ONE of my favourite literary vicars is Mr Beebe, in E. M.
Forster's A Room with a View. Although not overly
religious, Mr Beebe is an enthusiastic social mediator, and,
whatever else happens to the Church, society will always be in need
Another is Daniel Orton, in A. S. Byatt's quartet of novels that
began in 1978 with The Virgin in the Garden. Orton is
fierce and physical, responding to the needs of those around him
with every fibre of his being.
I also cannot help but have a sneaking admiration for the
notorious Arthur Dimmesdale in Nathaniel Hawthorne's The
Scarlet Letter - so much passion lurking in such an unsuitable
In my book about clerical characters in fiction and film,
The Collar, I examined many such examples. Literary
clerics range widely: there are ambitious and arrogant ones in
James Joyce and Henrik Ibsen; agonised sinners in Graham Greene;
and those worldly gentlemen in Jane Austen. Clint Eastwood, in his
films, has given respectful attention to clerics.
While I organised my examples (detectives, fools, martyrs, and
the wonderful category of clergy wives), the integrity of some
characters meant that they resisted being categorised.
This is as it should be. A good literary pastor is like an
actual pastor - with multiple dimensions, imperfections, and
unpredictable feelings that can be wounded and shared. Literature
helps us realise how unreal our expectations of clergy are:
Hawthorne's Dimmesdale - whose protestations of unworthiness are
seen by his congregation as marks of holiness - is a poignant
reminder of how devastating it is to achieve elevation above
Whether we are churchgoers or not, anyone who enjoys fiction,
drama, television, or the cinema will be familiar with certain
tropes about clerical characteristics.
SO, THE comedy involving Canon Chasuble in Oscar Wilde's The
Importance of Being Earnest, for example, works because the
audience arrives with firm notions of clerical obtuseness.
When Jack and Algernon each clamour to be christened under the
name of Ernest, Canon Chasuble is serene, untroubled about their
inappropriate plunge into holy matters. Wilde uses Canon Chasuble's
innocence as a platform to launch mildly rude repartee; our
eyebrows raised, we hear him tell the governess, Miss Prism, that
were he her pupil he would "hang upon her lips".
At the end of the play, as the young couples rush into each
other's arms, Miss Prism and Canon Chasuble do the same. The
audience is gratified: pompous old fool, pretending to be untouched
by earthly desires.
In his foreword to The Collar, the American pastor and
teacher William H. Willimon writes about "the truth that can be
told only through fiction." Many other modes of explanation, he
says, "seem simple compared to the depth and subtlety, the insight
and candour of good fiction".
There are hundreds of types and portrayals of church leaders. In
a way, the vicar in Wilde's play is offered up as a comedic
When an author is rebellious, clergy stand for the establishment
- they serve as effective markers of hypocrisy, since what, after
all, could be more clearly hypocritical than a man of the cloth
indulging in his own desires?
Particularly in the UK, clerics are used for easy laughs, while
in mainstream films in the United States there is no better
shorthand for a marriage plot than a carpeted aisle with a
sanctimonious, robed figure at the end of it.
Although it can appear that the cleric of fiction experienced
his (definitely his) glory days in the 19th century -
nearly every Austen novel has its important priest, and Anthony
Trollope's novels abound with archdeacons and canons - there have
been rich additions recently to the roster of fictional ministers.
And not all of them are buffoons.
FOR example, those few of us in Canada fortunate to have seen
the BBC comedy Rev have met a marvellously well-rounded
character in Adam Smallbone. His personality is both devout and
irreverent, his ministry a simultaneous disaster and miracle. The
weaknesses of Smallbone are grimly and hilariously realistic, but
his prayers are genuine conversations with God - the likes of which
I have never seen on screen before.
Marilynne Robinson's 2004 novel Gilead, featuring a
gentle, stalwart pastor in small-town Iowa, has now been revealed
as part of a trilogy, after last year's publication of the novel
Lila (after Home in 2008). Although Home
did not add a great deal to the portrait of the Revd John Ames,
Lila certainly does; in its combined impact, the trilogy
is a profound meditation on a life dedicated to the Church.
Much of the response to Gilead involved appreciation
for the lovely humility of the ageing Congregationalist minister at
the heart of the story. "I am one of those righteous for whom the
rejoicing in heaven will be comparatively restrained," is how Ames
Readers also noticed the contemporary variations on biblical
narratives such as the Prodigal Son. Mentioned less frequently, but
also fundamental, is the passionate intellectual labour in which
the modest Ames is involved. In Gilead, theologies of
salvation are argued on nearly every page, and the characters'
struggle with them is not at all academic.
In Lila, where the story is ex- perienced from the
viewpoint of Ames's unusual and recalcitrant wife, the argument
that recurs with life-or-death insistence involves baptism. The
surprise of Lila is that redemption is viewed with such
misgiving by the main character, a once indigent and always
stubbornly individual woman.
Feeling burdened by her recent baptism, Lila actually strives to
wash it away without letting her husband know. There is more
intense contemplation of the function of baptism in this novel than
I have ever seen in any one place; it is a beautiful and troubling
Robinson's fiction happens where profound appreciation for
merely being in the world intersects with rigorous theological
engagement. Ames delights in his young son's red shirt, and the
taste of a biscuit once given him by his father, but at the same
time he frets about his responsibility to expound sound
The wholeness of the experience of Robinson's fiction about
Christian ministry is without parallel. The pain and joy of living
within and for the Church shines on every page.
