Christianity, Cameron and Rev

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.

*   *   *

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. 

7 thoughts on “Christianity, Cameron and Rev”

  1. But how does any of this help the displaced in our society? Surely the point of Christianity Cameron and Rev was to highlight the dynamics of relationship between religion church and state and how individual personalities can help or hinder individuals. We are living in a world and country where the displaced are disadvantaged not by availability of what is needed but by the obstruction of those who wish to provide it.Advocacy is a wonderful thing unless implemented without the understanding of historical fact and cultural difference. Displacement is the cause of most neglect hunger and mental and emotional problems. There is a difference between feeling disorientsted for a while and feeling like there is no point because as soon as one thing is sorted someone has to disrupt in a false perception of progress. Real progress occurs with acceptance and fairness . This is not achieved in chaos. Chaos is the gap of nightmares. Rev the everyday challenges of the city clergy where the Church leaders have been portrayed as disfunctional bullies.This does not to my mind seem to help with the real issues the vicar was seen to turn those in need away in order not to be put under pressure by those deemed to be in higher places. It goes back to my own experience in the Westminster Abbey when the sermon was uplifting whilst it was being spoken only to be flattened by being shoved out for taking to much time contemplating in prayer. It was meant to be a time of understanding the roots and appreciating the real battles that had been fought to give us freedom to worship. My major concern David Camerons assertion that we are a Christan Country Christ did not close doors he opened them. Christ gave the instruction to feed my sheep this can be done. What about fellowship ? What about community? Opening doors is a metaphore for enabling or in other words helper “I will send you a helper” . I was reading something by Adrian Warnock the other day in particular his piece on The six points on which Christians and Muslims Disagree one of them being that the Muslims believe the helper was Mohammed . As Christians we believe the helper is the Holy Spirit but the common denominator is that in neither faith does it say you have to do it alone. Open hearts lead to open doors open doors lead to fellowship and fellowship leads to community and community leads to awareness and awareness leads to help.Faith means we wait on God to guide us to find it. Anyway thats my take on it. Christianity Cameron and Rev did not in my view help us to see where to find help rather it showed us what prevented people from finding it.

  2. What exactly do these town meetings do?

    My guess is that is practice was established when the majority of the residents were god fearing regular attenders. As the US does not privilege an established church, the duties were shared between the main churches in town. If religion is now less important in the town, I presume the meeting can decide for itself to abandon or curtail the prayers. In the land of sweet liberty is this really a matter for the judiciary?

    • If Justice Clarence Thomas, could have affirmed your ruling, Dave, he would have. He believes that your line of reasoning is supported by the text of the Constitution, and so is jurisprudentially preferable to the majority opinion supported mainly by custom and case law. As he construes it, the First Amendment reserved to states and localities the right to make laws “respecting an establishment of religion,” and shielded them from Federal intervention (eg from the Federal courts) when they do so by declaring that “Congress shall make no law” in the matter. He also makes the rather daring claim that, since an ‘establishment of religion’ is not by nature exclusive and can indeed be pluralistic, laws like that of Greece NY are the form that our society has chosen for an established religion protected by the Constitution.

      And what form is that? In northern counties of the State of New York, those who perform the tasks of local government for towns are appointed and overseen by councils elected by the townsfolk. Perhaps in a nod to New Englanders over the border who transact the major business of their towns in meetings of the residents, these council meetings are sometimes called ‘town meetings.’ By whatever name, the meetings are a natural occasion for many ceremonial moments– announcements of fundraising campaigns, awards to young athletes, commendations for retiring town employees, etc– and most have some ordinary residents present and speaking. For the most part, a ‘town’ in that state is in a rural or suburban setting.

