Rev's Christian critics miss the point: we like our religion vague
The Rev Adam Smallbone may displease fundamentalists, but he’s the perfect priest for a post-Christian nation
SERIES THREE of Rev, which came to an end last night, has coincided with a new bout of angst about religion and its position within the UK. We ought to be “more confident about our status as a Christian country,” the Prime Minister has exhorted us, and “frankly more evangelical”.
By contrast, the Reverend Adam Smallbone, who commands a dwindling congregation in his fictional East End church (and a much larger one on BBC2), has barely the confidence to maintain his own faith.
To Christian critics of the programme, it’s another sign of godlessness at the BBC.
“Rev is an outsider's imaginative construction,” argues James Mumford in The Guardian, “a secular take on the sacred… In imposing its own outsider viewpoint, Rev defies the deepest ideal of a liberal, pluralistic society. In Rev the devout do not speak for themselves and therefore are not permitted to sit at the high table of our national media.”
He proposes a corrective plot line for a future episode. A woman would be hit by a car, sustaining spinal injuries. The reverend would then proceed to cure her through the power of prayer, and she would celebrate the miracle by running down the aisle of the church.
This proposal gets to the heart of the issue, though perhaps not the one the writer intends. His clumsy, didactic trick would turn away many viewers – and not only the atheists and agnostics, but also many Christians or sort-of-Christians who nonetheless have doubts about the healing powers of vicars.
The result would be a scene that invited the audience to laugh at the idea of taking faith seriously. Rev would never do that.
In fact, the programme’s writers approach faith with great seriousness, even in the midst of their irreverence. In the second episode, Adam is asked to marry two friends of his wife, both of whom happen to be men. Caught between his own liberal instincts and the strictures of Church law, he carries out first an awkwardly truncated blessing and then, behind closed doors, something much closer to the real deal.
The writers’ sympathies are clearly with the gay couple and those Christians who want to see them married, but the mood of the humour is not anti-clerical. There is not even any suggestion that the Church’s stance results from homophobia.
Adam knows that its rules are all that stand between unity and schism in the conflict between two sincerely held religious positions: that of the couple, who believe their union will be stronger if it is blessed, and that of the Church authorities, who believe that the Anglican communion will split if it blesses such a union.
Adam’s attempts to reconcile these positions lead him into farce, but we laugh with him at the absurdity of the situation. His faith is neither questioned nor mocked, and when he speaks to God, it is up to us to decide whether he is heard.
In the end, even the archdeacon sides with Adam. The gay couple believe themselves married and the Church authorities believe that no marriage took place. The sum of human joy is increased, thanks to a large helping of the finest Anglican fudge.
Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, said on Sunday that Britain is a “post-Christian nation”, shaped by a religion that most of us no longer believe.
The Reverend Adam Smallbone is a product of that nation. With his warmth and willingness to explore his own doubts, he appeals to people of all faiths and none – and does more for the reputation of the Church than any number of crippled women turning cartwheels in the aisle.
The complete third series of Rev is available on BBC iPlayer