I shudder to think how many blog posts and opinion columns have been written about Rev, the BBC award-winning comedy about the vicar of a struggling inner city church. Mea maxima culpa; this is my second (I wrote this a while ago). It's brought out the inner telly critic in many of us, for the same reason that it has been pre-sold to 141 countries and won a clutch of awards; because it's such compelling watching.
But why is that? James Mumford, in an opinion piece for the Guardian, suggests that its near-universal appeal belies its secularist heart, that the agenda for its plotlines are defined by a-christian 'outsider' scriptwriters who impose a-christian responses upon 'insider' characters who are meant to embody Christianity, that the out-of-tune singing of the show's small, rag-tag congregation sounds the death-knell of religion in the western world.
I'm not convinced. I'm not convinced, tempting though the classic dichotomy of 'insiders' and 'outsiders' is, both in religion and in literary theory; Mumford's article is a prime example of assuming that the construct of emic and etic readings is aptly applied to any given text; in this case, a television show. In short, emic understandings, responses or interpretations are those emerging from within the tradition represented in any given text, whereas etic readings are those of outsiders. This socio-literary construct has been undeniably helpful in picking a scholarly path through ancient writings, including those of the Bible; however, for the modern-day Church of England, I'm not so sure that it can be applied without so many disclaimers that an emic/etic dichotomy becomes such a fuzzy line that it seems at points to disappear altogether. In other words, it's almost impossible to tell who's in and who's out. Of course, there are some people, like myself, an ordained priest, who are obviously 'in', and there are others who, by all accounts, are firmly 'out'. Even there though, at what seems like the opposite end of the faith spectrum, you have to be careful; resolute atheists still have church funerals, as I know from experience, and even Richard Dawkins, bless him, has a fondness for Anglicanism. As someone who lives in England, well he might, because the basic requirement and raison d'etre of the Church of England is that it is a church for the people of England, and anyone living anywhere in England has as much right of access to its services and care as any other, regardless of whether they are on the flower rota and the Giving Action Group, and come to church three times a week, or whether they wander in off the streets one day when it's raining. For me, this is one of the wonderful things about the Church of England, its refusal to decide who is in and who is out. Whether we jump with both feet right into the deep end of PCC and Deanery Synod, or stand around the edges looking nervously and wondering how cold it might be in there, we are all equally entitled to the enormous, municipal swimming pool that is the Church of England.
It's not just that, though; I'm not convinced by Mumford's argument because I suspect that his own perception of the creeping influence of secularisation conditions him to interpret the show in one particular way (as a good Anglican, far be it from me to say whether his reading is an emic or an etic one), so that he misses the real appeal of the show. I believe it to this: the literary trope of the heroic individual who fights for right in the face of a corrupt and heartless regime. It is the story of David and Goliath. Another David, David Mitchell, tells it in a succession of brilliantly interweaving plots in Cloud Atlas. In a more obviously religious context, it is the dramatic force of the 1986 movie The Mission, voted by Church Times readers in 2007 as the best religious movie made. At one, very profound level, it is the story of Christ on the cross.
And yes, it's the story of Adam Smallbone, that everyman who, despite adversities on every side, manages to keep integrity, respect and true reverence as the virtues which sustain him (swearing outbursts notwithstanding). His prayers are real. His faith is real. His love for his wife and child is real. It is this reality that makes him the priest in whom people really believe. The subtle message of 'Rev', to me at least, is that we don't believe that faceless, heartless bureaucracies can save the world, but a bumbling, trying-to-hold-on-just-about vicar of true heart might just. We know that management-slick and pseudo-professionalism is nothing but insubstantial froth; we've the politics of spin-doctors to thank for that particular insight. But we hope, hope, hope, in the least articulated echo chambers of our heart, that there might be something real in this world of falsity, and we might not be surprised if reality turns out to be the Beatitudes, mumbled as a mantra by a sweating vicar with a duvet around his ears. And this reality, this rock-bottomness, is the antidote to the regime, the rage against the machine, the burning and raving at close of day, that is the real struggle for the soul of our age.
We know, somewhere buried very deep within, that the besetting sin of our generation is superficiality. We need stories that hint to us, however obliquely, that we can fight it, that give us hope, however vague. But what we really need are stories of the struggle against superficiality not only without, in the form of church commissioners and the pantomime-villain archdeacon, but within, in the form of anxieties and temptations. We need the literary trope of the individual's fight for right to go to the very deepest parts of who we are. So we watch as Adam smashes up the sculpture and confesses his fateful kiss to his wife. We need someone to do that for us, because somehow, that's our story, too.
If I didn't know better, I'd say there's something almost priestly about 'Rev' in its representation of our true selves and their true struggles.