Film & TV

Ontological Despair and the Rebirth of Faith in Rev

A great example of the Jupiter archetype can be found in the BBC sitcom Rev which ran for three series. The story follows Adam Smallbone, an Anglican priest who is promoted from a sleepy rural parish in Suffolk to an inner-city church in London. It’s an intelligent and subtle comedy that’s beautifully written and has some great cameo performances.

Rev explores faith and morality and the difficulty of being and doing good in a fallen world. It gently satirises the Church of England and some Anglicans criticised the show, saying it didn’t accurately reflect the Church. But others were supportive and got the joke – it’s a comedy, not a documentary! The show touches on issues like gay marriage and openly gay clergy, the ordination of women, and the rise of evangelicalism, secularism, and Islam.

There’s a long-standing joke that Church of England priests are weak and ineffectual, as Eddie Izzard said in one of his skits: they have no muscles in their arms. Adam Smallbone is portrayed as a classic English vicar, ever ready to listen and help, but also a bit hapless and out of touch. He’s optimistic and hopeful and wants to see the best in everyone. But he also has some personal flaws that often prevent him from doing his job effectively.

Rev follows the day-to-day running of the St Saviour in the Marshes parish in Hackney where Adam struggles to balance the books and look after everyone who needs support and guidance. He genuinely cares about people and has a warm, open-hearted and welcoming way about him. But he overworks because he can’t say no to anyone.

The show explores Adam’s moral conflicts that force him to confront his own shortcomings. He fights to keep his church open and ends up having a massive crisis of faith.

His long-suffering wife, Alex, supports him as best she can, but she has her own career as a solicitor and does a lot of Legal Aid work. Adam jokes that she helps more people than he does. She loves his integrity and that’s what keeps them together.

Adam is supported (sort of) by lay reader Nigel who thinks he would make a great priest and could run the church better than anyone else. In the first episode, the church fills with parents who want to get their children into the local school. Adam has to find a way to weed out the hypocrites, something Nigel enjoys immensely. Watch clip.

Nigel gets carried away during a blessing

Since this is the Church of England, Adam has to answer to a whole hierarchy of bigwigs, mainly Robert the Archdeacon, who Adam calls the Dark Lord, although not to his face. The Archdeacon puts constant pressure on Adam to increase the congregation and raise money for the church. The fundraising is endless and there’s always something that needs fixing, like broken windows or a leaky roof. Watch clip.

The Archdeacon seems to have it in for Adam but backs him up when it really matters. He spends a lot of time travelling around London in a black cab and always drops Adam off at awkward, even dangerous spots. This changes in the final series after a personal revelation from Robert that changes their relationship.

The church has several regular parishioners: Colin is an alcoholic lost soul who is devoted to Adam and the church, and helps or hinders Adam depending on his state of mind. He turns up at the vicarage whenever he likes, helps himself to food, and even sleeps on the couch. Adam and Colin often sit on a bench outside the church to smoke and chat about life and God and stuff. Watch clip.

There’s also Adoha, who does the flowers and flirts with Adam – the Archdeacon calls her a “cassock chaser”; Elle, the headmistress of the local school, who Adam has a crush on; and Mick, a homeless crack addict who concocts wild stories to convince Adam to give him money. Mick eventually gets clean and enjoys reading the Bible, especially the best bit:

“You think he’s dead, but he’s not!”

Unfortunately, his hostel place falls through and he goes back to his old ways. Rev doesn’t gloss over the difficulties of life in a big city and confronts the overwhelming nature of many of the problems head on. And it’s the apparent impossibility of helping people that pushes Adam over the edge.

Adam and Colin discuss life

As Adam goes about his duties, he prays and talks to God in an inner monologue, expressing his doubts and moral struggles. He’s trying to decipher what God is asking him to do or not do. He wants to do the right thing, to do good and serve God, but it’s not easy and he keeps messing up. He often tries to rationalise or justify doing something questionable, but the truth inevitably comes out and he learns how to stay on the narrow path to God.

Adam gets little thanks for the work he does supporting others. They’re often ungrateful and take him for granted, and sometimes he feels sorry for himself and gets a bit whiny. He goes into the pub for a drink and feels disconnected and lonely. He’s there for people – open, friendly, a shoulder to cry on – but ends up being invisible.

After receiving a bad online review for one of his sermons, he has a crisis – one of his ‘wobbles’, as Alex calls them:

“He believes in God but he’s not sure God believes in him.”

It turns out the review was justified because he didn’t prepare well that day. He feels terrible about it and asks God lots of questions amounting to: Why do bad things happen and why do you allow it? In other words, Adam is avoiding responsibility for his laziness. Cue some moping and ontological despair.

He tells Colin he feels like “a remnant of an illusion that people used to believe in”, and goes on:

“I know deep down, of course, that if God made his existence clear and irrefutable it would overwhelm us and deprive us all of free will and independence, but right now, just for once, now I feel like being overwhelmed. Because I am underwhelmed by everything else.”

Colin asks why he’s being a dickhead! Sometimes lost souls have more wisdom than priests.

Later, Adam gets drunk at a fundraising party for the church and makes a fool of himself with his silly dancing. But when the police come looking for a vicar to assist a dying woman, Adam says he can’t help. The police officer isn’t impressed, saying:

“This women’s in pain and has been hanging on – she wants release. Are you her vicar or not?”

