Revving up

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”.

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7 Responses to Revving up

  1. Paul Huxley says:

    Virtually exactly what I was at some point, intending to blog on the subject. Never met an evangelical leader with a character anything close to that. I’ve seen church services like that, mind…

    Would have been better if it had concentrated on the tension between Adam’s understanding of church and the ‘success’ of Darren’s, Adam resenting Darren’s success.

    Many of the other characters have been all too familiar though.

  2. Interesting observations. I have really enjoyed Rev. so far. There’s something touchingly (or alarmingly) familiar about small, struggling congregations…

    It’s interesting to me that a BBC sitcom deliberately leads one to be sympathetic with the traditional, in many ways less worldly Adam, than the more ‘relevant’ and outwardly appealing Darren. What does that say to the seeker-driven approach, I wonder.

    Agreed that Darren is horribly hammed up (though quite funny as a result). But would the general churchless public get the more subtle nuances which you and I would both find more satisfying?

  3. John H says:

    Paul:

    Many of the other characters have been all too familiar though.

    I know what you mean, but I’m willing to give the writer time to go beyond the superficial with the “minor” characters. Example: the Archdeacon, who I’d initially dismissed as just Bishop Brennan Mark II (though beautifully played by Simon McBurney), but who at the end of episode 2 proved to have another, more human/pastoral dimension to him.

    Tapani: I get the impression that many non-church people saw Darren as confirming all their worst expectations about evangelicals, rather than recognising him as a comic exaggeration. (I’m not altogether sure the writer is all that clear on the distinction, though.)

    As for the sympathy with Adam: more cynically I would say that part of why Adam is treated sympathetically is because he is so ineffectual and therefore unthreatening. Darren’s arrogant challenge – “Our God is a success – and that scares you” – could equally well be directed to the programme makers…

  4. Paul Huxley says:

    I meant familiar in the sense that I’ve met them in real life. Although the show is hyper-real, it is the ‘the thick of it’ of vicar shows.

    I agree about the Archdeacon, who is currently my favourite character.

    The curate is a slight oddity, in that a congregation of that size would be unlikely to have a curate.

    One other good element of the series is Adam’s prayers, which must be hard to pitch right, but they seem genuine and fit in the show well.

  5. John H says:

    Ah! Thanks for clarifying re “familiar”. “The ‘The Thick of It’ of vicar shows” – love it!

    I think Nigel is actually a lay reader. But that doesn’t quite hang together either – why is he then working with Adam during the week? Perhaps (to get into full-on Anglican nerdery) he should be a non-stip or an LOM or something…

    Agree re both the Archdeacon and Adam’s prayers.

  6. Phil Walker says:

    I watched the show. It does feel very much like what a liberal who has heard of us but hasn’t spent much time among us might perceive evangelicals to be like. (I note that they have an advisory team of vicars: I wonder what the breakdown in terms of churchmanship looks like. My fear is that it is rather one-sided, which may not be a problem for the ‘what’s it like vicaring a small, inner-city church?’ questions, but rather dubious for wider issues like this one.) The in-jokes about evangelicalism are there — conferences at Butlins, for example, or sofas and smoothies, although the latter is specific to a particular type of evangelical at that — but as you say, there’s not a lot of subtlety to the analysis.

    However, if you allow that it’s not very subtle, then actually it can be a more useful perspective for evangelicals: this is something akin to what a group of liberal vicars will think and say of their evangelical colleagues when they’re not in the same room. And before we (which is to say evangelicals, whether Anglican or not) leap to defend ourselves, we should examine ourselves, because goodness knows even if the fruit isn’t there to be criticised, the seeds go wherever we do. And if sin is as serious as we say it is, then we should be as violent with the seeds as with the fruit.

    The Archdeacon is brilliant. And he’s such a very arch deacon, too: ‘Did you experience Jesus?’ ‘Oh yes, several times.’

  7. Chris E says:

    I get the impression that many non-church people saw Darren as confirming all their worst expectations about evangelicals, rather than recognising him as a comic exaggeration. (I’m not altogether sure the writer is all that clear on the distinction, though.)

    I suspect they simply took the business-speak spouted by some evangelicals and then extrapolated it using the trends from the world it originates in. David Brent as Church leader as it were, or a combination of the average church leader and Sir Fred Goodwin. I’m sure this sort of behaviour is not far from the norm in large mega-church circles (see “Hoover Street Revival” or the various scandals to hit large congregations around London).

    I am guessing that they had to have consulted someone with a reasonably strong church background -who had liberal tendancies and thus saw evangelicals as baby eaters.

    The serious point in all this is that it does tend to underline how hollow talk of “Hate the Sin, love the Sinner” must sound.

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