How to Read Rev.

It started as a sit-com, but has become, according to some, a compelling social commentary.  It’s always been compelling for me – but the latest series of Rev. has proved to have more of a Marmite quality, sharply dividing opinion.  Comments from the Archbishop of Canterbury and Dr Tim Stanley are probably the tip of an iceberg of discomfort: ‘vicars should not be like this’ – and anguish – ‘goodness, some are’.

Why do I find it compelling?  Not because of Adam’s personality or his performance in role.  If he and I were colleagues I can only imagine it going badly. Adam should get himself sorted out – that seems plain enough. But in this he is no different to Fr Ted or the Vicar of Dibley.  You don’t make good entertainment out of perfect exemplars.

Rev. is compelling because so much of the stuff around Adam rings true. Of course there are exaggerations – and guess what, it’s not done in real-time either. This is not a documentary or a ‘how to’ DVD. Like many people, Adam has a strength relevant to his role – a convincingly clerical combination of still-need-to-think-it-through faith and broad compassion – but in his case it adds up to tragic weakness, because it’s not balanced out by other strengths.  Quite what these might be – well, there’s a subject for an extremely interesting and helpful discussion, a ‘training day’ for clergy, perhaps.  Personally I’d like to see him a bit more decisive and determined, and if it were down to me he’d be moving towards an assertiveness programme to help him beyond his passive-aggressive oscillations, which seem to be getting worse and might be his downfall in the end.  (BTW: Adams are prone to downfalls – geddit?)

Adam needs help – that’s part of the story. But there’s another part too, and that is that no one is able to give it to him.  His pathetic relationship with Ellie is the clue. He doesn’t want her so much as he wants to be her, or at least to be like her.  With her drive and skills and professionalism he’d certainly make a better job of it.

Except that he might not.  And therein lies the rub. What does it take to deal with Colin and Adoah and Nigel?  And who is there to help Adam do it?

This series of Rev. has become a bit of a squirm-fest for me. Not only because of Adam’s ineptitude and well-meaning muddle-headedness, but also because of his isolation and lack of support.  The Archdeacon has softened, now that he knows that Adam knows, but the real powers and forces are the Diocesan Secretary and Area Dean; so powerful that they need hardly ever appear . That’s menace for you – unseen power.

Another compelling point about Rev. is that is so knowing about the Church of England. It almost always gets the detail exactly right. Notice the church noticeboard in the opening sequence: Adam’s name being crudely superimposed over his predecessor’s.  That tells its own story – and it’s a story that is replicated across less-confident-than-they-should-be churches across the land, where people feel that the clergy are passing through, pretending to do ‘presence and engagement’ while others get on with ‘real life’.

What’s compelling about Rev. is the clinical way it depicts the actual, improbable but apparently intractable situations that fill ministrial days and minds. The tragedy is that some of the situations are avoidable and others are manageable.

The thing about Adam is that he makes good mistakes – the sort that we (the real people who watch the fictional him) can feel something about and learn from.

The great thing about Rev. is that it brushes nothing under the carpet. In fact, it lifts up the carpet and exposes all the dust and dirt that has been swept there.  That’s why it’s uncomfortable and unbalanced, but also why it is good watching for Lent, and compelling matter for reflection in Holy Week.

Provided we don’t think it’s just a matter of Adam getting a grip.










Nature is beautiful, but does it care.  This is from Barefoot Prayers.

A Heart of Grace

The more insistent the birdsong,
the more powerful the scent of flowers,
the more majestic the tree
expansive in its own space
solid in its own root
luxuriant in its own branches, twigs and leaves,
the more active the insects,
the more webs the spider spins -
the more indifferent nature appears.

Rain falls on the just
and the unjust.
Sun shines on the good and the evil.
Broken leg or arm,
cracked rib
punctured lung
all mean nothing to the tree
from which I fell.
Heartless is the shattering glass,
the collapsing wall,
the quaking earth.
Care-free the blackbirds outside the open-window
where the one who cannot sleep for pain
lies lonely in distress.

So make in us a heart that cares;
that sees
breaks and
rages in concert with others.

Make in us a heart that
hurts and
heals, that
shares and
saves the suffering from
the loneliness of natural life.

Take from us the heart of stone,
the heart of flesh.
Give us the heart of




I could hardly believe my twitter feed. Someone had hashtagged ‘busyness’ and it wasn’t me. There it was: #busyness.

So I followed the link and this is what I learnt.