Adam stops wallowing in self-pity and finally gets back to doing his job.

He has another wobble later when Abigail, a priest in training, joins the church. She’s brilliant and he’s jealous and feels irrelevant. Colin shares his special drink with him, only later revealing the secret ingredient is ecstasy. Adam freaks out but then feels great when the drug kicks in. He realises he loves everyone, even the Archdeacon and Abigail. Watch clip.

At Christmas, Adam’s schedule gets the better of him and he spends the season racing around trying to keep everybody happy. Inevitably, it all goes wrong. The church fills with people for midnight mass but they’re all on their phones and drunk from the pub. Adam soldiers on, but then snaps and sings an alternative hymn and does another of his silly dances:

In the final series, Adam and Alex have a child, Katie, and life becomes even more hectic and pressured. So much so that Adam doesn’t have time to baptise his own daughter. He does notice that her poo has changed colour though, and the Archdeacon says:

“Perhaps Satan is in charge of her bottom because you haven’t baptised her yet.”

He’s worried that Adam is having a crisis of faith, but Adam insists it’s just poor organisation. However, this is a foreshadowing of the meltdown to come. In fact, the whole of series 3 has an unravelling feel to it. Adam seems to undermine himself all the time – a classic case of self-undoing.

And the church isn’t doing well either. The electrics go in the building, it’s falling to bits and the diocese is thinking about selling it. They can no longer support churches that are deemed to be unviable and the building is worth a lot of money. Watch clip.

There’s also a not-so-subtle suggestion that the Church itself is a dying institution, behind the times and no longer fit for purpose. There are too many churches and not enough congregants. Adam’s little congregation is contrasted with the large evangelical following of a rival church, and the huge Muslim community served by the local Imam.

Is Adam just a bit crap as a vicar and out of his depth? Or is he overwhelmed by the complexity of 21st century life? Perhaps it’s not Adam who fails, but the Church. Does it sometimes lose sight of the reason it exists?

The Archdeacon tells Adam he must try harder…

It all comes to a head in the penultimate episode when Adam goes through his own crucifixion, including the Stations of the Cross. Compared to the Bible, the sequence is all jumbled up and doesn’t quite match, but there are many symbolic references, sometimes in the background.

It starts when Adam is suspended following a complaint by Nigel (playing Judas) about his behaviour. The accusation is without any real substance but the Church has to investigate anyway. News of his suspension makes it to the press and everybody is talking about him and abusive graffiti is sprayed on the vicarage.

All this attention, prompts Colin to deny Adam three times. Meanwhile, since it’s Holy Week, Adam takes the big cross to a neighbouring church ready for the Easter parade. He carries it on his back through the streets in the dark, ignoring those who shout at him as he passes.

At one point he falls down, and then struggles on. A kind soul offers to help him carry the cross but he declines. Finally, he climbs a hill to rest and watch the sun come up – and he starts to dance. Cue the best cameo ever!

God says he likes Adam’s silly dancing. He accepts it all, including the failure. He understands.

The next day, Adam goes to see the Bishop to get the result of the investigation. The Bishop (another great cameo by Ralph Fiennes) says there’s no need for any disciplinary action, Adam is innocent. Adam replies:

“If you say I am.”

And then he resigns. The Bishop warns that he can’t save the church for him if he leaves, but Adam simply repeats that he wants to go. The Bishop washes his hands (like Pilate!) and says, “Ite in pace”, or “Go in peace.”

The church is emptied and shuttered into darkness – like the tomb being closed.

In the final episode Adam tries to work out what to do next. He’s trying to be optimistic about his future but is clearly having some sort of mid-life crisis. Perhaps he could be a management consultant! But he’s not cut out for that. He’s too nice for his own good, as it says in Matthew 10:16:

“Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves. Therefore be wise as serpents and harmless as doves.”

Adam is too much dove, not enough serpent. He’s kind and courageous and it isn’t enough to save him.

He has an interview in a swanky office with views across London and all he can do is look at the church spire rising through the trees. The question is: can he walk away from being a priest? He ends up in a full-blown depression and can’t get out of bed. Alex is worried about him and prays to God for help:

“He’s not ill, he’s not mad. He’s broken his own heart when he shut your church. But it’s me who’s got to do something now, isn’t it Lord?”

She arranges for the regular parishioners to meet outside the church for one last Easter service before they all go their separate ways. Adam isn’t happy about it but Alex explains she did it for them, not for him. She reminds him of their first date and the reason she fell in love with him: for his grace and anger fighting to help people. That’s what makes him a priest: because they believe in him.

So Adam does a service. The church doors are opened again, like the reopening of the tomb, and the light returns to the church. Adam prays:

“Dear Lord. I appear to be back in a cassock again. You won’t let me go, apparently. Is this what resurrection is?”

He finally baptises his daughter in the font as light streams in through a window. A new life and a new beginning…

More clips and cameos from Rev:

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One thought on “Ontological Despair and the Rebirth of Faith in Rev

  1. Awww… just your description of the show has me feeling all the feels. Brought tears to my eyes.
    I’ve had a couple what I call “deconstructions” and have rebuilt myself. Those kinds of stories always remind me.
    Thank you.🦋

    Liked by 2 people

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