Sunday, 27 January 2013

The Vicar of Dibley, Father Mulcahy, Father Ted, & co. as role models in ministry

While watching some of the early episodes of the British TV sitcom "Rev.", I reflected on how clergy characters in other TV programmes have functioned as role models for people in ministry.

For myself, and for many clergy who trained at the same time as me (late 1970s), Father Mulcahy from "M*A*S*H" was a real role model for ministry.

For many female clergy (particularly female Anglican clergy) trained in recent years, the image of "The Vicar of Dibley" features in the unwritten yardstick by which they are measured by their congregations, much to their annoyance in many cases.

The priests of Craggy Island in "Father Ted" and their confreres in "Ballykissangel" have provided similar annoyance to many of my Catholic colleagues.

And now, there's "Rev.".

It's interesting to see the attitudes toward ministry - and even the theology of ministry - found in the  clergy in these programmes.

Father Mulcahy, in the long-running US programme "M*A*S*H", functioned as a counsel of perfection, as a pair of tough shoes to fill (OK, a pair of tough army boots to fill).  He was never judgemental.  He was gentle and welcoming to everyone, even the most irritating, even Major Burns.  He was always accessible to everyone in the unit, Catholic or not, religious or not.  He was ecumenical at a time - the early 1950s - when few people knew the word.  He was a John XXIII priest in the days of Pius XII.  He was a TV equivalent to George Herbert's The Country Parson.  To clergy of my generation - of any denomination - he served as an impossible role model for ministry.

Geraldine Grainger, British TV's "Vicar of Dibley" was a different sort of person.  She was a newly ordained Anglican priest at a time when the Church of England had only recently begun ordaining women.  She was feisty and funny, enjoyed a drink and a joke, not to mention the occasional chocolate (or seventeen).  She was frankly ambitious, had strong opinions, and bumptiously high levels of self-confidence.  If she fancied a bloke, she was open about it.

At roughly, the same time as "The Vicar of Dibley", Catholic priests featured prominently in two Irish-made series on British TV, the sitcom "Father Ted" and the drama "Ballykissangel".
  • "Father Ted" focused on three priests living on a remote island off the Irish coast, the scheming and avaricious Father Ted, the immature and clueless Father Dougal, and the dementia-affected Father Jack.
  • In "Ballykissangel", one theme in the series was the tension between the young local curate and the older parish priest.  Between one season and the next, the curate changed.  The radical and passionate Father Peter was replaced by the naive and pious Father Aidan.  This led to an interesting change in the character of the parish priest Father Mac.  The scheming ultraconservative who frequently crossed swords with Father Peter became a pragmatic and pastorally progressive priest who served as a streetwise mentor to Father Aidan.
And, as I said, now there's "Rev.".

Like Geraldine Grainger, and Fathers Dougal, Peter, and Aidan, Adam Smallbone is fairly newly ordained.  He's more intelligent than Dougal, less radical than Peter, less naive than Aidan, and has much lower self-esteem than Geraldine.  Unlike any of these, he's married and lives in an urban area.  He has a collection of eccentric parishioners and hangers-on with whom Father Mulcahy and the Vicar of Dibley would be well at home.  My favourite is the persistent beggar with the ever-evolving creative sob story as to why he needs some cash immediately.  (I've met this guy ... frequently.)

At times, such as when he offered the use of his church to the local mosque's children's group, he showed a radical edge.  At other times, such as when he dug in his heels over non-worshippers sending their children to a church school, he seems unhelpfully conservative.

But ultimately, "Rev." seems to me to be about the continuing education of Adam Smallbone, an education that includes his conferences with his Archdeacon.  Adam probably sees the Archdeacon as an obstructive ultraconservative (such as Father Peter's experience of Father Mac).  I see the Archdeacon more as someone trying to help Adam survive in ministry, despite himself (perhaps similar to Father Mac as Father Aidan's s streetwise mentor, with a dash of Sir Humphrey Appleby and a touch of Lou Grant for good measure).

And anyway, Adam Smallbone is a person with clear flaws in ministry and life and clear knowledge of his flaws, different both from Dibley's supremely confident Vicar and the impossible perfection of the 4077th M*A*S*H's chaplain.  Perhaps this is a useful model for ministry, at any stage.


  1. Bob,

    I found that an interesting blog post. I have watched and enjoyed all of the TV series you refer to, but MASH is one of my all time favourites.

    I watched MASH as a teenager, and at various stages of my journey, and I continue to watch it now via Foxtel.

    As I read your post I reflected upon the character of the MASH chaplain and my own reactions to him. As young bloke I saw him as weak, insipid, all most pathetic figure and downright painful (I wasn’t a Christian and I thought all Christians fitted that description. As a Pentecostal and Reformed person I found him to be way to 'Liberal' and way too 'accepting' of everyone. But these days I see him as a role model for me, that is, without the perfection part you spoke of. He is the consummate ecumenist. He embraces, encourages and nurtures all religious expressions. He is seldom, if ever judgemental and he has a pastoral heart. That all makes for one fine minister to me.

    Thank you for a thoughtful and thought provoking post. This is the sort of thing I think about when watching TV and you articulated it beautifully.

  2. Thanks for that, Tony. I still see Fr. Mulcahy as a role model (along with the dude from Nazareth: WWFMD???) but realise that there's no mileage in beating myself up for falling short of an impossible role model.

  3. I recall noting a shift in how clergy were portrayed as subsidiary characters in Australian TV in the ?90s. Mostly they had appeared as either overly pompous, or simply necessary decorations for weddings and funerals. But then both Neighbours and Blue Heelers had female Anglican priests as regular cast members who, I recall, were real people, not caricatures. It was a nice change.

    1. And also, in Australian TV, there was the ABC miniseries "Brides of Christ". The nuns in this series - while they got on each others nerves - were women of high integrity who were passionate about serving the girls they taught and their families. This is another significant portrayal of religious professionals in TV.


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