a good understanding of the essence of Christianity, the debate around the Prime Minister’s various remarks generally constructed Christianity in terms of ethics, whereas Revconstructs the faith in terms of spirituality.
David Cameron wrote in the Church Times of ‘the Christian values of responsibility, hard work, charity, compassion, humility, and love’; of course, I do not doubt that these are ‘Christian values’, even if I would be happier with the word ‘virtues,’ and with a slightly different list (adding things like faith, hope, justice, prudence, courage, and temperance…). To define Christianity, however, in terms of these values is to elevate a part to the whole, and in particular to elevate effects above causes.
The debate that followed offered some – fairly unkind, in general – words about the Prime Minister’s personal morality, and the morality of his government’s agenda. Most of this commentary failed to offer any rounded judgement or nuanced analysis, but even if it had, it constructed claims to Christian identity in terms of the achievement of certain moral standards. The Prime Minister’s original construction of a Christian country as one full of people committed to doing good was contrasted with a more corporate vision of a Christian country as one in which the government is primarily tasked with doing good; the notion that Christianity should be equated with doing good went largely unchallenged. (Danny Webster on Threads was an honourable – and energetic – exception.)
Tim Stanley’s criticism of Rev (link above) constructs it on similar grounds: it, he claims ‘depicts a vicar trying to be kind to his parishioners – with hilarious consequences’. That does not ring true as a description of the show I have watched; Adam’s relationships with Colin, Adoha, Mick, and (perhaps particularly) Ellie are much more complex than ‘trying to be kind’ – ‘trying to be good,’ perhaps, but even then only with the qualification ‘and regularly failing’. The heart of the show, though, is not in Adam’s attempts to be good, but in Adam’s attempts to be Christian. Almost every episode through the three series turned on a moment of prayer, during which Adam realised what he must do, or after which events turned out for the better; the climax of the first series came when Adam’s fairly spectacular personal collapse was arrested by a dying person’s request to see him; in a powerful affirmation of vocation he re-dons his collar, quoting Isaiah 6 ‘The Lord said, who will go for us? And I said, here am I; send me.’ Prayer and vocation are not primarily about ethics; they are about spirituality, about a relationship with the divine. (The last episode of the third series again used clerical vestments as a metaphor for vocation; it’s not my tradition, but I can recognise and understand it.)
It was this, I suspect, that made Rev so popular with so many Christians, and particularly with so many ordained ministers. Yes, the acting was wonderful (I’m slowly coming to the view that even an episode of Top Gear with Olivia Colman in it might be worth watching; she really is that good. And Tom Hollander is not very far behind); yes, the observations of inner-city church life, which I have known first-hand, and (I am told) the observations of the inner life of the Church of England were spot on; but it was more than that: we recognised the faith we live here in a way we just did not in the furore surrounding Cameron’s comments.
Those of us with first-hand experience of Christianity do not find lists of values or ethical positions a convincing account of who we are; but a narrative that, for all its comic grotesqueries, pictures our faith as oriented around a relationship with God makes far more sense to us. We know ourselves to be called by God and we relate to God in prayer. Adam’s prayer life is portrayed obliquely; how can a sitcom portray it otherwise? But it is determinative to both his personal identity and, repeatedly, to the plot of the episode. Adam’s vocation defines decisively who he is even, perhaps particularly, when he kicks against it (and which of us has not done that?).
Every one of us who seek to follow Christ knows the challenge that our goodness does not reflect our profession; others throw it at us from time to time, but the true accusation comes from our own heart. To define Christianity as the doing of good, and to criticise David Cameron’s profession of Christianity on the basis of his failure to do good, does not work for us; there is not one us of us who would claim never to have failed to do good. But when a sitcom, for all its comic exaggerations, portrays us as oriented around our relationship to God, we recognise ourselves in it, and warm to it.
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I wrote this post in draft before Dr Mumford’s – very worthwhile – piece in the Guardian, linked to above, appeared; I stand by my comments, but he raises questions that deserve to be dealt with. He offers two substantial points: the individual nature of Adam’s faith, and the lack of supernatural response to prayer. On the first, there are, I think, two points to be made: the first concerns the nature of the sitcom format, which, at least in one of its classic subgenres, turns on pitting the sympathetic hero against the unfeeling organisation; Rev works in this genre. 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 Minister did 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. Secondly, however, and perhaps more interestingly, I wonder whether Dr Mumford has been somewhat blinded by the congregationalist formation that he and I share; the Church of England, particularly in its more catholic wings, does emphasise the representative faith of the priest quite strongly, and Adam’s practice of praying alone in his church depicts an aspect of that quite well – again, it’s not my tradition, but I can recognise and understand it.
Concerning the response to prayer, I would of course want to agree with Dr Mumford that miraculous responses to prayer are seen in the life of the church; and perhaps at least one episode should have investigated that (Adam’s Good Friday encounter with God came closest). That said, I would want to be much more positive about the depiction of Adam’s prayer life – and in the final episode the prayer life of the other characters – than Dr Mumford was. The normal experience of prayer – for me, at least – is very close to what is depicted here: in prayer I find clarity of thought about a troubling situation, or courage to do what I knew was right, or acceptance of the way things are; answers to prayer are as often – more often, for me – a subtle shift in circumstance than a visible miracle. The sequence of prayers depicted in the final episode, with the Archdeacon moved to, perhaps imperfect, repentance (demonstrated by his presence at the Easter Eucharist), Alex discovering the beginnings of faith in becoming reconciled to Adam’s vocation and to Katie’s baptism, and so on, rang extraordinarily true to me; this is what the communal prayer of the congregations I have had the privilege to lead has generally looked like. Contra Dr Mumford, for me – and, it seems, for many others – in the area of spirituality Rev looked like an insider’s viewpoint, one we could recognise our own deepest and most private realities in.
And that – more than the brilliance of the comedy, or even the presence of Olivia Colman – is why so many of us will mourn its passing.
This article first appeared on Steve Holmes' blog and is reproduced here with permission.
Steve Holmes is Senior Lecturer in Theology and Director of Operations,
School of Divinity, University of St Andrews
Editor, International Journal of Systematic Theology (www.ijst.org)