A RECENT Vogue article stated: “There are two types of people in the world: the ones who hope that Fleabag gets together with the hot priest (and quite possibly stays a head case forever), and the ones who hope Fleabag finds some degree of catharsis and redemption through his spiritual guidance.”
I appear to be in a third category: those who just want to see some evidence that his Church has a safeguarding policy.
You see, the priest’s behaviour towards the protagonist is abusive. And it seems he gets away with it. But, I hear you say, in the final episode he declares that he loves Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s character, even if he can’t be with her; perhaps he was misguided and made mistakes, but it isn’t abuse if he loves her!
In the final episode the priest also tells us what he thinks love looks like. Love, he says, “makes you selfish, makes you creepy, makes you obsessed with your hair, makes you cruel, makes you say and do things you never thought you would do”.
This isn’t love. This is a description of a desire to control someone else for your own ends. This is a description of someone who gains someone else’s affection to learn their vulnerabilities and exploit them.
I have recently finished reading Natalie Collins’s book Out of Control: Couples, conflict, and the capacity for change. In describing the hallmarks of domestic abuse, she writes: “Only the abuser’s needs will be consistently met. Not only does the abuser devalue, undermine and ignore his partner’s needs, he forces her to ignore her own needs and isolates her from other people who might be able to meet her needs.”
Of course, it doesn’t start that way. Women do not enter relationships with men who appear abusive. It starts, Collins writes, with “love bombing”: inappropriate levels of affection and attention to build trust, and expecting that openness and vulnerability to be quickly reciprocated. The priest weaponises his offer of friendship by moralising their intimacy, as a device to manipulate her vulnerabilities.
Boo is dead, and Phoebe’s sister, Claire, refuses to befriend her. The priest presents himself as a kindred rule-breaking spirit — we all long for intimate connection with another human.
And, even better, the longing for friendship appears to be mutual. In the first episode the priest confesses that he is “really fucking lonely”, and, in a later episode, tells her that he would “like to be her friend”. He quickly establishes a co-conspirator understanding to their relationship — it needs to be secret from the Church, and secret from her family.
He makes himself vulnerable extremely quickly, telling her his struggles with faith, giving hints of his past transgressions, inviting her into his inner life. He draws her into his alcohol dependency, ensuring that their evening interactions involve drinking.
And he expects her to reciprocate: he pushes her to admit things she doesn’t want to (“What are you not telling me? Tell me!”), getting annoyed when she establishes a boundary (“I don’t want that”). None of this is appropriate behaviour for a friend, let alone a priest.
Unable to find out what it is she is keeping from him, he uses her curiosity about faith and his power as a member of the clergy to push her to admit her weaknesses.
The confession-box scene is deeply painful to watch: on the brink of finding a possible path to peace through prayer (she has come to church that evening without the intention of meeting him), he capitalises on her vulnerability (“I want someone to tell me how to live my life, Father, because so far I think I’ve been getting it wrong”) by kissing her. And, in the aftermath, he blames her, telling her not to return to the church when he next sees her.
Beyond the spiritual power that he wields over her, he repeatedly demonstrates his control. After they kiss, he blows cold, telling her family he won’t do her father’s wedding after all.
He demands to know about the place she goes when she breaks the fourth wall, a level of insight into her inner life that no one else has. Then he shows up uninvited, having found out her address without her permission. He tells her that he will do the wedding after all, shouts at her, swears at her, and tells her that they’re going to have sex.
THE brilliance of Waller-Bridge’s writing is that we are played just like she is. We are drawn in by his charm, pity his struggle, and hope that they can heal each other. Like the protagonist, we clearly see the abuse in her sister’s relationship, but not the abuse in her own.
We make excuses for his behaviour. Is it really abuse if she says yes? He swears at me and shouts at me because he needs help. He is breaking his vows for me — he must really care about me. “My priest is here, and he really needs some guidance.” Maybe I can help him change.
This should never be the part played by congregation members in relation to their cleric. This should never be the part played by anyone in any relationship.
We let the sex in Fleabag distract us. Of course, sex breaks priestly vows, and sex between a member of the clergy and a vulnerable congregant is also abusive. But the sex itself is not a one-off indiscretion: it is part of a wider pattern of abuse.
Paradoxically, the only person in the church who tries to ensure appropriate boundaries is Pam (the priest’s roommate? landlady?), who interrupts their conversations to return the priest’s attention to his duties. We are encouraged to view her as an irritant.
WHETHER I have convinced you of the priest’s abusive intent or not, this series of Fleabag should be deeply uncomfortable viewing, as it is designed to be. Perhaps we are disappointed in seeing a priest portrayed this way rather than modelling celibacy and pastoral concern.
But Fleabag should not be dismissed as another clichéd portrayal of Christian leadership. Television certainly shapes culture, but it also reflects the culture that it inhabits. For television to be believable, it must act partly as a mirror that shows us ourselves.
Christians are members of an institution that is riven with abusive behaviour, sexual and otherwise. Is it any surprise that this series introduces a priest who crosses boundaries in increasingly inappropriate ways, eventually breaking his calling to celibacy? This is television for the age of #ChurchToo.
Feeling uncomfortable? Good.
Hannah Malcolm is the co-ordinator for the project God and the Big Bang, working with children, young people, and teachers on science and faith; @hannahmmalcolm