Just how offensive was Rowan Atkinson’s Comic Relief Archbishop of Canterbury?

Along with several million other people, I sat down on Friday night to watch the biennial fundraiser that is Comic Relief’s Red Nose Day.  Before too long, up popped Rowan Atkinson posing as the Archbishop of Canterbury to give his address to the nation.  In a manner characteristic of other Atkinson characters, his archbishop came over as earnest and well-meaning, but out of touch and a bit drippy.  We were reminded that Jesus told us to love our neighbour and giving to Comic Relief does just that.  He also encouraged us to pray even though he then added that prayer doesn’t work.

As I watched it I has several thoughts going through my head; was this genuinely funny or just offensive towards Christians?  Should I be complaining or would doing that just make me come across as another dreary Christian with a sense of humour failure?

As it turns out I wasn’t the only one thinking this.  Within moments of the sketch being broadcast the Evangelical Alliance’s Krish Kandiah posted an article on his blog encouraging readers to complain to the BBC.  Yesterday we found out that over 2,200 people had contacted the BBC to complain about the sketch.  In response the BBC produced a statement saying that the sketch “was intended to amuse and entertain,” and that, “we did not mean to cause any offence”.  The sketch has however now been removed from BBC’s iPlayer, which suggests that they believe it did overstep the mark.

It’s not the first time Rowan Atkinson has played a bumbling member of the clergy.  He’s done so in the films Four Weddings and a Funeral and Keeping Mum, along with various television sketches.  If you’re looking for someone to play a jovial but clueless vicar, then Atkinson is definitely your man.

Back in 2011, despite being raised within the Church of England, he was outspoken in his view of the clergy in a Times Magazine article:

“I used to think that the vicars that I played or the exaggerated sketches about clerics were unreasonable satires on well meaning individuals, but, actually, so many of the clerics that I’ve met, particularly the Church of England clerics, are people of such extraordinary smugness and arrogance and conceitedness who are extraordinarily presumptuous about the significance of their position in society.

“Increasingly, I believe that all the mud that Richard Curtis and I threw at them through endless sketches that we’ve done is more than deserved.”

Some Christians might think that this is over-the-top and unjustified.  Having met Justin Welby, I can confirm that he bears absolutely no resemblance to Rowan Atkinson’s archbishop.  The fact that the Comic Relief sketch came less than a week before Justin Welby’s enthronement particularly irked me because it implied at a key time that the head of the Church of England is a woolly minded idiot, when quite clearly he is not.  However, I have also been around the Church of England enough to know that Atkinson’s vicar characters are not completely without foundation.  I’ve met some vicars who I’ve walked away from wondering how they ever ended up in the position they did.  I’m reminded too of a predecessor of Welby’s; David Jenkins, Archbishop of Durham back in the 80s, who came out with some very dubious statements that left plenty of people questioning whether he was actually a Christian.

Fortunately for the church these types of leaders who can come across as wishy-washy and half-baked appear to be a dying (or at least retiring) breed.  The Church of England certainly has moved on considerably in the last few decades.  Many of those I know and meet going for ordination are much more savvy and grounded in reality, with a Bible based theology that gives them confidence in the Gospel.

The problem is that there are many people who look at Rowan Atkinson’s characters or watch most episodes of Songs of Praise and think this is what Christianity all about.  I doubt many people would use the words ‘dynamic’ and ‘attractive’ to describe their perception of the church.

Andrew Brown is the editor of the belief section of the Guardian’s Comment part of their website.  He is one of those curious types who doesn’t believe in God, but still goes to church.  In a piece he wrote last month entitled, ‘I go to church not for God but for humanity‘ he says this:

‘I went to church on Sunday, wondering again why I do this. It’s not for an experience of the sublime. Transfiguring sunsets, quiet rivers and even choral evensong will all deliver an overwhelming aesthetic dissolution into the world much more reliably than an Anglican village service where the choir is robed but fluffs its cues, and the hymns run the whole gamut from Victorian pretension to late 20th century banality.

‘If I valued church services primarily for their beauty and their ability to transform the world I see around me, I would consider them as inadequate substitutes for Radio 3. But I don’t. I value them in an odd and awkward way which has little or nothing to do with belief and which in fact always seems to involve a reassertion of unbelief.’

The problem with this sort of article is not Andrew Brown’s honest appraisal of his beliefs, but the reassertion that church is a dull place to be where you wander in, sing and pray a bit and listen to a sermon that has little relevance to life on a Monday morning.  I do have to admit that some weeks I’ll be in a church service struggling to stay awake and connect with God, but my experience of church is fundamentally different to the one that Andrew Brown describes.  Mine, like many others, is one of a thriving community where people from different backgrounds become friends and support each other, where knowing Jesus isn’t just a concept, but a reality and where that relationship causes lives to be changed for the better.  It’s a place where emotional and physical healing takes place, where there is a deep desire to serve the poor, the prisoners and local communities, where teenagers would rather be instead of being on the streets or at home, where teaching is about what it means to be a true disciple of Jesus every day and where encountering the presence of God through the worship is expected.