      In 1999, the council in Greece NY adopted a standing rule that all such moments would be at the beginning of their meetings and would follow a prayer appropriate to the occasion. A town employee was tasked to list all the faith communities in the council’s jurisdiction, and to invite each in turn to send someone to offer the prayer. So the Court ruled on a practise that is relatively new– a decade and a half old. From the beginning, it accommodated religious pluralism– the town’s Wicca priestess, Buddhist monk, or debunking atheist are as eligible for a place in the queue as the Episcopalian rector, and the council does not approve the content of the prayers, asking only that they be about the matters at hand. However, nearly all the clergy offering prayers in Greece NY are devout Christians and they offered prayers in Jesus’s name in council much as they would have done in church. The two residents who sued for relief said that prayers on state business must be non-sectarian offerings to a generic deity. The Supreme Court ruled very directly to the contrary.

      Steve Holmes’s article discusses the debate that followed David Cameron’s remarks on Britain as “a Christian country.” In the context of that, it seems interesting that Monday’s decision follows pluralistic principles, not to Thomas Jefferson’s “wall or hedge of separation between church and state,” but to an establishment in which the state simply mirrors the religion that is.

  3. It is difficult Pluralist. The problem with this “comedy” is that what is funny in retrospect or as part of insider jokes, really is not funny when people are experiencing real difficulties. There are light hearted ways of pointing out faults and difficulties both our own and those of institutions such as church and government. But the power of the collaboration of both can be very distressing for those who have been badly treated or wrongly judged. It is at this point that comedy ceases to be funny. It reminds me of Pantomimes as a child I hated them I always came out crying, it did in fact give me a phobia of them because I expected to be laughed at. But well as I got older and I performed in a couple it was less of a fear and fortunately my lines did not have the overtones of intellectual sarcasm . Some in the Church would be horrified at the circumstances that clergy both create or find themselves in. Being torn between the Archbishop or the Church or Individual or the Archbishop being torn between Government legislation and Church and then it gets even worse when The Archbishop in a moment of insanity joins the politicians like a sitting duck. It reminds me of social workers in a deprived area with no facilities or support from management who are torn between what is needed and what can be provided. I used to ask them why do you do this when you cannot provide what is needed, those who stayed on the ground said it was because you had to be in the system to change it ! But the time finally comes when those who care cannot do it anymore, purely because they cannot do what they trained to do. It is often the same for clergy.People are never satisfied because like a see saw when one lot are up the other lot are down, it has to be like that otherwise everything would grind to a halt. It ceases to be funny when the cycle of blurred religious and social justice repeats itself time and time again.

  4. Simply – what do you want from a comedy? It only had a certain number of half hours and rather packed in content that met every criticism. How supernatural do you want it to get – he only was shown in a very clever encounter of ‘meeting God’ via the chap talking in cliches. And my comment here is from someone who thinks the original is a construction that this draws upon so that his ‘resurrection’ wasn’t quite. It’s odd how some people are never satisfied!

  5. Speaking of definitions of ‘a Christian country’– On Monday, the Supreme Court of the United States narrowly ruled (5-4) that beginning town meetings with explicitly Christian prayer does not constitute the “establishment of religion” forbidden by the First Amendment to the US Constitution. Overruling the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, the Court accepted the argument that the prayers, mostly offered by a rotating group of local clergy free to pray as they wish, are a traditional ceremony whose central meaning for citizens lies, not in the particular deity invoked or the origin of the prayer, but in the petitions offered and their recognition of a sovereignty beyond the state. “A number of the prayers did invoke the name of Jesus, the Heavenly Father, or the Holy Spirit, but they also invoked universal themes, as by celebrating the changing of the seasons or calling for a “spirit of cooperation” among town leaders.”