The first residents of The Hub at Wellcome Collection, a flagship new space for interdisciplinary projects around health and wellbeing, will investigate the busyness of modern life. Bringing together a rich network of scientists, artists, humanists, clinicians, public health experts, broadcasters and public engagement professionals, the group will explore states of rest and noise, tumult and stillness, and the health implications for lives increasingly lived in a hubbub of activity.

The project will run for a couple of years from October and will be fuelled by a £1 million Wellcome Trust grant. There is a hugely impressive and diverse team led by Dr Felicity Callard of Durham University (who must work just around the corner from where I am writing this).  The press release goes on to explain that:

The urge to be busy defines modern life. Rest can seem hard to find, whether in relation to an exhausted body, a racing mind or a hectic city. Should we slow down, or should we embrace intense activity? What effects do each of these states have on the health of our bodies and minds? Such questions frequently find their way into media reports and everyday conversations, but there has never been any sustained interdisciplinary attempt to answer them. The Hub will gather international experts investigating hubbub and rest at different scales, to breathe new life into the questions we ask about rest and busyness.

Yes, let’s improve the quality of questions we ask about rest and busyness! The subject is urgent but we are by and large too tired and stressed to give it worthy attention.  It will be fascinating to see what emerges.

I have two other thoughts. First,I hope the team don’t find themselves working too hard on the project. Short-term grant-dependent work can be a relentless driver.

Second, I didn’t spot a reference to spirituality or theology in the interdisciplinary team.  Maybe there’ll be time to incorporate that as the project develops.

These are details:  many congratulations to the team – I wish you all the best with this exciting venture.


Hatred is one of life’s most awkward subjects. But it is real. This is how I handle it in Barefoot Prayers.


Sometimes it happens.
I respond
as I should not.
I react.
I tense up.
I go hot or, maybe,

When I have seen carelessness or
cruelty or the
abuse of power or
arrogance in action
And I have seen people hurt.
People like me.
Even me.

To call it anger is true – but
it is more than anger.
Anger is like an espresso
bitter, short and with a kick that

This is something stronger. It is
Yes, capital ‘H’.
It is a bitter cup, to be sure.
But it is long and its effects are slow.

It has found a home in me.
Wormed its way through my better self
and into my soul to lay its poisonous
parasitical spawn.

I feel it growing.
I feel it gnawing.
I feel it rising within.
It controls my heartbeat.
It sours my countenance.
It grips my voice, making some things
impossible to say;
adding a sneer where a smile is needed.

Deliver me of this pernicious pregnancy
of my person.
Break its grip on my
Smash its growing control of
my being.
Deal violently with this hatred of mine.
Turn it against itself.
Let it rant if it must.

Take its force O Thou,
crucified one.
Take its dark, dark passion.
Take its pain with each damned nail.
Impale it on your tree.
Let the ones I hate go free.
Teach us how to live in thee.

From a sermon preached at Durham Cathedral 16.3.14

Christianity is fundamentally a religion of grace and freedom, which makes for certain problems. In particular it makes us both anxious and confused – and sadly Lent can aggravate all this for us.

If we were Muslims and this was Ramadan we wouldn’t need to rack our brains wondering what we are going to give up, and then further wondering whether it counts, and whether or not we can have a bit of it on a Sunday.

There are plenty who would seek to turn Christianity into a religion of simple rules, plainly described and bluntly policed.  Lent can sometimes kindle in us a nostalgia for the rigorous ways of simple days, and not all of that nostalgia is wrongly placed.

There is something to be said for simplicity and obedience. It’s just that it isn’t very nice and it’s not very practical. If you want simplicity and obedience get yourself to a nunnery.  Once you get there you will realise how very difficult it is, and it won’t be long before you are complaining about the conditions.

As our culture has become distant from the Christian calendar so aspects of that very calendar have an attraction which is both exotic and nostalgic. People beyond the faith feel the spiritual pull of Lent, just as contemporary Christians feel the spiritual pull of the idealised monastery or wilderness.

But the ideal is itself a snare.

In my own ideal wilderness, for instance, there are always lovely sunsets, and dry enough hollows to sleep in and pure springs conveniently placed to provide lovely mineral water.

I have an idealised monastery too.  My cell has a wonderful mountain view, the temperature is moderate all year round, there is a well-stocked library and working in the garden is a sheer delight.

In these ideal places I am never bored, tired, overwhelmed, worried, cross, confused or irritated. I am never let down by others and never let myself down. Desire and provision are perfectly matched and when in the monastery we are not keeping silence or in worship (the singing by the way is superb) the conversation is warm, informative and invigorating.

Such is my fantasy. And I know it’s laughable.

