When I learned about ITV’s Grantchester on PBS Masterpiece Mystery—a single Anglican priest near Cambridge helps the police solve murders—I couldn’t help myself. I had to watch it. I have been a big fan of the BBC’s Father Brown mysteries, and any show that brings my three big literary loves together—mystery, England, and the Church—deserves a watch, in my opinion.
At first glance, the premises of Grantchester and Father Brown are similar enough. Both shows star a devout priest with considerable skill in solving murder mysteries in the English countryside. (Reader beware: you want to spend as much time in the locales of these shows as you would spend in Murder She Wrote’s Cabot Cove, because the per capita murder rate is astronomical.) Both protagonists are single and committed to their celibacy, although Grantchester’s Anglican vicar Sidney Chambers has the possibility of marriage, while the Catholic Father Brown does not. Both shows are set in the ten years after World War II, as Britain is still recovering from the losses of life and stability she sustained.As a practicing Catholic, I know that confession must occur even in the summertime, when the confessional booth is stuffy and both priest and penitent are itching to be elsewhere.
Father Brown is formulaic, a kind of mid-century British priest/police procedural. There are five consistent characters: Father Brown, the busybody church secretary Mrs. McCarthy, the sensual socialite Lady Felicia, the conman-turned-friend Sidney Carter, and whichever police inspector is currently in charge of keeping the peace in the village of Kembleford. Inevitably, Father Brown will be in the right place at the right time, a murder having been conveniently committed at whatever event he finds himself. The police arrive, the inspector ignores the priest’s concerns with how the investigation is wending away from his insight, and Father Brown recruits his friends to employ their particular skills in collecting data for his own sleuthing. The wrong person is in police custody, and it is up to Father Brown to set them free.
The Catholic priest, played by Mark Williams (Harry Potter’s Arthur Weasley), has a penchant for solving crime, but caring for the people in his flock is his foremost concern. He frequently confronts killers one-on-one and hears their confessions. He urges them to turn themselves in, with varying degrees of success. I have been surprised at the consistently good advice, sound biblical teaching, and moments of touching sincerity in Father Brown’s concern for the salvation of souls. As a Catholic myself, I love seeing a kind and gentle on-screen representation of the priesthood. G. K. Chesterton, prolific author and Catholic convert, created Father Brown in the early 20th century, in a series of short stories based on a priest who assisted him in his conversion. I’m grateful that the show’s producers have stuck to Chesterton’s character of the sleuthing priest—sharp, insightful, and pastoral.
The distance between Father Brown’s Kembleford and Grantchester’s setting in the outskirts of Cambridgeshire is barely over 100 miles. Remarkably, both shows take place in the 1950s, so I expected them to be very similar in scope and substance. I was surprised to find, however, the differences to be stark.
While Father Brown and Reverend Chambers are both devoted to the Church and caring for their flocks, their personalities could not be more different. Father Brown is an older priest, although he is rather spry for his age and vocation. He has a knack for coming up on murder scenes honestly and subsequently frustrating the constable with his unsolicited help. Father Brown is rather bland in appearance, fading into the background, able to gather information and artifacts for an investigation without raising suspicion or concern. He is a keen judge of character, and his insight into the human condition gives him an edge over the stubborn and proud police inspectors who come and go with the seasons of the show.
The vicar of Grantchester, on the other hand, is young, handsome, available, and anything but bland. The Reverend Sidney Chambers (James Norton) is a celibate priest in the St. Andrew and St. Mary Church, and he lives in the vicarage with his housekeeper Mrs. McGuire and fellow priest, the Reverend Leonard Finch. The murders he solves with his best friend, police inspector Geordie Keating, are rather corollary to the storytelling of friendship and longing that unfold along the way.
While Sidney pines for something more than friendship with his sister’s wealthy schoolmate Amanda Kendall, a landed aristocrat is courting her, so he neglects to pursue romance with her. Their friendship is undergirded by deep affection and attraction, but Sidney recognizes that he is below Amanda in station and would not give her the life to which she is accustomed. He consoles himself with drinking at the local pub, where he befriends Geordie.
Friendship and Confession
The murders in Grantchester are intense and often deeply painful, giving viewers a complex situation where right and wrong are not always clear. Its darker tone is notable when contrasted with the light, always-summer feeling of Father Brown. England is notorious for its overcast weather, but somehow Father Brown is always cycling around the countryside in his black cassock, solving murders in the hot and humid summertime. The scenes are shot with bright lighting and an optimism in the sleuthing priest that gives me joy as I watch him solve the crime, often confronting the episode’s murderer with the truth of their dark deeds and urging them to repent, for the sake of their mortal soul. When the wrong person is behind bars, Father Brown is their advocate. And for everyone he encounters, whether guilty of murder or innocent as a dove, the priest offers truth and an ear for confession.
