ROWAN ATKINSON, the comedian famed for his portrayal of comedy vicars, was this week expecting a backlash, after accusing Church of England clergy of being smug, arrogant, and conceited.
In an interview in Saturday’s Times, Mr Atkinson said: “I used to think that the vicars that I played . . . were unreasonable satires on well-meaning individuals but, actually, so many of the clerics that I’ve met, particularly the Church of England clerics, are people of such extraordinary smugness and arrogance and conceitedness who are extraordinarily presumptuous about the significance of their position in society. Increasingly, I believe that all the mud that Richard Curtis and I threw at them through endless sketches that we’ve done is more than deserved.”
The Priest-in-Charge of Mr Atkinson’s parish in Northamptonshire is the Rt Revd John Flack. He said on Wednesday that he had never seen the comedian in church, and that to visit him would be difficult, as he lives behind high-security gates. “But I have written, inviting him to have a talk. I look forward to hearing from him.”
Even those sympathetic to the comedian were critical of his view. “Sadly I think he may be right,” conceded the Revd Richenda Leigh, Anglican Chaplain to the University of Derby. “In all jobs there are people who are smug and arrogant. But smug and arrogant clergy do more good in their lives than smug and arrogant actors and comedians.”
The Revd Richard Coles, broadcaster and parish priest, is a friend of the comedian and his wife, Sunetra. “When I emailed, after seeing the piece, to ask, ‘Anyone I know?’ she replied, ‘God, not you darling!’, and added: ‘We’re bracing ourselves for the backlash.’”
“I guess we all know one or two clergy who conform to the stereotype Rowan describes,” Mr Coles said, “but most I know conform to a different stereotype: the stereotype that works hard, and mostly unnoticed, putting failing communities and wounded people back together again. Rowan, I know, would admire and applaud them for it.”
Two groups who have frequent contact with a wide range of clergy are bell-ringers and organists. Kate Flavell, president of the Central Council of Church Bell Ringers, observed this week that among the clergy are “all sorts and types. It is more than likely there are people as Rowan Atkinson describes them — but I don’t think I’ve met any myself.
“Bell-ringers have to have a good relationship with the clergy at the churches where they ring. Some clergy respond well. At other places there’s not such a good relationship. I’ve experienced vicars who weren’t easy to get on with.”
Ian Carson, a freelance professional organist, admitted that organists and clergy frequently come to blows. “I have met clergy who fall within Rowan’s description. Some are on the surface like that, but are very different underneath. Perhaps it is a defence mechanism — so many clergy have to perform so many different roles for which they are untrained. Some of the most powerful and God-centred clergy are the most humble.”
Charles Cowling arranges secular funerals, and regularly meets clergy at crematoria. He says he gets on well with them. He observes, however, that people often choose secular funerals “not because they are atheists but because they don’t want a clergyman with a sing-song voice and a lack of engagement.
“It may be a cliché, but at crematorium funerals clergy still get names wrong. Some clergy don’t hide their distaste, when Tina Turner is played or a bloody awful poem is recited by the eight-year-old niece.”
Charles Howlett, superintendent at the Chilterns Crematorium, agreed. “Some clergy are not so sensitive to the needs of un-churched families as civil celebrants, and maybe this comes over as arrogance.”
Mr Atkinson’s remarks sparked a heated debate on a number of websites, and several correspondents shared their own, often bad, experiences. “Rowan has very aptly described a vicar I had the misfortune to encounter a few weeks ago. He was all of these things and many more,” said one.
“Could not agree more. I went to Walsingham yesterday and the clerical fashion parade was evident. It was cringe-worthy seeing them poncing around like peacocks,” said another.
But there were also online defenders. “He’s obviously not mixing with the right sort of clergy,” said a vicar’s wife. “Those I come into contact with are generally down to earth, compassionate, incredibly hard-working, and have a sense of humour that would make Mr Atkinson blush!!!!”
“Everyone knows a horrible vicar story,’ said Ms Leigh. “But for every smug and arrogant vicar, there are at least four good and humble ones, who are doing their jobs so well that they are not drawing attention to themselves.”
Question of the week: Is your vicar smug, arrogant, and conceited?