The Rev. Adam Smallbone is the vicar of a historic urban parish in East London. As with many parishes in the Church of England, attendance at St. Saviour-in-the-Marshes has been in steady decline and is having difficulty maintaining the dilapidated building that houses the faithful few who show up on Sunday morning. In spite of the congregation’s small size, Adam (as he is called by virtually everyone who knows him) is overworked. He takes the notion of “parish” seriously, which means that he considers himself a chaplain to anyone and everyone around him, and his diocese can’t justify offering any subsidies to St. Saviour’s, especially with a declining ASA (“Average Sunday Attendance”). Apart from an overzealous lay reader (and wannabe seminarian) named Nigel, Adam is left alone to manage the quotidian affairs of his struggling parish.
But what if I told you that the Rev. Adam Smallbone isn’t real—that he’s the main character of a popular TV sitcom series? What? You mean to tell me that the above description doesn’t sound like the recipe for a hit TV show? Well, I’m right there with you. I find it remarkable that Rev ever received a green light from the BBC. I suppose it shouldn’t be too surprising, given that the show is set (and originally aired) in the UK. This series would have completely flopped in the US, a fact that has nothing to do with either nation’s level of piety. It’s simply the case that England has an established church, and, while that church may have lost its vibrancy and vigor, it’s still woven into the fabric of British culture in a way that has no analogue across the pond. Yet, on the other hand, I still find it remarkable that this show was ever made, not only because of its mundane setting, but because of the way it handles its subject matter.
In our ultra polarized culture, it’s hard to conceive of a TV show that deals with Christianity without a built-in agenda. As viewers, we’ve come to expect either apologetics or mockery. This is where Rev defies expectations. In the words of series creator, James Wood, “Our unspoken rule was never to laugh at people of faith.” Wood doesn’t consider himself a believer, but he expresses respect for the Church, and he comes from a long line of priests. This removed-yet-still-respectful stance has been reflected in the series itself. If anything, a parish priest trying to navigate a rapidly changing urban setting has presented itself as rife with comedic fodder.
“We never set out to do PR for the Church,” Wood explains. “Many of the best jokes are directed at its dogma and out-of-date laws.” The main character (the eponymous “Rev”) feels this out-of-date-ness all too keenly.
It’s hard not to like Adam. He genuinely cares for people, he loves his wife (despite his occasional indiscretions), he loves the Lord, and he is well aware of his own flaws. He’s the kind of guy I’d like to hang out with over a pint. But I don’t think I would want him to be my pastor. In my assessment, Adam is a victim of the blasé, liberal Protestant seminary training of his generation. He is resigned to the fact that most people find Christianity irrelevant to contemporary needs, and, while he personally possesses a deep faith, he is less than confident that the Gospel should be proclaimed with any sort of authority. It’s no wonder that he’s burnt out: it turns out it’s much easier to be in persona Christi than to be the personal chaplain to everyone in the world.
While the show isn’t “preachy,” this doesn’t mean it isn’t capable of preaching. Oftentimes, simply by using the Church’s language and symbols, the Gospel shines through, even if it isn’t coming from Adam’s lips. For example, the second season of Rev is set during the season of Lent. The penitential season coincides with Adam experiencing an identity crisis. The series’ writers lean heavily on Lent-Easter and passion-crucifixion-resurrection motifs to narrate this story arc — to the point of having Adam carrying a large, wooden cross through the streets of London as the crowds begin to mock him. It’s moments like these, when Adam’s personality retreats into the background, that the real power of his vocation becomes apparent. Adam may struggle to gain the respect of those around him, but even he knows deep down that he’ll never be worthy of a calling that warrants the title Reverend. But none of us, in and of ourselves, is worthy of that calling. The main character’s name is probably no coincidence. Adam is the everyman, the one who struggles to find an identity that transcends his finite, sinful self.
I should conclude by noting that nothing I’ve written should count as a recommendation to watch Rev. Not everyone will find it funny, and even fewer will find it edifying. Even Archbishop Justin Welby was hesitant to praise the series, stating, “While it’s great entertainment, it doesn’t truly tell the whole story.” It’s still a sitcom, after all. Nevertheless, it’s refreshing to find a show that portrays the Church’s flaws without exploiting them. Some of us need to be reminded that, while the Church is indeed a divine institution, it can oftentimes be all too human.