But perhaps our fantasy Lents are much the same. We imagine ourselves  serenely engaging in spiritual disciplines for the good of our mind, body and spirit, and we further imagine our divine parent smiling beatifically on us, well-pleased that we are making such a good job of it.

The reality, on the other hand is a good deal less smug and good deal more anxious:

  • Have I given up the right thing?
  • Wouldn’t it be better to take something up rather than give something up?
  • Maybe I am being too hard on myself?
  • Wouldn’t it be better if I were to read a Lent book rather than drive myself crazy because all can think about is the sweets or wine that I am depriving myself of for no reason other than that it seems that you should give something up in Lent?
  • Am I being too easy on myself?
  • Am I thinking too much of myself?
  • Am I too distracted from serious spirituality?

Our capacity for anxiety is endless; as is our capacity for spiritual invention. These are part and parcel of the spirituality of our religion of grace and freedom.

This means that the anxiety is part of the journey.  You have to go through it to get beyond it.  That’s the reality. Everything else is fantasy.

We come to God not though fantasies, or as our ideal selves, but through reality, and as our actual selves.

Lent (like Christianity as a whole) is the invitation not to develop fantasies about ourselves, but to come to terms with the reality.

From Barefoot Prayers: A Meditation a Day for Lent and Easter, SPCK 2013

‘May this day be blessed.’
I do not know what that means
in advance.

I am asking for happiness,
but not for anything superficial.

‘May this day be blessed.’
I hope it will be indeed.
But how?

I am asking for a visit of grace,
but not for anything disruptive.

‘May this day be blessed.’
If it is, it will not be by my effort,
but by my acceptance.

I am asking for openness,
the capacity to receive.

‘May this day be blessed.’
As was yesterday,
though I am not sure how.

Let my eye see backwards
and notice the blessing that was.

‘May this day be blessed.’
I am confident that it will be.

My prayer is not for anything more,
simply to see and feel and know.

‘May this day be blessed.’
Not in the anticipation but
in the living.

‘May this day be blessed.’
Not by what I give or receive,
but in what I see and feel.

‘May this day be blessed.’
And may I be part of the blessing.

Let us Play

The arrival of ‘Cam’ always causes me a frisson of excitement. It’s certainly the best alumni magazine to come through our letter box, and rarely disappoints for either human interest or a bit of an intellectual stretch.

The latest number arrived today and I was immediately captivated by an article about ‘play’. ‘Excellence often requires many of the qualities of play’ I read.  ‘This’ I thought, ‘is my kind of article’.

Based on a new book by Patrick Bateson and Paul Martin (Play, Playfulness, Creativity and Innovation CUP) I interpret the piece as a research-based argument that I should play more.  After all, without his playfulness Flemming may never have discovered penicillin. And if they did not play with sticks when young, chimps wouldn’t be nearly as good at the tasks which playful scientists set them.

It made me wonder which aspects of my childhood larking about have equipped me for life today.  I used to like lighting fires – and am still pretty good at it when faced with the challenge in a holiday cottage or after a big clear-up in the garden.  Fire lighting for me was part of Scouting which was, I suppose, an organised form of play. I now see the rudimentary weekend camps as a school of leadership. That sounds impossibly pompous, so I should explain that I mean that it was an arena for making mistakes which would teach you not ‘how to be a leader’, still less ‘what to do if you are a leader’, but that ‘the big life lesson that it is okay to make mistakes.’

Reflecting on the article I recognise that it’s not so much play as playfulness that matters.  The word ‘play’ is used for all sorts of activities which, while not intrinsically meaningful, are super-serious.  This is ‘play’ with the fun taken out – which is a one word oxymoron (if you can have such a thing).  It seems that it is play in the proper, relaxed, and purposeless sense which allows for later purposefulness.

That’s the paradox of play.

It’s not that you can write a Shakespearian sonnet by letting a million monkeys play with typewriters.  It’s that the next time you read something really interesting, moving, poetic or original the chances are that it will be written by someone who has had a good dose of play in their younger life and who still retains that quality of playfulness.

Bateson writes that people can be helped to become more creative. How?  ‘by freeing up time from the pursuit of predictable goals, and by avoiding time-wasting distractions …’ But he goes on, (and this is the bit I especially like)  ‘Daydreaming, far from being a wasteful activity, can lead to links being made between disparate bodies of thought.’

That sounds a bit prosaic – but the reality could be amazing. The point is that no one knows what will happen if you allow yourself to be playful and creative. That’s the fun of it. And the wonder. And the paradox.

Let us play.


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