Liking ‘Rev’ as an Evangelical

My name is David, and I’m an evangelical who likes ‘Rev’.

I realise that puts me at odds with some of my fellow evangelicals, and to a degree I understand their concerns. Yet like my fellow evangelical and friend Steve Holmes I think ‘Rev’ needs first to be viewed within the frame of the Classic British sitcom – disparate, quirky folk apparently thrown together by circumstance and somewhat ‘trapped’ within a particular setting or institution. Think seaside hotel, prison, Home Guard, rag and bone business and here, of course, a struggling East End church. The final episode of the current series offered a profound portrait of vocation – of the way it can seem at once limiting and irresistible. But in that very sense it was skilfully dovetailed to its genre. The problem is, as evangelicals we can be too prone to read art denotatively, for its headline ‘message’, without regard to the genre in inhabits.

Denotatively, I wouldn’t choose to go to Adam Smallbone’s church if it existed. Indeed, if I were an Archdeacon I might recommend its closure, or replanting. But denotatively I wouldn’t want to stay in Fawlty Towers, rely on Mr Mainwairing’s Home Guard, or attend a gig done by Jack Dee’s hapless comedian in the underrated ‘Lead Balloon’, either. Yet through their mishaps, failures and desire to do better, we do kind of root for the deeply flawed, tragi-comic protagonists of these shows, and grow fond of the oddballs who surround them. This elevates such series from glorified gag-fests to something more dramatic – more epic even. Indeed, compared to any other religiously-themed sitcom I’ve seen, and interpreted within the semi-tragic parameters of sitcom at its best, ‘Rev’ deserves to be recognised as a classic.

But even as ‘Rev’ works with the conventions of great sitcom, it also manages to transcend them – not thanks to any headline message of ‘religious optimism’, but because it understands that true godly hope climbs a steep and narrow path, holds on in anguished prayer, and takes up a cross. Think Moses, David and Peter, and their struggles with God’s call. Think of how the church started behind a locked door, when frightened, beleaguered and angry disciples began to see that there was life beyond death – when they recognised the risen Christ in their midst.

This goes to Martin Luther’s distinction between theologia gloriae and theologia crucis. Not for nothing did the latest series of ‘Rev’ culminate in Easter. We had to go through the wrenching devastation of Adam’s personal Good Friday in Episode 5 to get to his resurrection experience in Episode 6. It would have been specious if there had been no Episode 5, if we had bypassed the cross and skipped straight to the resolution of Easter Day. Despite our avowed crucicentrism, it does seem at times as if we evangelicals have become somewhat squeamish about the darker side of faith and discipleship – about doubt, weakness, loss and lament. Obviously we cannot dwell on and revel in these things – there is good news to proclaim, a world to transform, and Christ is risen. Granted, this broader missional confidence is downplayed more than it might have been in ‘Rev’. Granted, when church planting was depicted in an earlier series, it was lampooned. As an evangelical I passionately want churches to grow, and obviously ‘church’ in this sense means far more than the sort of unsustainable building that Adam was scrabbling to keep open.

But Calvary mocks any attempt to confuse God’s mission with mere worldly success, and in walking out of his interview for a City management consultancy when catching sight of his condemned church through a high-rise window, Adam exemplified that powerfully. And let’s be clear: Adam didn’t go back to St Saviour’s to rescue a church building; he went back to celebrate God’s salvation with the frightened, beleaguered and angry crew God had given him to pastor, and significantly he celebrated the resurrection with them outside rather than inside the church, to reinforce that they were more important than the structure behind them. And tellingly, even when they did break back into the sanctuary, it was for a baptism – for a sacramental reminder that sin, death and burial are part of the Christian story as well as new life.

