Rev is the latest in a long line of clerical sitcoms – but it’s a long way from the cosiness of the Vicar of Dibley or the surreal genius of Father Ted. It stars Tom Hollander as Revd Adam Smallbone, the vicar of an inner London parish, beset by tiny congregations, lack of funds and pressure from his superiors to turn things around quickly. The Observer had an excellent review of it at the weekend.
In this week’s episode (the second), Adam’s small congregation finds itself overwhelmed by the members of a large evangelical Anglican church whose building is undergoing refurbishment. They are led by the tanned, handsome and malevolent Darren, who quickly elbows Adam aside to replace the genteel liturgical worship with sofas, a smoothie bar and Christian rap, and then refuses to go elsewhere when Adam objects. As he tells Adam in their crucial exchange (from around 20m 30s on): “this church is ours now…”.
The episode is well worth watching while it’s on iPlayer. Rev has an excellent cast – Hollander, Olivia Colman as his wife, Simon “Fra Pavel” McBurney as the worldly, iPhone-wielding Archdeacon – and there are some genuinely funny moments (not least in the attempts by Adam and his wife to rekindle their sex life). But what I wanted to discuss in this post is the depiction of evangelical Anglicans.
Now, it’s easy to dismiss this as a crude, ugly and inaccurate stereotype. I’ve known plenty of evangelical Anglicans (I’ve been one!), and I’ve never come across a minister like Darren: arrogant, bullying, nakedly aggressive in the use of money and power. “Your pathetic, liberal acceptance of [gay people and women priests] disgust me” – I can’t hear any evangelical minister saying that to Adam’s face in that way. Nor demanding that a church member be barred and prosecuted for inappropriate behaviour. Nor (most especially) mocking Jesus’ words about forgiveness.
However, this episode still touched on a real phenomenon, which I wish it had addressed a little more subtly and intelligently: the tension within the Church of England between small, traditional, liberal parishes and large, wealthy evangelical congregations.
From the evangelical side, I can say from personal experience that there is a widespread disdain for small, traditional, liberal, struggling churches, and an unshakeable confidence that the evangelical model of worship, teaching and discipleship is the only way to turn things round. As Darren puts it in that exchange with Adam:
The church was empty, Adam. Now it’s full. Because we appeal to people – you don’t. Our God is a success – and that scares you.
Now that I can imagine many evangelical ministers saying, without malice: and many non-evangelical ministers being forced to admit they have very little answer to it beyond Adam’s distaste for a style of worship that is “more of a show than a sacrament”.
Darren could have been depicted as sincere, acting in good faith to achieve what he considered the best outcome for the gospel – and, as a consequence, unconscious of the collateral damage being caused, of the power the wealth and size of his congregation affords him, of the unconscious arrogance of believing that his success represents conclusive evidence of God’s support for his way of doing things over Adam’s.
That would have made it more successful dramatically, because Darren would have been a more complex and interesting person (just as one of the great strengths of the programme is that Adam is complex and interesting), as much a victim of the impersonal dynamics of money and power as Adam. It would also have made it less easy for evangelicals to dismiss out of hand its depiction of what their advances into new territory can look like from the other side of the fence, and of the genuine tension that exists between holding to “the deposit of faith” (including inherited forms of worship) and doing “what works”.