JUST as stubborn as Lila Ames is Fr James in the 2014 film
Calvary (Arts, 11 April). John
Michael McDonagh's creation is an uncompromising account of one
week in the life of a Roman Catholic priest who embodies
forgiveness, even while all around him seem oblivious of his
As played, gruffly and evocatively, by Brendan Gleeson, a priest
must be devoted to his people, even if this lot look spectacularly
irredeemable. Fornicators, liars, and murderers abound in his tiny
When the priest provides moral direction, people jeer at him,
and disparage his work. Given the rough comedy of the film's early
scenes, only at the conclusion (spoiler alert) will startled
viewers be aware how appropriate the film's title is.
I reeled out of the cinema feeling as if I had seen Oedipus
Rex, or some other ancient tale of cruelty. The audience
exiting alongside me - older people who looked like sturdy
churchgoers - seemed stunned. Perhaps hoping for an uplifting
story, they had instead witnessed their Church at its worst.
That we had also witnessed the priesthood at its best did not,
for the moment, provide much comfort. I carried the weight of
McDonagh's film with me for days, uncertain whether it demanded
respect, argument, or reverence. Fr James finds the will to do as
Christ would have done; but I still felt terrible.
In his blog "Word on Fire", Fr Robert Barron wrote last autumn
that "Calvary shows, with extraordinary vividness, what
authentic spiritual shepherding looks like, and how it feels for a
priest to have a shepherd's heart."
In case there is any danger of slipping into sentimentalism
about shepherding, Fr Barron reminds us that "real shepherding was,
and is, a dirty and hard-edged business." Fr James takes the sins
of his parish into his own body, offering himself wholly.
That Calvary deals with ultimate things is both its
strength and limitation. I cannot help but wonder which is more
devastating for a pastor: coming face to face with evil, or coping
with the daily deadliness of exasperation and sloth. Still,
Calvary's insistence that we really look into a shepherd's
heart is an amazing experience.
IN THE weeks after the death of the admired crime writer P. D.
James, readers surely turned back to their favourites among her
Inspector Dalgliesh titles, and encountered again the fascinating
clerics and church matters she delineated so carefully.
A Taste for Death and Death in Holy Orders
make significant use of religious settings and characters, but what
is more intriguing is how the detective Adam Dalgliesh, himself the
son of an Anglican priest, can be seen to replicate aspects of his
Upright, sensitive, and ethical, the policeman serves as a kind
of hound of heaven. As Hilary Mantel noted in a 1990 New York
Review of Books piece about James, Dalgliesh is so moral he
can seem "too finely spiritual". Dalgliesh feels called, like a
priest, to speak for goodness, even as he is made despondent by
James's The Black Tower (1975) sets Dalgliesh among the
members of an eccentric lay religious community, and is one of her
most satisfying explorations of good and evil. Although Fr
Baddeley, the character who served as chaplain to the community,
dies at the start, his moral presence is strong throughout. An
Anglican priest, whom Dalgliesh loved as a child, Fr Baddeley has
called for the Inspector's help. Arriving too late to save his
friend, Dalgliesh tries to complete the semi-ecclesiastical tasks
that, he feels, have been passed down to him.
The chaplain had an unerring instinct for evil, and was murdered
because of his ability to read the sins of others accurately.
Dalgliesh knows that, even as a specialist in violent crime, he may
understand less about hellishness than Fr Baddeley, who had seldom
become involved professionally with the more spectacular sins; but
that did not mean that they were outside his comprehension, or, for
that matter, his compassion.
It was arguable, anyway, that those were the sins that did least
damage. Of the more corrosive, petty, mean-minded delinquencies in
all their sad but limited variety, he, like any other parish
priest, would have had his fill.
Just as Fr Brown in G. K. Chesterton's detective stories knows
all wickedness without stirring from his country parish, evil did
not escape the good chaplain of The Black Tower.
At its conclusion, Dalgliesh must literally wrestle evil on a
clifftop, and his apprenticeship as Fr Baddeley's heir is
accomplished. The priest-like detective has diligently observed
human sin, and attempted to restore order.
Many people have noticed how well the realms of religion and
detection overlap; examples are the Brother Cadfael mysteries by
Ellis Peters, and Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose. W.
H. Auden, a keen fan of detection, noted in his 1948 essay "The
Guilty Vicarage" that the "typical reader of detective stories is,
like myself, a person who suffers from a sense of sin".
More than that, the detective may also be struggling with
sinfulness; and, although Auden says that the "job of detective is
to restore the state of grace in which the aesthetic and the
ethical are as one", I would add that the detective (or
priest-detective) needs this restoration as much as anyone.
It is still too rare that literary and cinematic portraits take
the Church and its leaders seriously. That Calvary has
shown us new ways into a shepherd's heart is no small thing. But
more important than serious examination is an attitude of generous
(even amused) acceptance, so that the foibles of the clergy are not
turned into signs of Christianity's failure.
It is unfortunate that Rev has such uneven availability
in North America, because the forgiveness that Smallbone requires
is the forgiveness that he extends. This transaction is too
precious to ignore, whether in fiction or in real life.
Sue Sorensen is Associate Professor of English Literature at
Canadian Mennonite University, Winnipeg. Her book The Collar:
Reading Christian ministry in fiction, television, and film is
published by Cascade at £21.