The latest series of Rev opened with another well-meaning but hapless attempt by Adam Smallbone to please his Archdeacon. This time, Smallbone was seeking to be “present and engaged” in his multi-faith neighbourhood. The episode contrasted his dwindling flock, and his organisational incompetence, with a large and effective local mosque.
The episode provoked a lively debate in the Evening Standard. East End Imam Amjal Masroor wrote that
“I was watching the latest episode of the new series of the BBC’s comedy Rev the other day and couldn’t stop myself feeling a genuine sense of sympathy for my Christian friends. The inner-city churches are deserted while the surrounding mosques are full. Rev’s lead character, vicar Adam Smallbone, laments seeing how his neighbourhood’s mosques are busy while his own flock dwindles fast: “It is difficult to be a Christian here… even in Hackney! Why is Islam so much more popular? Is it because of all of its rules for life? People like rules. Maybe if Christianity had rules like Islam, my church would be full too.”
Masroor’s article was based on the dangerous assumption that Rev is factually accurate. Bewailing the church’s declining numbers, and organisational ineffectiveness, he concluded:
“People do not like wishy-washy ideas: they like a clear, consistent and coherent philosophy. For the moment, Christianity has lost its way.”
As the Diocese of London was quick to point out, there was one fatal flaw in his argument – Rev is entirely fictional. In reality, London’s Anglican congregations are growing both in their engagement with neighbours (an issue on which Masroor is astonishingly ill-informed) and in numerical strength (on average by 14% over the last decade in east London). In letters to the Evening Standard, local clergy gently pointed out that Rev was a comedy and not a documentary.
Nonetheless, behind the jokes there are some meaty theological issues. Like many of the best TV comedies, Rev should provoke us to think as well as laugh. In that respect, it resembles Yes Minister – a wonderful comedy which advanced a very definite agenda. Again and again, the show contrasted the self-serving incompetence of government employees with the efficiencies of the private sector. Unsurprisingly, it was one of Baroness Thatcher’s favourite TV comedies. While the jokes remain superb, its political agenda seems less compelling in the aftermath of the banking crisis.
If Yes Minister had a political agenda, Rev (which is also a wonderful comedy) appears to have its own theological axes to grind. Smallbone stands in a long line of comically ineffectual Anglican clergy. It’s not a coincidence that one of the most memorable villains of the first series was a clergyman with a thriving congregation. In fact, there are barely any positive mentions of anyone with the gifts or inclination to help the church to grow.
All too often, the debates within the Church of England polarise into either an unthinking focus on numerical growth or a curious glorification in decline and impotence (of the kind we see in Rev). It is all too obvious what is wrong with an uncritical theology of success – as if “bums on seats” were more important than faithfulness and sacrifice. In some parishes, changing demography may well make numerical growth unrealistic – and yet churches may be “present and engaged” in ways that bear a powerful witness to the Kingdom of God. Numerical growth and Kingdom growth are not always the same thing.
However, we must be equally wary of an uncritical theology of failure – which uses the language of “vulnerability” and “powerlessness” to justify structures and practices which have outlived their usefulness. We must not confuse Christ-like vulnerability with plain, old-fashioned ineffectiveness. And we need to remember, whenever "bums on seats" or "the numbers game" are criticised, that behind every number (or, indeed, above every "bum"...) is a life which is hopefully being transformed by the Spirit of Jesus Christ.
Christ himself is plainly concerned with impact as well as good intentions. He teaches us to be concerned with effectiveness as well as intentions, even as he transforms our understanding of what counts as being ‘effective.’ We are called to be ‘wise as serpents’ as well as ‘gentle as doves’ (Matthew 10.16). Indeed, in one of his most intriguing parables (Luke 16.1-9) he commends the ‘shrewd manager,’ urging his disciples to learn from the way the ‘children of darkness’ attend to their own interests, and saying his followers need to be as wise and committed in their working for God’s Kingdom.
This should not surprise us. To focus only on whether we ‘mean well’ is to focus entirely on ourselves. In a world where people hunger for meaning and hope (and in which increasing numbers at home as well as abroad hunger for food), the Gospel demands more than good intentions. While we can all smile at Adam Smallbone’s antics, it would be a grave mistake to become sentimental about his ineffectiveness.
As we celebrate the liturgies of Holy Week and Easter, we need to hear afresh what they have to say to us: about the vulnerability and the power of the Gospel, and about the perils of ignoring either quality. Jesus’ cross and resurrection transforms our understanding of “success” – and raises crucial questions as to where and how the church recognises and supports Kingdom growth today. The Contextual Theology Centre is currently researching the different aspects of church growth in east London. While I don’t want to pre-judge the outcome, I’m confident it will reveal a more nuanced – and much more positive – picture than the fiction featured in Rev, and indeed the Evening Standard article.
Angus Ritchie is Director of the Contextual Theology Centre in east London. On 17 June, Bishop Stephen Cottrell will give the Centre’s annual Presence and Engagement Lecture entitled “What Kind of Growth?” This is part of an ongoing research programme at CTC on faithful and effective witness in multi-faith contexts.