The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, has complained in a speech of the injustice of TV depictions of clergy. “They are portrayed as rogues or idiots,” he said. “The reality is very different – it is actually of hard-working, normal people, caring deeply about what they do and working all the hours there are to do it.”
It is true that Jane Austen’s Mr Collins – whose preposterously pompous letters provide endless entertainment in Pride and Prejudice – has cast a long fictional shadow. Anglican clergy portrayed on screen have often been, it is undeniable, figures of (hugely benign) fun, whether Dawn French’s Vicar of Dibley or Rowan Atkinson’s nervous, inept priest in Four Weddings and a Funeral.
Paul Chahidi’s vicar in the sublime mockumentary This Country was a kind, well-meaning liberal around whom the anarchic Kerry and Kurtan Mucklowe ran rings. And Tom Hollander, who gave viewers an enjoyably absurd Mr Collins in the 2005 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, also played the protagonist in Rev, the sitcom that ran between 2010 and 2014. But his character in the latter show was neither a rogue nor an idiot – indeed, he was both sympathetic and heroic in his own way as he battled the indignities and difficulties of working in an inner-city London parish. (Simon McBurney’s silkily sinister archdeacon in the same series, it is true, was indeed a rogue, seemingly a descendant of the odious Obadiah Slope as portrayed by Alan Rickman in the 1982 BBC adaptation of Anthony Trollope’s Barchester novels.)
Perhaps the archbishop is a little jealous of the treatment recently given to Roman Catholic clergy. Andrew Scott’s character in Fleabag was not just a “hot priest”, but a way for Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s protagonist to explore her moral uncertainties and millennial anxiety; the priest’s character worked dramatically because of the glamour of the absolute represented by Catholicism. Transubstantiation, confession and absolution, papal infallibility and celibacy are all fascinating realms to be explored against the relativism of the modern secular world.
Lurking in the background of this portrayal is a great tradition of 20th-century British Catholic fiction by authors such as Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh and Muriel Spark, whose work was informed by a sense of outsiderishness from the established church mainstream. It hard to think of a modern portrayal of Anglican clergy so complex as Greene’s morally tortured “whisky priest” in The Power and the Glory, and – the enjoyable Granchester novels and TV dramas notwithstanding – no C of E vicar as sagacious a crime detector as GK Chesterton’s Father Brown.
Brilliant fictional portrayals of Anglican clergy in the era of Trollope, Eliot and Dickens were informed by a sharp sense of satire, but satire is a way of bringing the powerful to earth, and the Anglican clergy of today – in an era of shrinking and ageing congregations – are not terribly susceptible to that kind of treatment. If Mr Welby’s characterisation of TV vicars is correct (though the example of Rev, in fact, suggests he is somewhat off the mark), then he must accept that the bland, benign, bumbling Anglican clergy of the small screen reflect the popular view of the church itself.