Certainly not all of this happens all the time.  No church is perfect and there will always be things about any church that each of us will find difficult or won’t like,  but the point is that church was never supposed to be dull and boring with leaders who are no more than well-meaning individuals.  When I look at the reality of the church I continually encounter and the media’s perception of it the two rarely match up.

Rowan Atkinson’s Archbishop of Canterbury may have been offensive to many of us, but it’s only a more overblown version of a stereotype that the public can identify with that is based on an element of truth.  Christians can’t complain about this too much if they’re not going to make the effort to present the media and the public with a more accurate version of what much of the church is really like.  How many people, if you tried to describe to them what a modern worship song is (and by that I don’t mean Shine, Jesus, Shine) would be able to understand what you meant unless you pointed them in the direction of YouTube?  This is a big and on-going challenge for the church, but it’s one that needs a proactive effort, just like delivering the Gospel.  If we just expect the everyday person on the street to somehow work this out for themselves without making the effort to spread the news, we’ll be in for a very, very long wait.

Categories: Archbishop of Canterbury, Church, Faith in society, Media

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14 replies

  1. Agreed. I have met many clergy in my time from the kind and considerate, to the conceited and pompous, and it is unfortunate that some have let their human emotions get the better of them in public discourse (although I cannot say I have never done the same 😦 ), from the former Bishop of Durham, to the former Bishop of Southwark, Mervyn Stockwood and his arrogant attitude on the debate on Life of Brian with Cleese and Palin, on the Friday Night Saturday Morning programme all those years ago!
    The clergy consists of all types of people and I do wonder whether some deliberately ignore the likes of Martin Luther King, or C.S. Lewis, or Mother Teresa, or Brother Roger of Taize (now there was someone I met who was full of the Holy Spirit),who gave good Christian witness in their lives so as to justify their prejudices. I hope that isn’t the case!

  2. Good post. I only half listened to the sketch and wasn’t particularly offended. I do wonder if that’s because I’ve become numb to such stuff. And therein might lie the problem. Vicars (and Christian leaders in general, of all churches) are almost universally portrayed by the media in a poor light. Watch a Saturday night drama and a priest appears…you know the story will develop with him being responsible for the abuse of another character. Or a local charismatic leader will prove to be actually running a sect. Or a bishop will be discovered as an adulterer.
    The hero in the story might be Muslim, Buddhist or atheist but never Christian. If they aren’t evil then they are bumbling and confused. What’s sad is that the vicar of dibley is actually held up as a positive image…is that really the best they can do?
    I’m not generally a party to conspiracy theory but sometimes…
    As to how we counter it. I’m not sure much can be done. Complaining to the Beeb might help us feel better and I’m not saying we shouldn’t but I doubt it will make much difference.
    Certainly you are right that we need to “present” the church in a positive way – (horrible word but I hope you get what I mean). My church is rarely boring. The worship is vibrant, the leaders are informed, intelligent (in one case in particular, highly!) and caring. The congregation is multi ethnic and mixed economically. They are generous to the poor and I would be more than happy to take anyone along.
    So why will I probably not invite anyone today? Surely the problem cannot lie with me…

  3. Actually I think as Christians we only have ourselves to blame for how other people see us. (and mock us in sketches like Rowan’s) Too many clergy persons have (and still do) talked in language that no one can understand from the ivory towers of their pulpits or institutions – thinking they have a God given right to be heard. Perhaps if the church woke up, sold its vast assets and gave sacrificially to the poor then we would win the right to be heard.

  4. Agree with where you’re coming from but I think the following is worth a mention:

    The BBC would never dare present Muslim leaders in a negative light. So why do they always pick on Christianity? I think we’re an easy target…

  5. We recorded it and watched it on Saturday evening. I like Rowan Atkinson being a bit of a Black Adder fan but this was a very tired sketch. I was irritated by his point about prayer not least because a prayer/ meditation life in a busy culture is hugely beneficial. Strategically it was a poor decision because Christians are known for generous giving so to alienate potential supporters seemed a bit crass. I agree Chris that we do need to get out more but speaking for my own local churches an enormous amount of good work is already going on. Traditionally we have not ” presented” ourselves in a positive way because we are required not to boast of our good deeds or it just seems like marketing or spin. We do need to find a way to respond but by complaining to the BBC we immediately fall into the humourless Christian stereotype. Whilst our broad shoulders do make us an easy target i am rather proud of them. My concern as always is the freedom/ opportunity to respond.

