“Rev” should provoke us to think as well as laugh

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.

12 thoughts on ““Rev” should provoke us to think as well as laugh”

  1. The end of the series cut it quite fine in the rather compulsive recovery of his vocation contrasting with his ‘transferable skills’ and around what is important. The recovery was also the small band of supporters themselves realising that the man had to restore his role with them circling around it. It may have missed something in, say, the church being redeveloped into some commercial property with a worship space that became a solved and sustainable resource for such a community. It’s probably a good idea to stop, but if there is more it would have to be with all that restored and renewed and a different set of issues addressed. Otherwise use of concepts like ‘self-giving’, ‘crucifixion into resurrection’ etc. will have to be with the likes of Dr Who when it is better written (thinking of the better episodes and climaxes involving the last three doctors).

  2. Does it matter that this is fiction? No not really – a fiction from a theological perspective would be a pretty good description of most of Jesus teaching in parables – did anybody ask if there really was a king who had three stewards and who gave 10 talents to the first …? (Perhaps more significant to ask if it is representative?)
    More importantly is the underlying assumptions about success and effectiveness. We follow Jesus who sat losely to numbers – yes he had crowds, but he lost them too and that did not stop he walking to the cross and teld his followers to do the same. Yes I am a parish priest who compares this year’s registers with last, sometimes I smile and sometimes I don’t. But am I willing to take up the cross and tell the conregation to do the same? Would I chase after the ‘rich young man’ and say … “come on don’t take it all too seriously – you’ll see in time!” – or would I love him and let him go … that’s a hard one – would I be willing to be ‘ineffective’?
    But can we leave Masroor’s criticism unchallenged? His ‘clarity’ sounds like the perfect position paper for the Judaisers of Galatia. They certainly had clarity. We believe in a gospel of grace and forgiveness where the bigest sins (and obsticles to forgiveness) ore being unforgiving – we pray in that line every day in the Lord’s Prayer. Yes we do say ‘sin no more’ but only quietly and after we have stood alongside the woman being stoned. Rather confusing if you are looking for Masroor’s clarity – but I guess it is the sort of confusing line that Adam is faithfully trying to follow.

    It has been a fantastic and thought provoking series but I hope they have the wisdom to stop it before it degenerates as other great comedy series have.

  3. So let’s have a little investigation or game of our own… Did you get all the references (episode 5)? We had the tramp deny him with the cock crowing in the burglar alarm. Obviously he carried a cross, but after he fell (one of the stages…) and banged his head, producing his crown of thorns, the characters from the church were in the street starting with Ellie, the punk Archdeacon and including the tramp in the butchers, and of course he took the cross up a hill, and the chap was so obviously Jesus in the shellsuit talking in sort of parables but also disappears as the Rev. gets who he is, and then we have the Rev. back with the bishop who sees his round rusk but shares the Rev.s chocolate with a good snap, but then as the Rev. says he wants out the bishop washes his hands and finally the church closes like a tomb with three knocks at the end. Now go to the iPlayer and see if I’ve missed any references. I missed most of them when I saw it on TV. The wife is just about Mary Magdalene because she had it out with him last time and knows the truth, and is supportative but puzzled. Presumably the more next week for the final programme is the resurrection bit. Perhaps he joins a suburban success church – I doubt that – or goes independent and becomes a wandering bishop, and I doubt that too, or even a househusband to his working wife.

  4. All comedies have a life span and should know when to pack up. This one is slowly using up its characters and will eventually have to stop. Already we have characters that have had to change because in the first series the archdeacon was ‘found out’ and the church warden was himself frustrated in his misterial ambitions and tried to bully the archdeacon – so the latter is now compromised and the former can only go on criticising the boss as being less effective than he would be, with the chance to prove himself gone. These are all human traits of comparison, contrast and competition in close situations. The headteacher smouldered in the last series, but what can come back is another curate that is also far better well-read and full of strategies than the in-post weary incumbent. She was so fantastic she didn’t last but there is a chance for another who could also be more effective and short-lasting.

