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‘Squid Vicar’ does not stand still in pastoral situation

08 December 2023

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The Revd Lee Taylor in his Squid Games: The challenge tracksuit

The Revd Lee Taylor in his Squid Games: The challenge tracksuit

DUBBED the “Squid Vicar” by fellow contestants, the Revd Lee Taylor clearly made an impact in the Netflix game show Squid Game: The challenge, despite being eliminated in a brutal — and allegedly unjust — first round.

In the first of a series of games to decide the winner of the £3.6 million prize, contestants had to traverse an aircraft hangar, “freezing” whenever a large doll turned to face them, and running forward whenever they were out of sight, like a nightmarish game of “What’s the time, Mr Wolf?”.

Unlike the original Squid Game drama series, contestants caught moving are not shot dead, but are merely splattered by the ink pack on their chest, below the green tracksuit that bears their number in the game.

But viewers will be hard-pressed to spot contestant 123, who, outside of the game, is Priest-in-Charge of the Valle Crucis Mission Area, in the diocese of St Asaph.

“This can run the risk of sounding quite salty, but there were a number of unfair eliminations,” he told the Church Times on Tuesday.

“I was a few feet away from the finish line, and I was frozen still, and I was looking at somebody right in front of me. I was focusing on him, and he did not flinch, but I watched as he got eliminated, and thought ‘Hang on a minute. . .”

Back at the hotel in London where the jettisoned contestants stayed after filming, Fr Taylor found himself setting up “a kind of pop-up chaplaincy” for those who were distraught at their unfair elimination and a lost chance at becoming a multi-millionaire, earning himself the nickname “Squid Vicar”.

“I spent a lot of time ministering to people who felt down, hurt, betrayed, and had to make a long journey home [contestants came from around the world]. I was glad to be there to be able to help people and listen to them; so I guess I served a purpose.”

Although himself “a bit upset” at the outcome of the game, Fr Taylor reflected that the manner of his elimination was in keeping with the cruel premise of Squid Game, the philosophical aspects of which had convinced him to take part in the first place.

“I was really intrigued by the underlying theme of capitalism, of fear, of how society is debt-laden and fear-driven, anxious, and competitive. And I thought, I’m going to give this a go, because it raises a lot of themes,” he said. He admitted, however, that he had struggled to get through the original show because of the gory violence — an element absent from the real-life game-show version.

NetflixContestants race towards the motion-detecting doll in the official trailer for Squid Games: The Challenge

After having to keep his involvement a secret for almost a whole year, Fr Taylor is finally able to speak about the show, which was filmed early in the New Year and released late last month.

It quickly became the most popular show on Netflix in both the UK and the United States, but also received backlash from some participants, who alleged that the punishingly cold conditions in which the first game was played were dangerous, and that elements of the game seemed to be rigged.

Although the action is edited so as to appear to last just five minutes in total, the filming actually took all day, with contestants having to stay completely still for up to 25 minutes at a time, according to Fr Taylor’s calculations; he estimated the time by singing “In the bleak midwinter” silently in his head, getting through up to five full renditions before he was allowed to move again.

The theme music of the original series and the game show was a point of intrigue for Fr Taylor, as he noticed that a musical pattern at the start is taken from the Dies Irae phrasing sequence used in requiem masses.

The fact that their priest took part in the hit show clearly caught the interest of people in his community, and, last week, he held a workshop on Gregorian chant, and its links to the game, that was attended by many young non-churchgoers.

“It was my way of talking about my experience of Squid Game, and about music, because I’m a musician as well, and have an interest in sacred music, and love plainsong.”

The weaving of the motif into the theme music contributes to the sense of fear which it invokes, he said, and he highlighted fear as the predominant theme of Squid Game — something which he encountered as he ministered to the rejected contestants.

“People were fearful that they weren’t good enough, or that they had been singled out because they weren’t interesting enough to be featured in the programme. Fear was everywhere in this game,” he said. The cash prize was a further element of suspense, especially for those who entered the show in debt, or with some other financial need.

“From a priestly perspective, I’ve ministered to people all my life who’ve been beleaguered by fear in every area of their lives. I’ve seen what fear can do to people who struggle to pay the bills, to meet the mortgage payments, to put enough food on the table.

“Fear is a destructive state that keeps us enslaved. From a spiritual perspective, fear stifles our growth . . . and, for me, the spiritual path or journey is about liberating ourselves from fear and working our way up to joy, where that unity with God dwells.”

Such reflections on fear were relevant also to the Church of England’s current divisions over blessings for same-sex couples, Fr Taylor suggested. He and his partner were the first same-sex couple to be blessed in the Church in Wales (News, 15 November 2021).

The Gospels were all about love, not fear, he said, but “the whole issue about equal marriage and the Church is rooted in fear: it’s not rooted in love.”

Fear was pervasive on both sides: those who fear “breaking with tradition”, but also same-sex couples who “fear that they’re not loved by God, fear that their love for each other is not authentic, fear it’s not good enough, fear of not being accepted by others, and even fear entering a physical church building”.

The introduction of blessings in the Church in Wales had helped to quell these fears, he suggested, and many couples across the border in England had contacted him enquiring about how they could receive a blessing.

“I just think we need to take that on board, and think about what it does from a missional point of view,” he said.

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