  6. Scripture tells us we will be mocked. We get on and do our things anyway. Christians most definitely are not alone in being mocked. Mockery is standard currency in many branches of the media. So what? Given I have been adequately warned by my own holy book that this will be so, I will continue to be a fool for Christ. And also, if one trawls around the bleaker comedy on offer as I am inclined to do, you will find other faiths receiving their share. And those with no faith. And MPs. And celebrities. And so on. And so forth. As long as we value our right to speak the gospel freely, we should be prepared to put up with, indeed happily embrace others rights to oppose it.

  7. I watched fleeting moments of comic relief and discovered that our TV comedians need carefully honed scripts to be funny for their pathetic attempts at spontaneity completely failed to raise a laugh save amongst an audience that were clearly bedazzled by their good fortune of finding themselves in the company of such a large number of mega personalities, In fact, I would go so far as to quote one of them and say today’s comedians “are people of such extraordinary smugness and arrogance and conceitedness who are extraordinarily presumptuous about the significance of their position in society.”

  8. Watched the video, are we not a little too sensitive? Comedy pokes us where we are afraid to look. Atkinson expresses what is a public perception and we need to take notice. How do we fix our image or do we need to worry at all? Just get on with it but beware, others see us differently than we do. And that’s good for us. If we are listening.

    • I think you guys need the comment from an agnostic atheist for balance 😉

      Atkinson has done a lot of funny work in his time, perhaps this was not his best. I particularly found the comment about prayer not working the funniest line! The reason being, is for an agnostic atheist prayer does seem like a waste of time, for reasons I could go into, but accept from my point of view ‘no prayers are heard.’ I do take on board that meditation can be a good thing in this day and age, but does that have to be achieved through prayer? The practical help and financial support so many of us can provide is a lot more useful, and I think many people in my ‘community’ are skeptical of just how many riches the churches and so many religions seem to have when so many claim the poor should be looked after. The ‘spin off’s ‘off Christianity also seem to be very good at separating the average person from their money, such as Evangelical Churches in America, or the treatment of Kindoki in parts of the Congo. (As a side I’d like to link to a film about this appalling practice for your consideration.)

      Branded a Witch:

      Then we have the issue of religion in modern times. Well we only need to look at the Catholics stance on stem cell research, abortion, contraception. homosexuality and so on to see that religion is reinforcing antiquated and often dangerous ideas. Ideas that lead many people to believe that gay people are going to hell for a part of their nature. The spread of HIV and Aids in Africa because condoms are not promoted enough and even deemed evil by some religious minds and so on.

      I guess if you really want some good commentary on what people like me think about religion generally, you couldn’t do much worse than viewing the taster of Julia Sweeneys’ work Letting Go of God on Ted talks:

      In terms of victimization by the BBC, or any media outlet, well the BBC generally has a skewed outlook on things, and ALL mainstream news sources are biased and generally to be taken with a pinch of salt. However I do no feel that Christians are being persecuted….!? Far from it, you only have to watch the news to see every five minutes some Muslim being portrayed as the ‘baddy,’ in society. Yes some Muslim / Christian / Jewish / etc people do, do something wrong, but very often the stories we see, hear and read about some Muslim fantasist. But when do we hear about the Christian fantasist such as Tony Blair or George Bush Jnr killing in the name of God? When do we report about a general Christian and west outlook that is essentially us against them and is both racist and very unloving?

      For me, all religions have become the myth about some man in the clouds granting our wishes as long as we pray enough, based on books are outdated, biased and written by men grasping to make sense of a world when science was in its infancy. The world is a very different place as even a brief understanding of the Ten Commandments would illustrate, cue my hero Christopher Hitchins:

      Thanks for reading, I didn’t intend to offend, but I think it is only fair to point out what a growing amount of people are starting to think and feel about religion. And even for those who do believe, they must be aware of a lot of problems and issues that religion faces in shall we say much, much more enlightened times. 🙂

      • Well, well, well !!
        I have never seen this video John Conner has provided for us before, but I am so pleased he did.
        The results were surprising because I thought Anne Widecome (apologies if spelt wrong) gave an excellent talk and I thought may win a few hundred votes, but EVIDENCE & TRUTH was the winner here and Christopher Hitchens (wish he’d change his first name !) and Stephen Fry gave it to us in volumes.

  9. Perhaps if the mainstream religions were to put an end to the offensive comments they have been regulary throwing at gay people for decades then they might be more entitled to expect respect. Some of the comments used during the equal marriage debates have been particulary vile. I.E. Treat others as you would have them treat you.

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