So there was a message in ‘Rev’. But it was a message best discerned not so much through the lens of Church Growth Theory as through the lens of a classic British sitcom genre which finds humour in our thwarted ambitions, vanity and pride, yet which nonetheless shows affection and even compassion for those caught up in such things. Applied as deftly as they were here to the life of a deeply flawed yet prayerful minister and his deeply flawed yet loveable congregation, those tragi-comic conventions unexpectedly facilitated the telling of a much richer, more authentic and more challenging story – the story of a God whose grace is so free and extravagant that it can heal even the most lost of vocations, and even the most hopeless of churches.

David Hilborn

17 thoughts on “Liking ‘Rev’ as an Evangelical

  1. I think that many Evangelicals don’t feel their religious faith and practices should be the subject of a sitcom in the first place, and to then have it written and directed by non-Evangelicals makes it even more suspect.

  2. Really appreciated your depth of analysis and insight, something, sadly I do not have the gifting for. I just love the way ‘Rev’ captures the heart of the urban rather than glossing over its ‘dark’ side. Thanks again David.

  3. Notwithstanding this careful and responsible critique, I am left with two over-riding reasons not like Rev: the first is that classic sitcoms are funny – they make me laugh. Rev has never, and I mean NEVER, done that. The second and more important is that it purports to give an insider’s view of inner-city ministry. I don’t believe that to be true, and therefore, even allowing for the slightly caricatured nature of writing for a sitcom, makes the portrayal of ministry like this utterly misleading. Oh, and I don’t agree that (as seen on TV) Adam Smallbone is a prayerful man either. But each to their own – thanks, David, for sharing your thoughts.

  4. Brilliant article, I agree totally. I love Rev, full of flawed people which includes the vicar and it has the ability to make me laugh and cry. I shall miss it!
    Janice Owen.

  5. Thank you for a thoughtful and thought provoking article. It helped me on a personal level cope with conflicting emotions in the aftermath of serving in 4 churches before retiring. My take on your article is that our role as clergy is to BE incarnational in all the messiness of life and bring hope. Thanks for your insights.
    PS still cannot watch another REV …. its too near the truth

    1. “still cannot watch another REV …. its too near the truth”. I’m with you there. ‘conflicting emotions’ following retirement, certainly; not sure whether it helped, certainly brought them out!
      The only thing I disagreed with is that in my experience rather than handing you a shovel, an archdeacon is more likely to hit you over the back of the head with it.

  6. Of course they began their celebration of the resurrection outside the church, that’s where everyone has to start, and, tellingly, they were doing so in the face of shouted opposition from those whose secular holiday weekend had been interrupted by the proclamation of the Good News. Isn’t that evangelism? Their celebration was continued in the Easter Vigil, which begins, “As we await the risen Christ, let us hear the record of God’s saving deeds in history, recalling how he saved his people in ages past and in the fullness of time sent his Son to be our Redeemer; and let us pray that through this Easter celebration God may
    bring to perfection in each of us the saving work he has begun.

    [http://www.churchofengland.org/media/41157/tseasterlit.pdf (p18)]
    which seems to me to sum up all that the series had been about. Easter is the baptismal season, and what better time than at The Vigil, when Christians are invited each year to renew their baptismal promises. So, Adam, having travelled through his desert and walked the via dolorosa, was able to return to the flock he had been entrusted with, and, after passing through the waters of baptism with them, to celebrate the sacrament of the kingdom in the Eucharist (it wasn’t shown, but implied by the chasuble he was wearing).

    Far too many christians, and every other portrayal of ‘church’ I can think of, dashes straight through to Easter, as if joy in the risen Lord can come without experiencing, or even acknowledging, the cross. Here was, at last, a real portrayal of human experience and the christian response, with all its flaws.

    I am not sure what concerns you and your fellow evangelicals have about ‘Rev’. You talk of “a deeply flawed yet prayerful minister and his deeply flawed yet loveable congregation”: aren’t we all? Isn’t that why we need the cross and resurrection? Or do evangelicals somehow bypass this aspect of humanity?

