Adam Smallbone, the new BBC Rev., is engaging, with real spiritual depth. At last the BBC has moved beyond The Vicar of Dibley. She engaged millions with woolly jumpers and chocolate silliness, with a good humoured take on life, the Universe and everything. Rev. is engaging in a very different way, much closer to where many urban vicars are, in fact.
People talk of the Church of England as an institution, forgetting it isn’t anything of the sort — just a ragbag of around 20,000 trusts and bodies, loosely aligned, that has evolved over the past 1600 years. Its ties bind in all kinds of intriguing elasticated ways. Describing life in such a place is no light task.
It’s easy for any outsider to critique the detail of any TV depiction of anything. Years ago the BBC broadcast Sergeant Musgrave’s Dance. Next Day a retired military gentleman complained that “the Buffs in fact had seven buttons down their tunics not nine as portrayed by the BBC last night.” As any ful kno. This kind of complaint is rarely as clever as it seems to the person who makes it. We all know that few Archdeacons cruise round London in Taxis wearing Gestapo surplus leather gloves, but that’s not the point. The point is that’s how it feels.
On a personal and emotional level, Rev: is remarkably sure-footed. It brings back vividly for me memories of ten years’ urban ministry — trying to be a Christian and pray, feeling rather bemused often, filling the diary, trying to love people in the face of my own inadequacy, the size of the task, and the vagaries of human nature. Rev: has a clutch of improbable vicarage characters I could match almost name for name, as, I suspect, could anyone who’s ever been an urban vicar for any reasonable length of time.
For all its tendency to self-parody and caricature, I like Rev. It’s a noble enterprise. Those who wrote it know whereof they speak. Adam sits in his Church trying to pray the office, wishing God would bloody do something, but secretly suspecting he won’t until his unworthy servant has made it through the next funeral. It’s a ministry that resents all the distractions, until it realises that the ministry is the distractions.
There’s holiness in the unglamorous, haphazard, but profoundly kind and patient way C of E vicars do urban ministry, even in some of the crazier characters vicars encounter. It’s highly implicit, always understated, rarely obvious. Light very occasionally streams in serendipitously, but the grind is always there. You just have to pray for people, and try to help them make the best of themselves, and never give up.
There is, actually, courage, resilience, faith and even holiness wrapped up far more than thousands of urban vicars will ever know in their ministries. It deserves more understanding and respect than it sometimes gets, and this show does acknowledge its reality and worth. For all Rev:’s occasional TV simplification, full marks to writers, cast and crew for trying to capture it, and occasionally succeeding.
PS: I studied in Shoreditch thirty years ago. St Leonard’s was an amazing place, and it’s good of the telly people to give the old dump its own TV show.