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.