Angela Tilby: TV priests show us what is expected

28 July 2017

BBC/Tony Blake

A story to tell: Fr Michael Kerrigan (Sean Bean) (right), and Bernadette Jenkins (Heidi Roberts), in Broken, a BBC 1 series that ended on Tuesday

A story to tell: Fr Michael Kerrigan (Sean Bean) (right), and Bernadette Jenkins (Heidi Roberts), in Broken, a BBC 1 series that ended on Tuesday

THE recent BBC1 drama from Jimmy McGovern, Broken, was greeted by a chorus of critical acclaim (Comment, 7 July; TV, 9 June). It has also had good audience figures. The public clearly warmed to its portrait of Fr Michael Ker­­rigan, a vulnerable, loving Roman Catholic priest, who cared for his struggling flock in all their fragility.

BBC1’s Call the Midwife was more upbeat and Anglican, but it also showed the Church reaching out in service, for instance through Sister Julienne. And then there was Rev, the painfully well-observed BBC2 drama, depict­ing the Revd Adam Smallbone’s tribulations as an inner-city priest.

These TV dramas make the as­­sump­­tion that the Church’s ministry is fundamentally pastoral. The task is to serve people’s needs, whether or not they go to church.

Now imagine a TV series based on the current priestly template being cultivated by the Church of England, in which numerical growth is a primary aim. This often comes with accompanying baggage, Alpha courses, upbeat worship styles, and a focus on personal conversion.

It is hard to imagine this winning an enthusiastic audience. In fact, in one episode of Rev, Adam shared his church with a café church in need of a temporary venue. They brought their sofas and smoothies, made Adam feel hopelessly inferior, and we, the audience, were instinctively suspicious of their agenda. We knew that they were primarily interested in replicating themselves, and not in supporting the ordinary life of the people around them. Their agenda was fund­amentally self-centred.

Those responsible for selecting and training priests should reflect on the way in which priestly min­istry is seen in these dramas. It is likely that the template of priesthood currently being promoted does not reflect ministry as the wider community wants it or expects it.

In the Ordinal, priests are de­­­scribed as servants and shepherds. In moving language, they are told to model themselves on the Good Shep­­herd; they are entrusted with Christ’s own flock, and accountable to the Lord for their stewardship.

Pastoral priest­hood is being side­lined. Priests are told to see them­selves as leaders, evangelists, and entrepre­neurs who empower, train, and manage others. I suspect that the wider com­munity does not warm to this: no one wants to be a target.

Perhaps it is the Adam Small­bones, Fr Kerrigans, and Sister Juliennes who will keep the rumour of a caring God alive when current strategies have been abandoned. Vulnerable people instinctively re­­spond to the gospel and are drawn to those who model themselves on the Good Shepherd. They do not re­­spond to the voice of the stranger, however well-intentioned.

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