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Who needs an Anglican Father Brown?

“Finally, an Anglican Father Brown.” Reading this endorsement on the cover of James Runcie’s collection, Sidney Chambers and the Shadow of Death — now a full season on ITV and Masterpiece Mystery (Grantchester) — I confess that my first response was: “Really? Who needs one?”* Compared with G. K. Chesterton’s ethereal and inscrutable protagonist, Canon Sidney Chambers of Grantchester seems, well, far too real.

That’s no accident, of course: while Chesterton’s Father Brown is something of a literary Melchizedek, appearing out of nowhere to bless his unsuspecting readers and often far more mysterious than the crimes he solves, Sidney Chambers, according to Runcie, is patterned in large part on his father, the late Archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Runcie. In this sense, comparing Mr. Chambers and Father Brown is something of a category mistake. Nevertheless, because the two priest-sleuths share a good deal else in common, a few notes of comparison seem in order. For the sake of simplicity, I will limit my commentary on Sidney Chambers to the TV series.

While Granchester was a bit of a slow starter for me, I gradually found myself warming to the show’s protagonist. Mr. Sidney Chambers, played by actor James Norton, looks something like the blond best friend of Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock (sorry, Martin Freeman). Initially, I worried that, like Rev., Grantchester would take an all-too-everyman view of the priesthood. Norton, however, as it turns out, read theology at Cambridge as an undergraduate, and, despite his character’s sometimes (always) platitudinous sermons, he does manage to convey in a very believable fashion many of the frustrations which beset ministry in a country parish. Perhaps the most compelling part of Norton’s Chambers is his struggle with alcoholism, rooted in his experience during the war. Although Chambers is constantly praised for his faith by his companions, he is haunted by the demons of his past, and the viewer who sees his inner world meets a much more complicated figure, often teetering on the verge of doubt: an Anglican cleric, indeed.

The largest failing of Grantchester is the way Chambers’ priesthood works into his role as detective assistant to the local police chief. What apparently makes Chambers a good detective, in addition to his moody obsession with the details of a crime (in which he is far more like Sherlock Holmes than Father Brown), is the “trust” others put in him — a trust which on more than one occasion is exploited for utilitarian ends. To steal a notebook with evidence, to extract a “confession,” Chambers risks his own sacramental authority, in some sense, for the sake of justice. And while he seems pastorally chagrined by the moral failings of the various murderers in Grantchester, Chambers’ own priestly care for them often involves helping them tell the truth and go to prison.

Enter Father Brown. Unlike Chambers and Sherlock, Father Brown often works alone — a figure, perhaps, of the mystery of his celibacy. When he does acquire an assistant (and in Grantchester, it is never clear whether Chambers is the lead detective or the assistant — he often functions more like Watson), it is not a lawman, but a converted criminal, M. Hercule Flambeau.

As one critic has put it (and here I extend his analysis): Father Brown is unlike either Holmes or Chambers. The former solves mysteries by deductive reasoning, attending séances, and playing the violin, the latter by drinking whiskey (not sherry!), listening to jazz records, and extracting confessions. But Father Brown, who is certainly a champion of reason, solves mysteries primarily by priestly intuition, honed over many years by experiential knowledge of the glory and depravity of human nature (see “The Secret of Father Brown”).

Such knowledge, to be sure, derives from the confessional, but not from the confessions of the criminals he is pursuing. It also springs from a priestly self-knowledge, drawn from an honest assessment of one’s own failings in the examen. Father Brown’s sense that “he himself committed the crimes” works out, in a lighter fashion, Dostoevsky’s imperative in “The Grand Inquisitor” that each of us must take responsibility for the sins of the entire world. It is thus telling that in the case of Flambeau, the one criminal whose confession Father Brown apparently does hear in “The Queer Feet” (and Chesterton is not so gross as to actually let us hear this confession), he absolves him of his attempted theft and lets him go.

While Sidney Chambers is developing a similar priestly intuition in Grantchester, it does not appear yet fully formed. There is something, moreover, of the sacred trust of the confessional, upheld by Father Brown, which is violated in Grantchester. That is not to say that Father Brown is unconcerned with justice. But Father Brown is more than just a good defense attorney — mitigating his clients’ sentencing while convincing them of their need for contrition. Like a lion, Father Brown is out to swallow the whole man— “to catch him with an unseen hook and an invisible line which is long enough to let him wander to the ends of the world, and still to bring him back with a twitch upon the thread.” That, I think, is also the feeling of the unsuspecting reader who picks up “The Blue Cross” for the first time, unaware of the person they are about to encounter in its pages—a person to whom one could entrust one’s own sins.