    1. Thank you, Richard, for these liturgical reflections. They helpfully illuminate what I was trying to say, although they have prompted a few further thoughts about why some of my Evangelical friends have struggled with the series. I myself became an Anglican because the mainline Free Church/Evangelical spirituality with which I’d been operating lacked, for me at least, a framework and rhythm which would more comprehensively structure my experience of and response to to ‘all the changing scenes of life’. I was also looking for something that connected me more overtly to the wider church, both across the world now and down through past centuries. So I resonate with what happened liturgically at the end of Rev, but I remain very much an Evangelical and I have to tell you that most Evangelicals don’t read things liturgically in this way. Even those of us who value more liturgical approaches to worship and prayer tend to be more focused on conversion – of individuals and communities – and a key reason why many Evangelicals found the series difficult is that Adam just doesn’t seem to be very effective in bringing others to faith beyond his own tiny congregation, and doesn’t even seem that great at the more traditionally ‘liberal’ and/or ‘catholic’ forms of mission which concentrate on social action for transformation – witness his comparatively paltry contribution to the new playground earlier in the run as contrasted with that made by the local mosque. In order for there to be church buildings in which to celebrate the sacraments in the more liturgical way that you describe, there have to be people to support and sustain them – both in terms of giftings and skills and in terms of money. I know this is shading into pragmatism and I know that more ‘catholic’ folk have continued to worship fervently in their more elaborate way under considerable duress and hardship (e.g. in communist East Europe, Latin America etc.) But historically Evangelicals have always been fairly unashamed pragmatists when it comes to the primary imperative of ‘getting the gospel out’, and have thus tended to be less squeamish about closing churches and shutting down missions if they’re not fruitful. Typically, we cut our losses and move on to the next thing, in the belief that it might better serve God’s mission. At its best, this approach brings millions of ‘unchurched’ people to faith – indeed, it was responsible for my own conversion as a teenager from a non-churchgoing family. At its worst, however, it can prize numerical growth and ‘success’ above all else, and can fail to recognise the centrality of the Church in the mission it pursues. In these worst traits, it precisely forgets it’s own historic roots in Lutheran, Reformed and Anabaptist traditions which all understand profoundly that the degradation, humiliation and worldly failure of Calvary is an essential precursor to the glory of the resurrection.

      In the light of all this, it will be interesting to see where a fourth series of ‘Rev’ might go, if the fantastic cast of actors can be reassembled for such a series, and if the writers feel that they have more to say. A focus on the ‘redemption’ and renewal of St Saviour’s in the Marshes following the signs of hope shown at the end of this current series would be both intriguing and risky for all involved. As I said in my initial blog post, British Sitcom at its most classic tends to focus hapless failures, albeit failures for whom we develop that quintessentially British empathy with the underdog.

      1. “British Sitcom at its most classic tends to focus hapless failures, albeit failures for whom we develop that quintessentially British empathy with the underdog.” Perhaps that is why it wouldn’t have worked as a growing, ‘successful’ (in that sense) parish! But what it did show was people individually and together struggling through their difficulties in life and problems with faith because, despite doubts and fears, they knew it to be true, and that they needed to worship. It is that aspect which has had the greatest effect on people watching the series who are on the fringes or not believers (at least, those I have discussed it with).
        I have not seen the episode about the playground, so cannot comment on that.

        There is, I feel, a need to recognise that different styles and approaches do speak to different personalities and people. There cannot be one style suits all. We see this even in the gospels, where the several writers present the good news in ways that will reach the different audiences; and, indeed, in the variety of ways used in Acts. You talk about your conversion and what brought you to anglicanism. The key points in my growth in faith have nearly all been framed in liturgy, especially Holy Week and the Triduum (about 3am on Good Friday morning 1975 during the Watch, comes to mind), but other ways speak to other people. A few years ago after baptising adults and children during the Vigil on Holy Saturday in a little village church, somewhat surprised friends of theirs came up and said that they were ‘not church at all’ but the succession of readings and silence and dark and light, and the obvious joy of the candidates and congregation had completely changed their view; they started coming to church. Who’s to say what is, and what is not ‘successful’; “I sow, another reaps”.

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