Hoping for a change of tune

by
28 March 2014

In this extract from his fictional diary, Adam Smallbone  - the 'Rev.' of the BBC comedy, whose Series 3 started on Monday - charts the thwarted ambitions of his Reader and the wily archdeacon

BIG TALK/HANDLE WITH PRAYER LTD

Service resumed: the cast of Rev., Series 3

Service resumed: the cast of Rev., Series 3

17 September

I pulled out all the stops on the St Saviour's organ for maximum volume, but mostly I heard a bronchitic sort of wheeze.

Is repairing our organ urgent? No, we use a CD player from a car-bootsale, so we get by. Nevertheless, it saddens me that mine isn't more of a musical church. Liturgy needs music.

Our Reader Nigel joined me on the balcony, very excited. He'd had a letter confirming the dates of his selection interviews, for ordination.

He said he couldn't decide if he'd prefer a nice rural parish in the Cotswolds, or a church on Piccadilly. Or Knightsbridge. I asked if he was sure he wanted to be a priest. He was. Very sure. In fact, he'd realised on his "Towards Ordained Ministry" course how much better he'd be as a priest than all the other people there.

I advised him against saying that to the Bishops' Advisory Panel. It was right to be doubtful. "Quite right, good point!" said Nigel. And then he actually wrote "be doubtful" on the little pad he carries around, which made me want to laugh (and cry).


20 September

I rummaged through the takeaway menus. I decided on an "Animal feast" pizza.

What I craved more than anything was sacred music. I'd decided we'd have a festival at St Saviour's - even if we had no choir and no organ, it would still mean something to be together listening to Ubi Caritas by Duruflé.

I listened to it on my headphones, and felt as if I was wearing a crash helmet of music. I'd never thought of it as a love song before. "Where charity and love are, there is God." It's a love song because it makes you think of God's eternal love. . .

Then the doorbell rang. I gave the pizza delivery man a £20 note, but he wouldn't take any money. It was our parishioner Colin. Colin, as I'd never seen him before: with a job.

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First Nigel, now Colin. Everyone was at it - seeking employment, getting on with their lives.

 

 

22 September

Nolo episcopari. "I am unwilling to accept the office of bishop." When they offered you a bishopric 200 years ago, that's what you had to say. It was only when they asked you a third time that you were expected, and entitled, to say yes. We love false modesty in the Church of England. Nolo episcopari. Gloriam praecedit humilitas.

Today, after the service, when Nigel and Adoha and I were having coffee with the Archdeacon, Nigel brought up the subject of the vacancy for Bishop of Stevenage.Was he interested at all? The Archdeacon went for a loud and clear nolo.

Then he put bells on it. "I hunger to communicate the gospel to the widest possible audience. But I fear my soul is unprepared for such a role, even if God were considering me for such a position, which I'm sure he's not." So that was a big yes then.

He was definitely on the compassionate campaign trail, starting with the cup of coffee handed to him by Adoha. "This coffee's lovely," he told her. "How do you do it?"

"It's just instant, Archdeacon."

"Please," he said, "call me Robert!"

What was going on? The tricksy, waspish Archdeacon had turned into cuddly Robert. He was delighted to hear that Nigel had put himself forward for ordination training. "What do you think my chances are, pretty solid?" asked Nigel.

I knew the Archdeacon thought, as I did, that Nigel would make a hopeless priest - it was one of the rare bonds between us. To my delight, he suggested Nigel should go to the youth drop‑in centre to "learn about teenagers' problems". "Good idea!" lied Nigel badly.

 

26 September

On my PC screen were the Church's criteria for selection for ordained ministry. In my headphones was Bach's Jesu Meine Freude.

The whole motet is sublime, because Bach is the greatest genius who ever lived, but what's musically and dramatically so sublime is the "es ist nun nichts Verdammliches," when they sing that "nichts" twice. There is nothing - repeat, nothing - damnable in those who are in Christ Jesus.

Did that apply to Nigel, though? According to the criteria, candidates should be "self-aware, mature, and stable", with a "capacity to build healthy personal, professional, and pastoral relationships". He hadn't really built a healthy professional relationship with me.

Nigel suggested we go out together and get some biscuits. Now that I was writing his reference, he was trying to build our relationship.

I stopped outside the Hackney Organic Bed Centre to stub out my cigarette. I looked through the window. The Archdeacon was bouncing up and down on a bed. It was thrilling, like seeing the Pope on a trampoline. "Let's go and tell him all the pastoral things I'm doing today," said Nigel, desperately.

As we approached, he was standing with his back to us, looking at the other beds with his companion, who put a loving hand on the Archdeacon's back. The companion was a man. A chap. His chap.

"Archdeacon, hello!" Nigel called, and the Archdeacon turned and said, "What are you doing here?"

"I'm just going to the Homeless Centre to wash the needy," said Nigel.

The Archdeacon's chap was younger and taller and much better-looking, a real catch. He had fashionable black-rimmed glasses, an elegant grey suit, and one of those almost-beards - that very dark stubble which takes a lot of tending.

The Archdeacon just stood there, failing and failing to introduce him to me and Nigel, until finally he said, with massive reluctance, "This is my friend Richard."