That is not to say that there’s not much to love about Grantchester. The show is clearly making a case for the priestly vocation. For all its frustrations, eddies, and limitations, the cure of souls emerges as a thing necessary for the thriving of humanity. One of my favorite lines in the show is the quip of the Archdeacon, who says (anachronistically, I suspect) to Chambers in the midst of yet another vocational crisis: “Well, there’s always academia; but that would be a terrible shame.”

Of course, there is one obvious answer to my opening question, “Who needs an Anglican Father Brown?” which I’ve not yet mentioned and which does make a unique contribution to the genre of priest-sleuth fiction: there’s a love story (“what the Dickens?”).

*Apologies to Father George Wilcox Brown, a fellow priest and contributor to Covenant, if my title spurs an existential crisis. Your presence is very much needed and appreciated.

1 COMMENT

  1. Fr. Michael,

    I’ve never read the Father Brown mysteries, though, since they were a favorite of a beloved mentor, they’ve been on my list for a while.

    I have, however, watched the television version of Grantchester, and admit to enjoying it. On a personal level, one of the issues it has brought into stark relief for me is the contrast between a former job of mine, and my current vocation.

    For four years, while I was in college, I worked as a private investigator at my dad’s company. That was the extent of my formal experience, but I went with dad while he worked cases from the time I was seven or eight years old.

    One of the realizations I’ve had since my ordination, is that there’s actually a fair degree of similarity between being an investigator and a priest. In both situations, we know way more about people and their actions than they would suspect. In the priesthood, as you point out, and as Grantchester portrays, that information comes voluntarily from someone, even if it’s not directly from the person in question. In contrast, of course, investigation involves watching, snooping etc…

    The major difference, as I see it, is one I’ve explained using the oversimplified and usually unhelpful description of “Old Testament law” and “New Testament Grace.” In this case, I think it’s illustrative, if not an accurate description of scripture. At any rate, as a private investigator, you seek truth and expose it in its raw form, letting the chips fall where they may. While immediately painful, it can be argued that there’s a time for this. It’s like lancing a boil. While it would be wrong to say that there’s no concern for those who may be injured by the truth, there’s really no mechanism to offer comfort, except to one’s client, if they were the aggrieved party, by saying “Now you know: act accordingly.”

    In contrast, as priests, we aim not at letting the harsh light of day in all at once, no matter what, but perhaps gently pulling back the curtain in such a way that the light does enter, but in a manner that allows for the healing and restoration of relationships and people who might shatter under the weight of being exposed all at once and from the outside. Maybe another way of looking at it, is that, rather than shining a light on the dark places of people’s lives, we try to get them to step into the light.

    One of the most interesting parts of Grantchester for me, has been the sense in which Chambers has started to wrestle with this distinction. Like you, I’ve been uncomfortable with some of the pastoral lines I perceive him as crossing. He has broken confidences, there’s no doubt. That said, he’s never been depicted as hearing sacramental confession, and so he hasn’t actually broken the seal. For some, that may be a distinction without a difference, but I think it’s an important one given historical differences of churchmanship, and current disputes about the seal of confession itself within Anglicanism.

    Also, as a sort of side note, I wanted to address something brought to mind by this line:

    And while he seems pastorally chagrined by the moral failings of the various murderers in Grantchester, Chambers’ own priestly care for them often involves helping them tell the truth and go to prison.

    I don’t know that you intended this, but it seems like you’re saying that priestly care is opposed to helping someone tell the truth and go to prison (if that’s what’s just). I’d rather see it as a possible part of much broader and hopefully ongoing pastoral care. I’m reminded of Timothy Gorringe’s description of traditional Christian justifications of capital punishment as not being about retribution, but about restitution, and not so much about the victim as the offender (bringing them to repentance and allowing blood to pay for blood etc…). I don’t have the book (God’s Just Vengeance in front of me, so I’m paraphrasing. At any rate, we may no longer want to apply the logic to capital punishment, but in terms of offense, I’d think it’s part of the priestly role to bring people to a place where they make restitution for their wrongs, including by going to prison if that’s what’s deemed necessary by the court system.

    Thanks for your thoughts… I’m interested to see where Chambers’ conflicts go, and weather he develops a better balance between his priestly obligations and his investigative compulsion.

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