The hero of the BBC’s religious sitcom is likeable but ineffectual. Christians have to fight harder for their faith
A few years ago David Cameron’s faith was very, well, Church of England-ish. It was, he said, a bit like the reception for Magic FM in the Chilterns: “It sort of comes and goes.” More recently the signal seems to have become stronger. Last week, at an Easter reception for Christian leaders, he described Jesus Christ as “our Saviour”. He said that his moments of greatest peace came when he attended church.
He seems to be on a journey. Perhaps the burdens of office have changed him? Perhaps it was the tragic death of his son Ivan five years ago? In the latest edition of Church Times he notes how he has “felt at first hand the healing power of the Church’s pastoral care”.
What the prime minister definitely is, in modern Britain, is atypical. Although the decline in church-going has slowed, and perhaps even halted, the numbers attending an Anglican church this weekend — the most important in the Christian calendar — will be only about 1.3 million. Britain is one of the most secular countries in the most secular of continents. If Mr Cameron shares the peace with his fellow congregants on Easter Sunday it may well remind him of the Conservative party’s members. There’ll be an awful lot of grey hair, walking sticks and adjustment of hearing aids.
If only 1.3 million Brits attend the national Church this Easter then about twice as many tune into the warmest TV portrayal of a Christian minister for years — at least since The Simpsons’ Ned Flanders (once described as “the United States’ most well-known evangelical”). The BBC’s Rev,currently in its third series, is winning plaudits from believers and non-believers alike. For those of you who haven’t seen it, the Rev Adam Smallbone, brilliantly played by Tom Hollander, is a kind man coping in the extraordinarily difficult circumstances of a deprived inner city parish. Like many vicars, he earns only about £20,000 — much less than his qualifications would command in other walks of life. He usually works extraordinary hours, often thanklessly.
Although the first series of Rev fell into the default mode of modern TV drama, nastily portraying evangelical Christians as hypocritical, uncompromising and even corrupt, Smallbone himself is always trying to do what he thinks is the right thing. He visits the poor, honours gay members of his congregation and works with the local mosque. He’s also funny and clever. You’d want him as a neighbour or presiding over your loved ones’ hatches, matches and dispatches.
Most of all, he’s honest. He doesn’t hide his struggles with faith and his relationship with God consequently appears more real. Christians often seem afraid to admit doubts and weaknesses but the Psalmists in the Bible never did. Eugene H Peterson’s modern translation of verses 9 and 10 of Psalm 42 could have been written for Rev: “Sometimes I ask God,/my rock-solid God,/‘Why did you let me down?/ Why am I walking around in tears,/ harassed by enemies?’/ They’re out for the kill, these/ tormentors with their obscenities,/Taunting day after day,/ ‘Where is this God of yours?’ ”
In the Psalms and Rev there is a compelling intermingling of faith in God with near soul-destroying exasperation from his followers at what they sometimes have to go through.
But, overall, I can’t really join the plaudits for the show — because ultimately Smallbone is losing. And losing without much evidence of a fight. His church is nearly empty. The nearby mosque raises £12,000 overnight to restore a local playground where, despite great efforts, he can raise only 38p. He is pusillanimous in the face of church bureaucrats who speak like the bureaucrats in the BBC’s other hit comedy of the moment, W1A. Smallbone doesn’t represent the Church militant — determined to prevail against the gates of hell. He has the meekness of Jesus but not the Jesus of Matthew 21:12 — who loved enough to be actively angry when he encountered injustice. The Jesus who kicked over the tables of the money lenders in the temple.
And so this is my challenge to the Church. Most institutions measure themselves in terms of popularity — via opinion polls, number of customers, financial power. Those can’t be irrelevant to the Church. Without some popularity it won’t build support for laws that maintain religious freedom. It won’t have money to fund good works. But popularity can’t be the decisive measure. Jesus may have founded the biggest movement in history but he didn’t win much popularity during his time on earth. Days after he and his donkey were welcomed by crowds into Jerusalem he was betrayed or denied by his closest disciples. He ended up crucified.
Today’s Church should not seek unpopularity but it should worry about the indifference that the real life equivalents of the Rev Adam Smallbone produce. The Westboro Baptist Church in Kansas and other hate-filled perversions of the gospel represent the very worst manifestation of the Church. Yet to be liked but ignored, like Rev, is far from ideal.
I recommend a bit of table overturning, but where to start? I suspect many churchgoers would choose the boardrooms of big City institutions. Some would even nominate the Church of England’s General Synod. But where would Jesus go? The blood-soaked halls of the Kremlin? The useless talking shops of the United Nations? The world’s abortion clinics? Or somewhere closer to home? He might visit the golf and social clubs or pubs where modern Britain relaxes — while elderly relatives sit at home, lonely and neglected. If Jesus did return today, he’d be busy and more than a little angry. His modern-day disciples should be too.