It seems that fictional pastors tend to be cut from one of two molds—often, they are depicted as either narrow-minded zealots (i.e. The Poisonwood Bible’s Nathan Price or Bioshock: Infinite’s Nathan Hale Comstock) or as paragons of unattainable heavenly virtue (i.e. Chaucer’s Parson). While a few writers such as Marilynne Robinson or Alan Paton have succeeded in creating pastoral characters whose human qualities are as admirable as their spiritual ones, such successes are few and far between.
That’s one of the reasons I’m excited about Rev., a British sitcom that is currently between its second and third series across the pond, and is available stateside via Hulu. Throughout its thirteen episodes, Rev. offers a window into the day-to-day life of Adam Smallbone (Tom Hollander), the bumbling vicar of St. Saviour’s of the Marshes, a struggling London church. While the show’s creators (and, indeed, Adam himself) often seem comfortable treading on the sacred in the name of comedy, at its heart, Rev. presents a striking picture of the Church as it is: an untidy community of deeply flawed people who worship a good and forgiving God.
This tension shapes nearly every relationship between the show’s characters; however, it defines none so much as that between Reverend Smallbone and Colin (Steve Evets), his most loyal parishioner. In many ways, Colin is the sort of person one would be surprised to find in a church: he’s homeless, a heavy drinker, lacks all sense of propriety, and at times even turns to other faiths, such as Rastafarianism and Buddhism, for meaning and acceptance. Though his devotion to Adam and St. Savior’s is unquestioned, it often leads him to outrageous acts, such as disguising himself in a burkah in order to catch thieves who have been stealing lead from the church’s roof. Most of the time, Adam finds himself working damage control for Colin’s actions.
And yet, as the series progresses, Adam’s friendship with Colin, growing largely through conversations over shared cigarettes behind the church, paves the way for his participation in the community of faith. For instance, near the beginning of the series, Darren, a charismatic youth preacher, insists that Colin be banned from the church after he misreads the kindness of Pip, a young female attendee, as flirtation. Rather than caving to Darren’s demands, Adam defends Colin’s right to remain a part of the Christian fold:
Darren: I want that man barred from this church.
Adam: I won’t do that, Darren. Colin’s been a regular here for fifteen years. Is there no chance you could forgive him?
Darren: We may well prosecute.
Adam: “’Lord, how many times am I to forgive my neighbor? As many as seven times?’ ‘Seventy times seven,’ said the Lord.”
Darren: [mocking] “Seventy times seven, seventy times seven.” Pip is a vital part of our congregation, yeah?
Adam: Colin isn’t vital to anybody, Darren. Except God. And if God loves you, Darren, then he loves Colin just as much. Colin’s presence in this church is a blessing.
It’s moments like these that make Rev. such a poignant portrait of the life of the Church. When Colin is later baptized near the beginning of Series 2, the viewer shares in the sense of real accomplishment—such a sign of faith has been hard-won, and is all the sweeter for it.
Like its protagonist and the church to which he ministers, Rev. isn’t perfect—in fact, there are times when it’s downright offensive. Nonetheless, I found myself constantly drawn back to the crumbling sanctuary of St. Saviour’s week after week to watch the quiet drama of God’s love unfold. In a way, that’s what makes Rev. one of the best gospel stories being told today: its argument is ultimately that the Church is not a country club for the properly religious, but rather a vital source of life for the messy and the outcast.