15 April 2014
Archbishop Welby, is a healthy church always a growing one?
Rev, the BBC sitcom about a priest struggling in an inner city parish, is arguably one of the best advertisements for the work of the Church of England in recent years.
Its main character, Revd Adam Smallbone, rarely has enough money to pay the bills, preaches to a half-empty church and is often plagued by self doubt.
Despite this he perseveres in difficult circumstances, ministering to the down-and-outs and those on the margins and praying by honestly pouring out his problems to God.
But has the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, misread the message of the show?
Writing in the Easter edition of the Radio Times he says that while the programme, now in its third series, “amusingly depicts some of the challenges facing clergy … it doesn’t depress me quite as much as you might think!”
He points out: "I have a friend who runs a growing church in Reading city centre, filled with young people with no church background; I have another friend who has had to plan two new churches because his congregation is bursting at the seams.”
The implication from the archbishop is that Rev makes for depressing viewing because Smallbone is not able to fill his church to the rafters.
But what makes the fictional vicar attractive is his lack of success. Archbishop Welby’s predecessor, Lord Williams of Oystermouth, pointed out when he was in Lambeth Palace that Rev reveals “something about the continuing commitment of the church to run-down and challenging areas”.
Adam Smallbone sticks to his principles. He refuses to become fashionable and in the first series resists moves by a charismatic Evangelical vicar to redesign his church with plasma TV screens, beanbags and a smoothie bar.
His ministry is best portrayed in one of the most moving scenes of Rev, from the second series: the baptism of “Colin”, a heavy-drinking, unemployable lost soul in a ceremony with just a handful of people present.
Up and down the country there are many Adam Smallbones, ministering in tough, unlovable areas with churches that are far from bursting at the seams.
At the end of last year, however, Archbishop Welby told BBC Radio 4: “The reality is that where you have a good vicar, you will find growing churches.” That comment must have grated with a good number of clergy.
As Mother Teresa of Kolkata once said: “God does not require that we be successful, only that we be faithful.”
Christopher Lamb is Assistant Editor (Home News) of The Tablet
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