Singing priest wows Simon Cowell – what does the public reaction tell us?

They only allow two types of performers to make the broadcast edits of TV talent shows. A team of lower-rung production staff are asked to screen out all the middle-of-the-road wannabes, so that they never even find themselves in front of the famous celebrity panel; the few which are granted that precious TV airtime are either very, virally good, or memorably, shareably awful. So when dog-collared singer Fr Ray Kelly took to the stage on this weekend's edition of Britain's Got Talent, Christians everywhere held their breath. Would he be there for pure musical entertainment, or for public ridicule? Would he have the voice of an angel, or all the singing ability of Balaam's donkey?

YouTube / ScreenshotFr Ray Kelly on Britain's Got Talent.

Thankfully, it turned out to be the former. Fr Kelly enraptured, surprised and delighted the show's packed audition theatre – and millions of television viewers -– with an extraordinary rendition of REM's 'Everybody Hurts'. The priest, who reportedly got a standing ovation from his Co Meath congregation on Sunday morning after his episode aired, produced a beautifully controlled and emotional performance which briefly reduced the auditorium to silence before head judge Simon Cowell rose to his feet to lead the applause. As one of four 'yeses' on the panel, Cowell told him 'this is one of my favourite ever auditions... this is everything we've been waiting for'.

The unequivocally positive reaction to Fr Kelly might feel somewhat surprising, given some of the narratives around clergy and particularly the Catholic church. Those who have warned that we're in a period of Christian persecution would probably imagine that a singing priest in his 60s would be regarded with at least some suspicion, rather than welcomed with open arms by people of all faiths and none. In fact, Fr Kelly's announcement on the show that 'I'm a Parish Priest in Ireland' was met with a huge cheer and round of applause.

The performance was so popular with viewers that it has already been shared (at time of writing) almost a million times on YouTube, but in fact that figure is nothing to Fr Kelly. This is not his first brush with viral fame; in 2014 a video of him surprising a church full of wedding guests with a specially altered rendition of Leonard Cohen's 'Hallelujah' has been viewed on the video sharing site over 60 million times. It's the most widely-loved example of priestly singing since 'My Lovely Horse'.

So what does all this tell us about the reality of how clergy are publicly perceived? Rather than being feared or derided, perhaps they're viewed with more openness and warmth than we might have been led to believe. A vicar friend told me recently that if she is in a hurry when in public she has to zip up her coat to hide the dog collar, otherwise she'll invariably be stopped for a chat, and usually not by a Christian. Perhaps the erosion of the average person's relationship with religious institutions has actually meant they've become regarded with affection, rather than suspicion.

For a while some loud voices have been suggesting that the church has become marginalised and disliked. Let's be clear, the scandal of abuse within the church is abhorrent and should come with consequences for the whole body. But perhaps people are more nuanced that we give them credit for, and are able to hold the evils perpetrated by those within the church in tension with the overwhelming good done by most Christians and church leaders. So when one of them hits the public eye, perhaps we shouldn't be surprised if they're granted the benefit of the doubt that they sit within the latter camp.

If his audition is anything to go by, the public's new-found love affair with Fr Ray Kelly is only just beginning. And perhaps those of us within the church are also allowed to get just a little bit excited about the positive influence he might have, not only in repairing the public image of priests, but also in providing viewers with a bit of positive Christian input. As he finished his BGT audition, he chose to re-state the final line – 'you're not alone' – very deliberately and meaningfully. Perhaps in some small way, he'll help the millions watching on TV and YouTube to consider such a thought.

Martin Saunders is a contributing editor for Christian Today and the deputy CEO of Youthscape. Follow him on Twitter @martinsaunders

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