    It’s a comedy of small initiatives and small gains but significance in people’s lives.

    It’s from the inside in this sense, not by trying to observe some biblicist agenda. If it was a product of some evangelical satellite station it would no doubt be success, success and success all the way, with multimedia man and wife ministry, until perhaps the final episode when the the authoritarian-speaking husband gets discovered sleeping with his boyfriend and the wife enjoying the collection tray. And I doubt they’d have such an ending.

  5. I’ve greatly enjoyed both Angus Ritchie’s wonderful article and the thoughtful responses in this thread– and I’ve never seen the show.

    Adrian’s comment reminds us that excellent ‘qualitative’ accounts of ministry-in-context can, among other things, show us what kinds of ‘quantitative’ data are worth gathering in the first place, and what they might actually show us beyond aggregate trends up and down. Yes, they are somewhat entangled with ‘knowledge interests’ and ‘values,’ but for just that reason they can challenge constructs that no longer fit the reality on the ground. David’s eloquent advocacy of the right hemisphere elsewhere would here support the clarifying use of narrative. Meanwhile, absent self-aware and methodical ‘thick descriptions,’ well-realised fictions like ‘Rev,’ and presumably Adrian’s own project, are indispensable.

    I wish we had a show like ‘Rev’ on this side of the pond.

    • Angus – thank you for the continued debate. And you are clearly right to set 1Cor1 in its own hermeneutical context and your point about the sentimentalising of vulnerability is very perceptive. (I have written that one down for future use – duly attributed of course). However to argue that Rev is a misreading of 1Cor only works if the writers claimed this as their theological basis in the first place doesn’t it? For all that I do still wonder just how publically compelling a church that is sheep among wolves, common clay pots, weak and foolish to shame the wise etc can ever look in the midst of a society. There is something in these vocational descriptions that is surely intended to subvert cultural norms of power, status, impressiveness and credibility.There can be a certain attempt to be compelling to the world that is itself corrupting. I don’t see any way round it.But i am not claiming this is their theological rationale either.

      Looking back over the comments on this thread and discussions on Facebook it does seem to me that we are all responding in different ways to different aspects and issues at different levels to this series. It is certainly touching a church and particularly its clergy in a very personal and vulnerable way. I felt all my own rawest dilemmas watching the brilliant episode on gay marriage. It was painfully funny. There is a deep hunger in a beleaguered church to be presented in a credible way to the watching world. Vicar of Dibley never even tried. When writer and Tom H appeared at Greenbelt two years ago the venue was packed – esp. with clergy – and the respect expressed for them and their ministry was deep and genuine. I still trust that is the intention though I can see the characters are all evolving and hope the need for an entertaining story does not corrupt a certain innocence of original intent. I fear it will in the end however – precisely the kind of trend that 1Cor texts like 1Cor warn us to resist perhaps?

  6. Many thanks for all of these comments!

    Pluralist – I should make clear that this piece was written before the latest episode. What you call “quantitative outlooks” do matter, but are not everything – for each bit of that “quantity” is real person whom the church is called to reach.

    Ken – A fair point, which comes from me trying to pack too much into one phrase. To expand a bit , I think the parable of the shrewd manager and others (most obviously, the parable of the talents) also show Jesus encouraging his disciples to be as intentional about how their resources are used for the Kingdom as the “children of this world” are intentional about the use of theirs.

    John – I agree with your point about networks and indeed numbers – but there are parishes which are already reaching out well in which a sudden demographic change will mean good outreach goes hand in hand with numerical decline. I guard against a straight “read-off” from numbers to effectiveness.

    Adam – Amen!

    David – Thanks so much for highlighting 1 Cor 1.25-28. It was very much in my mind as I was writing this piece. It seems clear from St Paul’s own ministry and impact that what means by “God’s foolishness” and his “weakness” is not the kind of ineffectiveness which (I feel) Rev sentimentalises. I too enjoy it as comedy, but I think comedies can have agendas, and at the heart of my critique of Rev is the conviction that it embodies a misreading of 1 Cor 1.25-28.