    Thus the Court denies that citizens are entitled to the elimination of symbols with a religious origin. Justice Kennedy wrote, “Adults often encounter speech they find disagreeable… Legislative bodies do not engage in impermissible coercion merely by exposing constituents to prayer they would rather not hear and in which they need not participate… Even those who disagree as to religious doctrine may find common ground in the desire to show respect for the divine in all aspects of their lives and being. Our tradition assumes that adult citizens, firm in their own beliefs, can tolerate and perhaps appreciate a ceremonial prayer delivered by a person of a different faith.” Discussing the first prayer offered at the Continental Congress in 1776, Justice Alito drily observes in his concurring opinion that, “For many of the dele­gates—members of religious groups that had come to America to escape persecution in Britain—listening to a distinctively Anglican prayer by a minister of the Church of England represented an act of notable ecumenism.”

    Apart from a concurring opinion by Justice Thomas,* the opinions on both sides devoted an unusual amount of attention to such facts of the case as the way those praying were selected, the content of the prayers since 1999, the significance of the prayers to the officeholders and citizens present for them, the religious composition of the Town of Greece, etc. Justices in the majority also minutely examined the past practice of the Congress, whilst those in the minority imagined scenarios in which the holding of the majority could lead to egregious violations of the Constitution.

    Of the Court’s nine justices, five Roman Catholics joined Justice Kennedy’s opinion in whole or in part, whilst three Roman Catholics and one Jew joined the dissenting opinion written by Justice Kagan. All three of the women on the Court dissented from Monday’s decision.


    * Justice Thomas argued that the First Amendment protected the Town of Greece from Federal intrusion in its acts regarding religion. On the face of the text, the Constitution actually protects the states’ established churches from Acts of Congress. Since the late C19, judges have thought that this protection had fallen into dissuetude with their disestablishment. Justice Thomas, however, believes that it is more proper to see the nature of establishment as having evolved from tax support for a body of clergy to the civil religion of a pluralistic society.

  6. What a Christian country might be! I have always thought of a Christian country as a country where people have mutual respect for one another and where equality is given an opportunity, and where we care for one another. Well that is my dream! it is not reality. It is a good question about what a Christian country would be. Part of me thinks we would be very repressed, and from that repression we would have lots of internal emotional problems. The other part of me says we would be very judgemental because Christianity seems to have many faces. Christianity preaches equality IF you meet the grade. The grade is defined by denomination and PCCs and Diaconates rather than by the Priest/Vicar/Rev/Brother/Pastor etc I always thought that a Pastor was Pastoral in nature until I came across an administrative one that is. I thought a Priest was more monastic and Vicar was higher than a Reverend Brother I always thought was from the Pentecostal blood fore and brimstone. Of course I know different now But what does a Christian leader look like ? .Christian leaders are seen as more Christian than “the chosen church leader”. Christianity in its full glory is a wonderful beautiful expression of faith. Christianity stifled by humanity is a total mess. That was cottoned on to and came out as the expression of “messy church” note it does not say “messy Christianity. I long for the Christian Church for the belonging without fear, for the acceptance, and for the acknowledgement that suffering has to be worth something. Surely humanity has to be worth something in the living, not just after death. A Christian country looks like a painful slow death unless you are wealthy enough or able enough to do something about it, or have access to someone who can do something about it for you. A Christian Country is perceived as a country of hope for many, but its what that hope is which appears to distort the picture. Rev has shown Christianity to be an intolerant religion, where vicars crack under the pressure, and where vicars do not have time to listen, or that they are fed up with listening, apart from the late Chad Vara that is. But how strange is that , that a vicar had to take the time to set up an independent place where lonely Christians could be heard! what a crazy world we live in. Do we need a Christian country or do we need a Jesus country? what would a Jesus country look like? A Christian country with Jesus in it would see the eradication of loneliness and hunger it would see happy contented people who did not get their pleasure from hurting one another. It is such a difficult balance to be competitive enough to succeed whilst not hurting others whether its business or something else. I solve it for myself through personal achievement , it could be any thing from surviving the day to passing an exam I prefer that to knocking out the opponent, I would rather be alongside than on top. That’s the problem with sermons if you hear to many ,you get a conscience lol .Yes we most certainly are here to help each other carry the load. Heh but who am I ?

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