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.