  7. Thank you for the article Angus.
    I love the program. (though like others I found the last episode weak as drama).
    He does not make me sad. I am among those clergy feeling the dilemma over honouring gay partnerships and obedience to the church. Nor are clergy are immune to sexual temptation sometimes simply through exhaustion and loneliness.
    This is a comedy not a character reference, theatre not documentary.

    The character of Adam Smallbone is found in the long honourable religious and dramatic tradition of the ‘fool’. As such he is a sign of contradiction. His vulnerabilities are ours. In his very weakness and clumsiness he is all our dilemmas, larger than life. That’s what fools are for.

    So if I was to choose a biblical text for Adam and for this discussion Angus, it would be ….

    ‘God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength. Consider your own call … not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are. 1Cor 1.25-28

    So I feel Adam would be quite at home there.

  8. This is a spot-on article by Angus. As one who ministers in East London and has felt the critique of the Rev satire I applaud the show but also this reminder of it as a work of fiction with its own agenda. ‘To focus only on whether we ‘mean well’ is to focus entirely on ourselves’ is quite right and where a diet of insider introspection can lead us to cast ourselves as saviour. The Kingdom of God does grow, is growing and sometimes its effectiveness is visible – a mustard seed to a tree – although its leader confounds stereotypes – a suffering servant. There are many thousands who live and die in East London without tasting even a morsel of the banquet. ‘Effectiveness’ will certainly confound our categories but it will also surely be visible in the growth and life of people around God’s table.

  9. Thanks for an excellent article, Angus. Though the programme provokes a wry smile at times, Adam not only appears to be ineffective, he does indeed turn out to be ineffective in the end most of the time. Of course your view of that depends on your ecclesiology and what you think effectiveness is. The fact that (in carrying out the gay “wedding”) he broke his vow of obedience to his bishop and blatantly disregarded the rule of the church at the bidding of his non-Christian wife and friends made me desperately sad. I wonder why anyone would think “the fiction is good because it’s written from the inside” when the writer James Wood makes no claim to attend church or believe in Christ. There is real insight in the script, but it is also too obviously agenda-driven and telling only a part of the story.

    The only quibble I have with your article is the suggestion that “in some parishes, changing demography may well make numerical growth unrealistic…” Having served as vicar in a parish that was 75% Muslim, my view is that even with 7,500 Muslims in the parish, that left me with 2,500 others, many of whom tick the “Christian” box on the census form. I would hope to reach some of them. Additionally, people belong in networks, not parishes, so if your folk are inviting others, growth can happen anywhere. And finally, your excellent comment that in these parishes we can still bear “powerful witness to the Kingdom of God” challenges us to hope and pray that our neighbours who are currently committed to other faiths will find in Jesus the light they have always sought.

  10. There are many good points here, but let’s nail that parable of the shrewd manager one.

    To make it less intriguing I always ask three questions:

    1. If we follow Jesus’ “advice”, who will receive us into an eternal home?

    2. Where will that eternal home be?

    3. Do I want to go there?

    I think that makes the context much clearer (and less intriguing).

  11. You seem to have missed the point. Despite his plain situation and obvious ineffectiveness, he often turns out to be effective in the end. So regarding the gay friends who wanted a wedding, he took so much flak when he obeyed the rules that he may as well have given them an actual wedding – so he locked the doors and did precisely that, not to the crowd but to a few. The Muslims might have raised the money and got the playground done, but who asked for it to be done – why hadn’t they done it before? He blew away the artist’s money (but again made the connections) – and this is I hope because they develop his guilt and might advance the affair with the headteacher he’s always fancied. The wife’s distrust of all things church, leading to the long delayed baptism, isn’t exactly untypical. The fiction is good because it is written from the inside. Evangelicals with their quantitative outlooks won’t like it but Smallbone’s successes come in small but worthy measures. The gay Archdeacon has had to be mellowed since he was accidentally ‘outed’ but he now has “Ben and Jerry” breathing down his as well as the church’s, but he retains his dry observant and ‘oh what’s next’ wit.

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