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Courtesy of Super Channel

Prime-time pastors

Minister characters often tend to be caricatures. But these screen clergy offer more faithful depictions of men and women of the cloth.

By Lee Simpson

Popular culture gives us glimpses of contemporary clergy on screen, but rarely do we enjoy complete portraits. Protestants who are not fundamentalists are scarce. Daring depictions offer worship leaders in bed, but we seldom catch a preacher in prayer. Are directors worried about scaring (or boring) a secular audience with too much religion? Despite these gaps, the lives of on-screen clergy are often faithful to other aspects of church life, whether it’s tending to troubled souls or grappling with parish politics. They also illustrate humour’s gift in easing congregational strife. Real-life ministers will find many points of connection with their fictional counterparts in the examples below. In some cases, they may even see hints of themselves.

With the debut of the TV drama Forgive Me on Super Channel this fall, we peek inside the confessional of a contemporary Catholic church. Although the setting is geographically vague, the production is Canadian — much of the filming actually took place at St. Matthew’s United in Halifax last winter. The show features Nova Scotian actor Mike McLeod as a young man adjusting to life in the priesthood. John Dunsworth, best known for his role as the hard-drinking park supervisor in Trailer Park Boys, plays his prelate confidante. McLeod’s character is witty, thoughtful and very modern in his approach to theology. When a would-be confessor with a 51-year absence from church remarks that he seems less intimidating than she expects of priests, he replies that he is “working on it.” Some of the sins he’s asked to absolve are garden variety — one woman admits to planting different crops too close together — but others are more disturbing. Outside the confession booth, the young priest is haunted by insomnia and past events, including an old girlfriend with a surprising announcement. Early episodes are promising. Although dark, this is not an unremittingly gloomy show. The enforced intimacy of that dark little box brings moments of sharp, bright humour from guest stars like Jane Alexander and Brenda Fricker. Viewers have much to applaud and little to forgive in the series.

British film may have invented the dithery vicar of cozy chintz parlours, but that self-effacing soul never met Rev. Adam Smallbone of the BBC series Rev. This gritty comedy features aspects of ministry often unexplored in the media, from urban unemployment to homelessness and alcoholism. Yet it remains surprisingly uplifting. Tom Hollander portrays Smallbone, newly called to an inner-city London church for which he seems to have a genuine kinship. There is realism in the show’s depictions of pastoral care, church dynamics and, yes, praying. Can good clerics drink in a pub? Swear? The abiding questions of ministry are sometimes not about God.

A trip across the television pond also demands a visit to a fictional Oxfordshire hamlet for Dawn French’s portrayal of Rev. Geraldine Granger in the long-running series The Vicar of Dibley. The producers were wise to consult Rev. Joy Carroll, one of the first female Church of England priests, for script advice: though comical, the show rings true in the detail. From the necessity to consume goodies of dubious origin, to the difficulty of remembering one’s calling amid leaking sanctuary roofs and freezing church halls, Geraldine’s trials will evoke knowing smiles from ministry personnel. And those meetings! Anyone who ever sat on a church committee will recognize the egos around the conference tables of Dibley. Beyond the comedy, faith leaders can identify with the quieter moments in Geraldine’s life, her loneliness and search for companionship as an unmarried woman of the cloth. Her relationship with her verger, Alice Tinker, also reveals deep compassion: most congregations yield at least one soul whose ability to proffer assistance and irritation comes in equal measure.

Back home, we find the acclaimed CBC series Little Mosque on the Prairie, which wrapped up last year after a six-season run. The show offers a humorous look at the tensions of interfaith relationships, combined with a sound knowledge of such all-Canadian passions as curling and church suppers. Imam Amaar Rashid (Zaib Shaikh) is wholly convincing in his soul-searching, while Rev. Duncan McGee (Derek McGrath), the first of two worship leaders in the Anglican church that houses the mosque, would not be out of place in the United Church with his liberal views and questioning of authority. The show’s depiction of small-town life and the role played by faith institutions in valiantly keeping community alive will be familiar to readers who live outside urban centres.

Finally, with a nod to the season, check TV listings for the classic 1944 film Going My Way, with Bing Crosby as Father O’Malley. This time, don’t focus on the songs. Instead seek connections to your congregation. Watch how O’Malley and the wonderful Barry Fitzgerald as Father Fitzgibbon transition from one culture of ministry to another. Our generation did not invent cash-strapped churches; the broken furnace is always with us. Getting youth involved remains a challenge. And don’t bother trying to keep a dry eye when the Irish lullaby begins. It isn’t Christmas without a tear.

Rev. Lee Simpson is a writer in Lunenburg, N.S.

Author's photo
Rev. Lee Simpson is a writer in Lunenburg, N.S. New posts of YBN will appear every other Friday. You can also check out a short documentary about Lee at http://www.ucobserver.org/video/2014/04/ybn/.
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