ON TUESDAY night, more than four million of us watched the final episode of Broken, BBC1’s nail-biting saga. It tells the story of a few days in the life of an inner-city Roman Catholic priest, Fr Michael Kerrigan, played by Sean Bean (TV, 9 June).
Little in the six episodes of Broken would have surprised many clergy working in the inner cities, and, of course, nothing surprised Fr Kerrigan. He knew that his parishioner had delayed notifying the police about her mother’s death so that she could claim the pension. Mediating over an assault of a gay man by a BME man was all just part of everyday life.
Fr Kerrigan’s parishioners may have thought him “a wonderful priest”, but he was certainly not, in contemporary terms, very successful. There was no sign of growth in his congregation, and nothing approaching “missional activity”.
Throughout the six episodes, Fr Kerrigan is haunted by his failure, exhausted at the end of a long day, to pick up an answerphone message that could have saved the life of a mentally ill young man. Later, he fails to prevent a mother killing herself, and, after trying to support a gay man, finds himself labelled “a bloody hypocrite” by the man. No increase in mass attendance here!
What seems so refreshing about Fr Kerrigan is that he is not a “super-priest”. He makes mistakes. He carries his own demons of being abused at school and ill-treated by his mother, and having ill-treated women in his youth. He is flawed and, by many standards, unspectacular.
But he is there, in a life-giving way, for the mother with the mentally ill son, the policeman who is under intense pressure to cover up the truth, the children whose mother has taken her life, and the woman who has been stealing from her employer; the list, over six weeks, went on. Time and again, he lights a candle “to remind us that Christ is here”, and, time and again, we sense that he is, too.
IN BETWEEN episodes four and five, I found myself at a clergy gathering. It was much like any other gathering of Anglican clergy, except that all of them worked in some of the most challenged communities in the country. There were clergy there whose faithfulness, whose commitment to challenged communities, and whose faithfulness to Christ frequently leaves me in awe.
What they said to me was: “Nobody seems very interested in what we are doing. In fact, we are not sure that anybody really understands.” They talked of filling in the annual return on church attendance, baptisms, weddings, and funerals, but felt that these official forms simply did not reflect what they were really about. They felt that national talk about “growth”, good as it might be, did not seem to value what they spend a lot of their time doing.
One priest at the gathering spends a lot of time supporting a family in which one of the adult children has severe mental-health issues, which have a severe impact on all the family members. Others talked of just being there for people in a crisis when a listening ear is needed. They talked about how this was time-consuming, because trust had to be developed, but that it rarely led to an increase in church attendance.
One priest told me how the “contract culture” in local government meant that professionals would increasingly work only with those where they were likely to be successful. This meant that the homeless who were completely disorganised were left to fend for themselves. This priest and his wife spend endless hours supporting and befriending the street drinkers who congregate around his church. None of this appears in statistics, and they rarely, if ever, come to church, unless it is to ask for a prayer before a court hearing.
Another priest, who has been open about her own depression, told me of half an hour of conversation in the crisps-and-snacks aisle of the supermarket, while other shoppers squeezed past, with someone who has depression, and had just summoned up most of their courage to make it out the house. It is hard for that person to explain what it is like to family members, because they are too close to the situation, but it is easier to talk to a priest (especially if they know that you have been there yourself).
A MILE away from where I live, we rejoice in a new church-plant at St George’s, Gateshead, a partnership between Holy Trinity, Brompton, St Thomas’s Crooke, Sheffield, and the diocese of Durham. To the amazement of local people, more than a dozen people have come to Gateshead to find new homes and jobs to support this project.
We are certain that it will contribute much, in the years ahead, to the life of the Church in this area and beyond, and it would be wrong to minimise the cost to those who have come to launch it. Broken reminds us that there may be another story to tell.
Somebody on social media has suggested that Broken should be used in clergy recruitment, and I think that this is right. The Church of England needs both the growth of the HTB plants and the apparently unsuccessful ministry of the priest in the supermarket aisle.
Broken gives us an overdue opportunity to celebrate the latter.
The Rt Revd Mark Bryant is the Suffragan Bishop of Jarrow, in the diocese of Durham. You can hear him discuss Broken and how the C of E needs to rediscover ‘unspectacular’ ministry in the latest episode of the Church Times Podcast, which goes live on Friday afternoon