As a practicing Catholic, I know that confession must occur even in the summertime, when the confessional booth is stuffy and both priest and penitent are itching to be elsewhere. Much like participation in the Eucharist, the act of confession roots a believer to a local body of Christ, making room for every person to hear the comforting words of the forgiveness God offers. A priest in the mid-twentieth century would have used an older form of absolution, but I love the 1970 revised version:
God, the Father of mercies, through the death and resurrection of his Son has reconciled the world to himself and sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins; through the ministry of the Church may God give you pardon and peace, and I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
For me, participating in the sacrament of reconciliation, of which confession and penance are parts, is like a drink of cool water on a hot summer day, and sometimes I don’t know I’m even thirsty until I take a sip. For all the controversy that exists between Catholics and Protestants over the Church’s role in forgiving sin in the name of Jesus, it is undeniable that to confess one’s sins to another is to have a burden lifted off the soul. Father Brown extends his friendship and ear to all he encounters who are in need of absolution. He doesn’t sit across from them, a position that can feel adversarial. Instead, he takes his place beside the penitent, drapes his shoulders with the purple stole he keeps in his cassock pocket for confession on-the-go, and stares ahead. This pastoral act of friendship reminds me how I imagine God speaking with Abraham as they walked together under the starry skies of Palestine, side by side, speaking of deep truth.
The friendship that Father Brown offers changes lives in every episode. Some murderers repent and people good and bad turn back to God. Despite the weight of a life being taken in every single episode—like any murder mystery show—the mystery is solved, and a priest of God’s Church has brought order back into the place of crime-created chaos.
The Mystery of the Human Heart
Whereas the mysteries of Father Brown are encased within the crime that is neatly wrapped up at the end of each episode, Grantchester offers mystery in the relationships that Sidney has with his friends, his flirtations, and his flock. As I said previously, the crimes committed largely function as a pretext for the mystery of Sidney Chambers: his loyalties and responsibilities, his vices and worries on display for us to sift through while he swims in alternating currents of joy and despair. Sidney is committed to celibacy, yet he cheats on his girlfriend with a one-night stand. He is loyal to his friends, but he is willing to break the seal of confession to bring his view of justice to pass. He agrees with the Church’s view on marriage, yet carries on romantically with a married woman.
I appreciate that neither Sidney’s nor Father Brown’s priestly role is presented as the holier-than-thou and hypocritical caricatures that I have come to expect from media portrayals of the clergy, particularly the celibate ones. Father Brown is faithful to and content in his vocational singleness, though in a way that could lead to one of two faulty conclusions: first, that for a priest in the 1950s, sexual desire was absent or easily tamed, or second, that by virtue of his celibate, Catholic, priestly vocation, he is somehow freed from the struggle of loneliness and desire of living without the prospect of getting married. I think that Sidney Chambers’s struggles are more reflective of reality for those called into celibacy and ministry.
If Father Brown is a study in the murder mysteries of an English summer, Grantchester is a pilgrimage through all the seasons of the year. Sidney’s ordination is the beginning of springtime, replete with the hope of love between Sidney and Amanda. His friendship with Geordie grows roots in the dirt and grime of crime-fighting spring soil. As spring turns to summer, the neophyte assistant vicar Leonard comes to the vicarage, bringing a refreshing balance of humor and awkwardness to the puritanical mothering of Mrs. Maguire the housekeeper. Amanda’s marriage to the aristocratic Guy Hopkins brings on the late summer drought for Sidney’s soul. Geordie’s marriage and his friendship with Sidney strain under the weight of falling leaves, and by the time a Christmas miracle comes to Sidney, he is in desperate need of saving by a baby born on Christmas Day.
Living with a Broken Heart
Sidney’s roommate, Leonard, is my favorite character, in no small part due to the sweetly awkward and wisdom-loving relief he provides to Sidney’s anguish and vice. Both men are committed to celibacy outside of marriage; both men are drawn to love interests who are unavailable to them—Sidney to a married woman and Leonard to a man named Daniel. When Leonard discovers that his deep friendship with Daniel has been betrayed by Daniel’s frustration with Leonard’s reticence, Sidney finds him crying in the kitchen.
“It gets easier,” Sidney tells Leonard, “living with a broken heart.”
That scene had me choking back tears, because I heard the truth of the Gospel in Sidney’s words of comfort. Since hearing that truth from Sidney, I have had Andy Gullahorn’s song “Broken Heart” on repeat in my brain:
There are other ways that Jesus could have saved the world
Ones that wouldn’t end up with him dead
Coulda done it with an order from the throne of God
But he did it with a broken heart instead
So I’ll take a broken heart
‘Cause a broken heart
A broken heart
A broken heart is better
Than one that doesn’t feel
Grantchester forces me to think about suffering, both my own and that of my neighbors, in a fresh way. How many of the people I encounter are living in the winter of brokenheartedness? Loneliness, infertility, sickness, poverty—none of us is immune to these consequences of our first parents’ sin. Watching Grantchester reminds me that I can’t simply protect myself from the winter; I need to open my home for those without shelter. Protecting myself above all costs from the pain of a broken heart ultimately results in a heart that doesn’t feel. As a follower of Jesus, I am called to walk with him into places of deep brokenness—within myself and within others—not to demand that life be lived in the eternal sunshine and forgetfulness of summer, as much as I enjoy Father Brown’s neat and tidy murder mysteries.
When Leonard’s new friend Hilary is struggling with loss in her life, he tells her, “Contentment is a feeling hard-won.” As my family, friends, and neighbors journey through the hardships of the soul’s winter, and even as I join them there in my own brokenness, I am fighting for a contentment that comes from deep friendship with the Man of Sorrows, my high priest, my companion for every season, the one who knows the mysteries of my human heart and who invites me into the even greater mystery of relationship with the God of all creation. I’m thankful for the witness to the truth that both Grantchester and Father Brown bring to me on the way.