"Are you going to buy this bed?" I asked, looking at them both. "No," said Richard, who made his excuses, and told "Bobby" he'd see him in the car. So. There we had it. He'd gone from the sly and intimidating Archdeacon, to the nice man who loved our coffee and wanted us to call him Robert, to Bobby. Gay Bobby.

Twenty minutes later, the horn of a parked taxi hooted at me. It was the call of Bobby. I got in. We stopped in a deserted industrial wasteland, one of those bits of east London apparently still recovering from the Blitz. It was all very Tinker Tailor Soldier Gay Priest.

He was back to his best, if that's the right word for it. Composed and conspiratorial and intimidating. "Let's imagine," he began, "that there was a scenario in which I was being considered for an episcopal position. My concern is that if certain elements within the Church happened to hear about certain aspects of my private life, they might be open to misinterpretation. . . We both know that the Church isn't ready for an openly gay bishop."

I asked if he'd like me to keep his friendship with Richard quiet. "Thank you," he said, ever so humbly, his face slightly cast down.

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27 September

Nigel wanted to know what he would be asked about at his interview. I said I thought it would be his personal relationships. "I'm ready for that one!" said Nigel. It was question 14 on his form - Who might sustain you in your future ministry? - and he'd put, "My dear mum, and my girlfriend, Cherry."

I asked what Cherry was like. "She's gorgeous, a real honey." Now he'd established his heterosexuality, he got down to details. She had lovely legs and a great personality. She had blonde hair. She was 5 foot 6½ inches tall.

Then, I'm afraid, Nigel lost his way. He said she had big breasts, but he said it as though he'd heard her breasts were big, but had never actually seen them, and anyway he wasn't a big breasts fan. Then he added, as an afterthought, "I'm a very lucky man." But he'd never looked less lucky.


29 September

In the church I put on the Sanctus from Byrd's Mass for Five Voices, until a voice from 20 feet away said, "Excellent choice." The Archdeacon had been there all along. He was unusually subdued.

I asked if something was bothering him, and he said no, not really. But it was. Eventually, he told me. "I've just seen the Crown Nominations Committee."

"Right. How did it go?"

"They asked if I was in an 'active gay relationship'. I said yes. With a man I love more than words. I think that probably means I'll never be Bishop of Stevenage, don't you?"

He said that he was reflecting on the fact that this was "OK, really". He could be as brave and nonchalant and waspish as he liked - it wasn't OK. We talk about "trying to interpret God's will". In any other job, it would be called discrimination.

I left, hoping the Sanctus would comfort him, and sat on the bench. The Archdeacon had done the right thing. It was unthinkable that he'd deny the existence of Richard.Except it wasn't, was it? It was totally thinkable. Cherry was a non-existent girl I was asked to pretend was real. Richard was a real man I was asked to pretend did not exist. But the Archdeacon chose love over ambition.

Colin turned up and started ranting. While delivering pizzas, he'd had an altercation with a taxi driver. And then, to Colin's "total fucking disbelief", the shop sided with the taxi driver and sacked Colin. "That was my last chance!" screamed Colin. "That was how I was going to sort my life out!"

"What you doing, you twat?" he asked, looking up at the roof of the church. To my shock, Nigel was sitting on the edge of it, his feet dangling over the drop. By the time I got up there, he was sobbing. He'd been turned down for ordination training.

"How can they say I wouldn't be a good priest? How can they know what God wants? How dare they pretend they do?" Poor man. I told him God wanted him to do other things.

"What other things?" All he wanted was to be a priest, that's who he was, and now they were telling him he wasn't who he was, which made no sense to Nigel. "If I can't do what I want to do, what do I do?" I told him that many were called, but few were chosen, which didn't help, and then I asked if he'd let me buy him a drink, which did help.

He let me support his weight as he leaned back and swung his legs over the edge, to safety. That felt wonderful. But not for long. Nigel turned aggressive. "Did you give me a bad reference? Did you say I was boring?" I told him, which was true, that I hadn't said he was boring. Just unfailingly punctual and organised. Which he said were euphemisms for "boring". "What's the best thing you said about me?" I racked my brain. "That you were brilliant at working alone." He snorted. "Was that in the question on teamwork?"

He stomped off towards the fire exit, then turned and jabbed his finger at me. "You fucked me," he said. "You know I'd be a much better priest than you. That's the tragedy here." If it weren't for other people, Nigel's life would be perfect.

I stayed and smoked another cigarette. The Archdeacon, Nigel, Colin, and me. The Church of St Saviour's was like a convocation of lost souls. We were dazed and wandering sheep, all three of us, which was terrible, because the Archdeacon and I were meant to be shepherds; we were meant to guard and guide the Colins of this world. instead of which we were the blind leading the blind.

This is an extract from The Rev. Diaries by the Reverend Adam Smallbone, published by Michael Joseph at £14.99 (Church Times Bookshop £13.49 - Use code CT533 ), ©Big Talk Productions Ltd 2014. It is based on the original BBC TV series created by James Wood and Tom Hollander.

Series 3 of Rev. is broadcast on BBC2 at 10 p.m. on Mondays.

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