A Strange Review: Rev.

Olivia Colman (left) and Tom Hollander (right) stars of the BBC 2 show Rev

“Oh my Lord…” whines the vicar Adam Smallbone.

“Taking the Lord’s name?” chides his wife.

“It’s a dialogue, actually, darling.”

So begins the BBC series Rev., which debuted in 2010, has won a few awards along the way, and is coming back for a third season some time this year, made available on Hulu.com.

The Reverend Adam Smallbone has just transferred to London from a rural parish and is a little hungover from a vicarage-warming party. He’s being dragged to the church by a parishioner who’s known to be a little “off” but who insists there’s an emergency that requires his attention. Adjacent to the church is a construction site that features a disgusting gaggle of construction workers who harass the clergyman as they would any young woman, making rude and lewd gestures and poking fun at his “dress.” Scrawled on one wall of St. Saviour’s on the Marsh is a graffito that reads “Vicars luv —-.” (I will leave it to your imagination to fill in the four-letter word.)

Once inside, the vicar is greeted by a pile of broken glass: one of the more gorgeous stained-glass windows has been smashed, a bottle having been chucked through it.

Welcome to the modern urban Anglican church. In tatters.

An appeal to the archdeacon for help in repairing the window, an immediate necessity given the cold winter air, is of no avail. The senior cleric pulls up in a cab one rainy morning and bids the vicar to get in quickly because “I have this Chris Hitchens book launch.” He then informs him that there is no money to repair the window and that the insurance won’t cover it. “You will have to do some fund-raising,” he intones. “We have such high hopes for you here at St. Saviour’s since your predecessor scuttled off to Rome…”

“Yes,” replied the vicar, “that’s why I’m holding off on the incense and the word ‘Mary.'” That’s his idea of a joke.

Among the vicar’s other trials is a “cassock chaser” who’s “famous for having orgasms during sermons,” says the archdeacon, a mischievous smile splitting his face. There are other annoyances that any non-Britcom clergyman will recognize: the tendency of the few families who do make it to worship showing up mid-sermon, coffee and newspaper in hand. (When one kid’s Gameboy is confiscated, he responds with “Why are we doing this? It’s not Christmas.”) The odd cell phone going off during the prayers. The “delightful” tyke who won’t stop acting up because he’s bored. The endless demands by people who think the church is all about meeting their immediate, often worldly, needs. The constant strain to make ends meet. Etc. etc.

Speaking of the sermon, the gist of the one we’re treated to in the pilot episode is: “Here at St. Saviour’s, it is the essence of our faith that everyone is acceptable to God and therefore to each other.”

The Broad Church gospel, ladies and gentlemen. Which may provide a clue as to why the church is struggling to stay alive—but such an acknowledgement would make such a TV show wholly unacceptable to a Beeb audience.

The picture of the church in England is certainly a sad one, and it’s unclear to what extent the creators of the show are quietly mocking the utter irrelevancy of this ragged institution—with a twinge of nostalgia, no doubt, and a dollop of pity for the well-intended souls involved. Or perhaps it’s an attempt to engage viewers on a higher level, to show them that those who persevere in the good ole CofE are worthy of more respect and attention than they currently enjoy, which is roughly that of the average tax collector.

The exterior looks like John Stott’s old church, All Souls (which is but a stone’s throw from BBC headquarters), but the interior is decidedly not. As for Rev’s depiction of an Anglican vicar, it is in keeping to some extent with a stereotype, one made particularly famous by Peter Sellers in Heaven’s Above: the milquetoast, the guy who’s held in quiet contempt for platitudes and over-promising, either on behalf of God or the church itself.  The very name—Adam Smallbone—suggests what we are to make of him. But Smallbone does not quite live down to our low expectations. He does have a prayer life, in which he confesses his sins and rationalizes his choices to God. He is quite frank with the Lord about the trap he’s fallen into and wonders why he’s not doing what a proper vicar should: walk with the broken. “Why do you want me to be a fund-raiser the whole time? Why have you given me this huge crumbling building and now this broken window to deal with? It’s such a burden. . . . Speak to me, Lord. Your servant listens.”

So he is by no means naive. When a well-off businessman offers to pay for the broken window if the vicar will get his idiot son into the church school, which enjoys a reputation for helping kids with special problems, and the headmistress of said school offers to let said idiot son in if the vicar will allow her sister to marry on a date that has already been reserved by another couple, Smallbone knows he’s being played. He simply plays along, to keep all warring factions happy. “It’s a small sin for the greater good,” he tells his wife. Call it the Neville Chamberlain approach to ministry. But unlike Chamberlain,  Smallbone comes to realize before it is too late that trying to appease everyone will only result in a greater war down the road. 

Actor Tom Hollander, perhaps best known from his role in the Pirates of the Caribbean films, is suitably  pathetic and earnest as the vicar. Olivia Colman, whom you might remember from her work with Mitchell and Webb on Peep Show, plays his solicitor wife, who is both “earthy” (the language in this thing is appalling) and apparently as bored by modern Anglican spirituality as most everyone else at St. Saviour’s. 

I wanted to like Rev. You think you know how the conflict over paying for the broken window will resolve itself — with serpent-wise  finagling and one hand washing the other—but it doesn’t quite go in that direction. The vicar has a little more backbone, and spiritual life, than is discernible from his sheepish smile and bland preaching. But the lack of appeal to anything resembling truth or doctrine—to anything recognizable and uniquely Christian—even if watered down for a broad TV audience, makes the church setting almost arbitrary. This same scenario could pretty much have played itself out almost anywhere: a nonprofit dedicated to helping the homeless, for example. Instead of a prayer for guidance, I could see some do-gooder consulting an elder with years’ worth of experience fighting the powers that be for help with those who have fallen through the safety net. There is an amusing little back and forth between the vicar and his wacky parishioner regarding Richard Dawkins’s book, but again, instead of theology, the vicar has only the beauty of a snail to offer as a riposte to the New Atheist’s challenges.

“You’ve got an inner-city church with an inner-city problem,” the archdeacon tells the vicar one day. “Might I suggest you wise up and find an inner-city solution.”  Yes. Quite. I’m not completely convinced, however, that the solution isn’t demolition. Or that I’m willing to sit through another episode of Rev.

Hat tip to The Sheep Dog’s Spot blog for bringing the series to my attention. 

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