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The not-so-reverend Reverend

The Rev. Adam Smallbone is the vicar of a historic urban parish in East London. As with many parishes in the Church of England, attendance at St. Saviour-in-the-Marshes has been in steady decline and is having difficulty maintaining the dilapidated building that houses the faithful few who show up on Sunday morning. In spite of the congregation’s small size, Adam (as he is called by virtually everyone who knows him) is overworked. He takes the notion of “parish” seriously, which means that he considers himself a chaplain to anyone and everyone around him, and his diocese can’t justify offering any subsidies to St. Saviour’s, especially with a declining ASA (“Average Sunday Attendance”). Apart from an overzealous lay reader (and wannabe seminarian) named Nigel, Adam is left alone to manage the quotidian affairs of his struggling parish.

But what if I told you that the Rev. Adam Smallbone isn’t real—that he’s the main character of a popular TV sitcom series? What? You mean to tell me that the above description doesn’t sound like the recipe for a hit TV show?  Well, I’m right there with you. I find it remarkable that Rev ever received a green light from the BBC. I suppose it shouldn’t be too surprising, given that the show is set (and originally aired) in the UK. This series would have completely flopped in the US, a fact that has nothing to do with either nation’s level of piety. It’s simply the case that England has an established church, and, while that church may have lost its vibrancy and vigor, it’s still woven into the fabric of British culture in a way that has no analogue across the pond. Yet, on the other hand, I still find it remarkable that this show was ever made, not only because of its mundane setting, but because of the way it handles its subject matter.

In our ultra polarized culture, it’s hard to conceive of a TV show that deals with Christianity without a built-in agenda. As viewers, we’ve come to expect either apologetics or mockery. This is where Rev defies expectations. In the words of series creator, James Wood, “Our unspoken rule was never to laugh at people of faith.” Wood doesn’t consider himself a believer, but he expresses respect for the Church, and he comes from a long line of priests. This removed-yet-still-respectful stance has been reflected in the series itself. If anything, a parish priest trying to navigate a rapidly changing urban setting has presented itself as rife with comedic fodder.

“We never set out to do PR for the Church,” Wood explains. “Many of the best jokes are directed at its dogma and out-of-date laws.” The main character (the eponymous “Rev”) feels this out-of-date-ness all too keenly.

It’s hard not to like Adam. He genuinely cares for people, he loves his wife (despite his occasional indiscretions), he loves the Lord, and he is well aware of his own flaws. He’s the kind of guy I’d like to hang out with over a pint. But I don’t think I would want him to be my pastor. In my assessment, Adam is a victim of the blasé, liberal Protestant seminary training of his generation. He is resigned to the fact that most people find Christianity irrelevant to contemporary needs, and, while he personally possesses a deep faith, he is less than confident that the Gospel should be proclaimed with any sort of authority. It’s no wonder that he’s burnt out: it turns out it’s much easier to be in persona Christi than to be the personal chaplain to everyone in the world.

While the show isn’t “preachy,” this doesn’t mean it isn’t capable of preaching. Oftentimes, simply by using the Church’s language and symbols, the Gospel shines through, even if it isn’t coming from Adam’s lips. For example, the second season of Rev is set during the season of Lent. The penitential season coincides with Adam experiencing an identity crisis. The series’ writers lean heavily on Lent-Easter and passion-crucifixion-resurrection motifs to narrate this story arc — to the point of having Adam carrying a large, wooden cross through the streets of London as the crowds begin to mock him. It’s moments like these, when Adam’s personality retreats into the background, that the real power of his vocation becomes apparent. Adam may struggle to gain the respect of those around him, but even he knows deep down that he’ll never be worthy of a calling that warrants the title Reverend. But none of us, in and of ourselves, is worthy of that calling. The main character’s name is probably no coincidence. Adam is the everyman, the one who struggles to find an identity that transcends his finite, sinful self.

I should conclude by noting that nothing I’ve written should count as a recommendation to watch Rev. Not everyone will find it funny, and even fewer will find it edifying. Even Archbishop Justin Welby was hesitant to praise the series, stating, “While it’s great entertainment, it doesn’t truly tell the whole story.” It’s still a sitcom, after all. Nevertheless, it’s refreshing to find a show that portrays the Church’s flaws without exploiting them. Some of us need to be reminded that, while the Church is indeed a divine institution, it can oftentimes be all too human.


  1. I greatly enjoy Rev. And while I take the Archbishop’s caveat for what it is, it’s a shame it’s even necessary. I mean that in two ways. First, as you note, this is a sitcom, and as such it exaggerates and creates for the sake of comedy. As with many TV shows, it makes use of situations that no one person would be likely to find themselves in, but which, taken as examples (and toned down a bit–though not always!) are indicative of the types of situations we encounter in life. In Rev.’s case, it’s the types of situations and people that are encountered in ministry. The second reason I think it’s a shame, is that I find it frustrating how often the only critique that folks can level at something–including essays–is that they are somehow incomplete or don’t tell the whole story. Nothing should be expected to tell the whole story. There are lots of books on Dogmatics that post-date Karl Barth that post-date Church Dogmatics, and indeed, there are lots of books on Karl Barth. If any one book, essay, show etc… could tell the whole story there would be no need for others. Folks need to stop expecting “the whole story” (a near mythical beast in itself) to be told in one place, and embrace the idea that they’re going to have to look in multiple places, regardless of the particular subject they’re trying to wrap their minds around. So, if the only critique someone can level (and here, I should note that I don’t take the Archbishop’s comment as critique necessarily, but reminder) is that something doesn’t cover all the ground they would like to see covered (and not that something was omitted in order to deceive), then I sort of place their criticism to the side and look for something more substantive relating to what is presented.

    In terms of what is attractive about the show, I’ve noted elsewhere that the sympathetic portrayal of a clergy person is refreshing. For all the talk of American Christians about Godless England and Europe, I think you’d be hard pressed to find such a sympathetic portrayal of a clergy person in American TV or film. Indeed, most clergy in American TV are portrayed as some form or combination of Elmer Gantry, child molester, or idiot. My favorite example–maybe because it hits so close to home–is from the now defunct show Flashforward. I posted the applicable clip here.

    What I love the most is the way the show portrays Adam’s prayer life. They’ve found a way to do so that is revealing and doesn’t patronize either the character or the viewer.

    In terms of whether I would want Adam Smallbone to be my priest, frankly, I think he has been and will be, in the sense that he’s an amalgamation of many clergy. The concern about his lack of confidence in the gospel seems misplaced to me, and I certainly wouldn’t lay the fault for his (in my opinion much more general) lack of confidence at the feat of seminary training. Instead, I think the gospel is probably the only thing that Adam is confident of. It’s everything else that he can’t quite grasp hold of. In particular, I think his lack of confidence can be laid at the feet of the realities of a post-Christian culture in which the Church is not so much reviled as forgotten (except when folks want to get their kids into the C of E school), and where that forgetfulness has resulted in an institutional church that often finds itself grasping at straws, including business models, charismatic leaders, and entrepreneurial attempts at constructing new Christian communities. Adam is caught in the middle and is only certain of his love for God, his wife, and his people. That he stumbles and fumbles is, I think, only symptomatic of his humanity, and the position between the rock of secular society and the hard place of a confused institution where he finds himself.

    All of that said, I appreciate where you wind up, “it’s refreshing to find a show that portrays the Church’s flaws without exploiting them. Some of us need to be reminded that, while the Church is indeed a divine institution, it can oftentimes be all too human.”


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