Ministers, priests, and nuns are difficult to depict in movies and TV shows. Either they seem too pious and different, and people can't identify with them, or they come off as caricatures with their problems exaggerated for effect. That's why we were delighted to discover Rev., a British sitcom about an Anglican priest who is both a sincerely devoted churchman and an ordinary guy we feel we can get to know and have as a friend.
Rev. premiered on the BBC in 2010. Since then two more seasons have completed their run, and a third is underway. The series is now BBC2's highest-rated sitcom. It has been sold to 140 countries, and word is out that it is to be remade in the U.S. with scripts overseen by Frasier and Desperate Housewives producer Bob Daily.
We watched three seasons of Rev. through Amazon.com's Instant Video streaming service. It is also available on Hulu.com and from iTunes.
Tom Hollander plays the lead role of the Rev. Adam Smallbone, an Anglican priest who has been called to serve St. Saviour in the Marshes in a ghetto area of East London. This is quite a change from his prior ministry in a small rural parish. The inventive, spiritual, and engaging scripts by Tom Holland and James Wood (whose grandfather was an Army chaplain) dramatize in a realistic way the emotionally draining burdens of being a priest and the uphill battle to keep a small urban congregation alive in an era when mainstream Christian churches are losing members.
We love this portrait of a minister. (See our feature of Movies about Ministers, Priests, and Nuns for more of our favorites.) Thanks to the vulnerability, gentleness, patience, and comic humanity of Rev. Smallbone, this is the best television series about Christian ministry we've ever seen! Credit must be given to Tom Holland and James Wood for also presenting a rounded and realistic portrait of church life with all of its lovable and often irritating characters. Let's take a look at these people and some of the challenges they have faced in the first two seasons, a total of 13 half-hour shows.
Thinking about Churches
Rev. makes some good points about church life today. Here are a few of our take-aways.
• Don't get caught up in the numbers game. Adam's superior worries about the small size of the congregation, but Adam knows they need to be thinking instead about what they can do together to deepen community.
• Success is not the most important thing for a church. A charismatic preacher with a large following asks to use the church for services. The place is full, but Adam realizes that this group is not welcoming to everyone. He takes a stand for different values of the Christian way.
• Good things can happen from multifaith cooperation. Adam runs into opposition when he allows a Muslim children's prayer group to use the church for classes. This gets everybody thinking about the importance of honoring inclusiveness and pluralism.
• The church "plant" may cost a lot to operate but it is worth it. It is a good thing for congregations to use their spaces for meetings, services, soup kitchens, group discussions, creative projects, and more. It is also good to let outside groups to use the place for their own programs.
• Forrest Gump had it right: benches are perfect for talking about things that matter most. Adam has some of his finest moments as a teacher of faith when he and a parishioner sit talking on a bench in the churchyard.
• Churches must do more to serve lonely people in the city. Adam does what he can to assuage the loneliness of his parishioners and others in the community. As a priest, he experiences loneliness too and it often causes him to do strange things that are signs of his desperation to truly connect with others.
• Christian communities would do well to champion doubt as a pathway to transformation. Adam learns from moments of doubts as well as the occasional humiliations he experiences as he tries to do his job well. Doubts, discouragements, and even disasters are spiritual teachers that church people can no longer label as only negative.
Adam's Personal Graces
There are many reasons to just plain like Adam! Here are some of ours:
• His loving relationship with his wife Alex (Olivia Coleman), a solicitor who, along with Adam, has mixed feelings about starting a family.
• His on-again and off-again friendship with Colin (Colin Lambert), an often irritating and excessive parishioner who drinks and smokes too much, can’t keep a job, and wants to be a better person.
• His willingness to accept the attention of Adoha (Ellen Thomas), the church's matriarch who has a special place in her heart for Adam.
• His patience with Nigel (Miles Jupp), his lay reader who bores him with his little lectures on church history, theology, and ethics.
• His accommodation to Archdeacon Robert (Simon McBurney), a meticulous, critical, and snooty clergyman who serves as the eyes and ears of the Bishop (Ralph Fiennes).
• His attempts to help Mick (Jimmy Akingbola), a local crack addict and con man, who for a while seems like he will stay clean and become a religious man.
• His kindness to an elderly woman in a nursing home.
• His resilient faith which enables him to bounce back after three emotional breakdowns.
• His courage in performing a gay wedding ceremony.
• His honesty in telling the truth to the Bishop about not being a hero in an incident involving a fleeing purse-snatcher.
• His consistent talks with God filled with questions about things he has experienced, doctrines, and everyday occurrences.
Adam's Personal Flaws and Foibles
Like all of us, Adam has his issues, only some of which are due to his job. Here are some we noticed.
• His envy of a media savvy clergyman (Hugh Bonneville) who is famous and seemingly happy.
• His jealousy when a young multi-talented woman curate seems to be able to do everything and is immediately very popular with the congregation.
• His decision to try to keep the fact that he is smoking again a secret from his wife.
• His worries over his inability to handle church finances, leading him to take some bills a wealthy man offers to pay off a church debt, an act which makes him feel very guilty.
• His attraction to Ellie, the woman who runs the church school, even though he is very much in love with Alex.
• His fears that he is not sexually worth anything when put up against his wife's long-ago handsome black boyfriend.
• His inability to balance the demands of his work and the needs of his wife and friends, leading to exhaustion and disappointment.
And yet . . . Adam always bounces back, buoyed by his faith, his family, and his friends. And that's why we're spending hours watching Rev.