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Perplexed viewer

04 April 2014


WHY am I the only member of the Church of England not to consider that Rev (BBC2, Mondays) is the wittiest and most profound depiction of inner-city ministry that can be imagined? I am not widely known for my lack of a sense of humour, nor for objection to any portrayal of the clergy of the Established Church which fails to treat us with respect, or dares to suggest that we may be a fit subject for mockery. It certainly is not any lack of admiration for the ability of its splendid cast: a well-honed and top-notch ensemble.

And this first episode of the new third series included, as always, some delicious scenes that were richly comic or quietly moving. The way in which the vicarage is a thoroughfare taken for granted by many of the most challenging members of the community; the difficulty of responding with gratitude to the well-meaning generosities of members of the congregation with no sense of boundary whatsoever, while at the same time not allowing them to take over your life - all these are brilliantly observed and presented.

But, for me, it is the playing out of the scenario where the piece falls to bits. Smallbone, in an attempt to save his parish from the clutches of rapacious diocesan officials eager to shut down the less productive branch offices, joins forces with the local imam to upgrade a local children's playground. The script allows Smallbone so little in the way of initiative, even of basic competence - especially, this time, in comparison with his brilliant and humane Islamic counterpart - that it is difficult not to side with the diocese and wonder why he should be allowed to soldier on so ineffectually.

The weakness of the plot throws into stronger relief the absurdities of the set-up: an archdeacon who shares, for no discernable reason, every tiny episode in the life of this insignificant parish; and a sinister Laurel-and-Hardy double-act of area dean and diocesan secretary who pay a ludicrous level of attention to the place. The genre keeps changing: is it grotesque farce, or realistic comedy, or wry tribute to contemporary Anglicanism? I will keep watching, because the good bits are so good. No doubt sooner or later I will realise why others love it so much.

One year into the papacy of Francis I, Secrets of the Vatican (Channel 4, Tuesday of last week) was a hatchet-job on his predecessors. By this account, neither John Paul II nor Benedict XVI was prepared to root out criminality at the heart of the Roman Catholic Church: child abuse by priests; the Vatican bank's being used for money-laundering; a Curial gay subculture that condemned homosexuality in other church members; the Pope's butler's being scapegoated for his whistle-blowing.

Pope Francis received plaudits for his open manner, for his refusal to condemn homosexuals, for his refusal to be imprisoned in his palace, for his radical reform of the Vatican bank, and for his setting up of an advisory group of cardinals. But he has expressed support for many of the requirements that liberals want relaxed or repealed, and his defensive reaction to the UN's condemnation of the RC Church's failure to halt clerical child abuse was especially disappointing. The jury is still out.

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