Rev is well made, well acted, perceptive and humorous (this latter point is somewhat essential for a comedy). The BBC have a hit on their hands and there are those in the Church who are delighted. Unbelievers like its quirkiness and its confirmation that the Church, especially the Church of England, is in decline, attracting only losers and eccentrics. Some Christians think it is wonderful, portraying the church as 'human'. And as James Mumford points out in his brilliant Guardian review, vicars think that with a million plus viewers per episode there is no such thing as bad publicity.
Bill Allen of the Christian Resources Exhibition stated: "Adam Smallbone's struggle with a lack of resources, human and financial, mirrors the situation of thousands of visitors to our national exhibition where we show what can be done, even on tight budgets." And apparently a survey showed that 48 per cent of professing Christians would attend a church led by Rev Adam Smallbone.
I'm a vicar – or at least a clergyman – in an inner city charge. I accept that there are of course differences between being the vicar of a declining church of England in central London, and being a Presbyterian minister in a thriving church in the metropolis of Dundee! But there are also a great deal of similarities. Not least in how we as the church impact an increasingly secular society. So forgive me for pointing out a few lessons that we can learn from Rev.
I hated the programme. Firstly because it was far too close to the bone of what much of the church in Britain actually is. A church without God, without Christ and without the Holy Spirit. A kind of 'spiritual' club for the dysfunctional, the hypocritical and the eccentric. Rev does succeed in portraying some realistic aspects of human life, and of inner city Anglican church life, but it is all done through the lens of the liberal middle class elites. Thus in the episode on gay marriage you just knew that the nice Rev would of course want to marry the lovely gay couple, but would have to wrestle against a hypocritical, inhumane and out-dated church tradition. There was no attempt at all to portray the real struggles and the real issues that are involved in this debate.
If God did not exist then Rev would make perfect sense, and the church would be just as it is portrayed in this fantasy. I once debated with the founders of the Atheist Church movement and I pointed out that they were too late. The sad thing is that so many churches in Britain are already atheist churches, as defined by Rev. If the Holy Spirit were removed from the church in the UK today I suspect that 90 per cent of what we do would carry on as if nothing had happened!
Secondly the portrayal of the role of the clergyman is dreadful. I would resign immediately if my role was as pathetic and useless as Adam Smallbones. He is like some kind of spiritual social worker, fundraiser and mini-CEO. There was nothing about teaching the Word of God, leading God's people in public worship (rather than the perfunctory recitation of a few rituals) and absolutely no room for the supernatural. If you want a day in the life of a 'vicar' then let me share one – today. A visit to a widow, three hours studying and delighting in the Word of God preparing for Sunday, arranging the praise band for Sunday, meeting with the Christians Against Poverty reps, writing a letter to a newspaper defending the church against the assaults of the secularists, and, in a couple of hours, off to Edinburgh for a Presbytery meeting. And I must not forget writing a Christian Today column!
Tomorrow there will be a prayer meeting, letters to answer (including one asking about the difference between communion and the mass), e-mails, reading, pastoral visitation and doubtless a series of crises, phone calls and more bible study. It's never ending, but its never dead, dull nor fruitless.
And therein lies another problem. Why is it that every BBC sitcom that features the church has to feature a dying church? Yes we know there are plenty – but there are also plenty that are growing. People are being 'ransomed, healed, restored, and forgiven'. There are churches where there is great bible teaching, heartfelt praise and spiritual renewal occurring. In London the church is actually growing because of the evangelical churches. Would the BBC ever dare to portray that?
It is beyond depressing that 48 per cent of those Christians surveyed would be happy with the fictional Rev Adam as their pastor. Nothing more illustrates the fantasy world that so much of the church is stuck in. This is a man who in the last episode, having resigned his charge, was looking forward to having Sundays off – "On Sunday I have absolutely nothing to do". Do you really want to be pastored by a man who is only there because it is his job? Did Jesus not have something to say about the contrast between the 'hireling' and the real shepherd?
The Church does not need to be shown what can be done on a tight budget. One suspects that the apostles were not too concerned about the budgetary implications of Pentecost. What we need more than anything else is the presence of the Lord, the proclamation of the Gospel, the power of the Spirit and to stop playing at fantasy churches in a non-existent Christendom.
We are not pathetic victims, huddling together whilst the storms of 'progressive' secularism consign us to the dustbin of history. We are the people of God. Called, chosen and precious. And we have a great task given to us. To proclaim the Good News of Jesus to a people who are spiritually starving and in desperate need of it.
The BBC (and apparently some professing Christians) might like a pathetic, wimpy, vicar who swears like a trooper and has the same values as the dominant elites and mobs of our culture. But I prefer a vicar of Christ. Someone who will give me Jesus. Someone who will believe, teach, preach and practise the Word of God. Someone who will feed my soul and give me Jesus.
Rev's vision of the church is as a pale pathetic shadow compared with the glorious reality that Jesus gives of his Bride dressed in all his glory! Can we not recover that vision?