Monday, 2 February 2015

Well done, Rory

Has something happened to the media portrayal of the Church? 

I can't stop thinking about the vicar of Broadchurch. I want to call him Rory (his character in Dr Who) but in this case Arthur Darvill plays the part of Revd. Paul Coates, fictional vicar of a seaside town devastated by the murder of an eleven year old boy, in the award winning UK drama, first aired in 2013 and currently running series 2.

I was wary of Broadchurch the first time round. The trailers put me off: everything seemed so utterly desperate. I didn't think I had the emotional energy for it. I was right - unless you have a stone for a heart or are a cynical detective yourself, it would be hard not to be affected by child murder in a quiet Dorset town where everyone, from the dad having an affair, to the loner who lives in a caravan (and the insomniac vicar) is suspect. 

I badly didn't want Revd. Paul to be the killer. I wondered how he managed to carry so much information about so many different people, and still maintain impartiality and fairness, kindness and perceptiveness. Did he get a perverse kick out of being involved in so many lives? I felt keenly my own ministerial temptation to wield spiritual power. 

In thinking about much of the media representation of the Church, I delighted that he wasn't bigoted, clueless, stupid or farcical. Are things are improving for clergy, image-wise? Granted, we've had Geraldine Grainger (funny and smart Vicar of Dibley) and Adam Smallbone (flawed and honest inner city priest in Rev.) but in terms of the writers, I wondered what had happened to the public perception of the Church for them to come up with someone so interesting, and central to the drama (who is not, thank God, the murderer). When Revd. Paul stands up for his faith to David Tenant's pointless cynical questioning I wanted to cheer.

The role of Revd. Paul Coates was the very first role cast, with Arthur Darvill in mind - no audition. Did the writers think small close knit community - everyone will know the vicar; let's put a first class one in...(but I thought were always being told the Church is irrelevant to everyday people and their concerns...?)

When tragedy strikes, it is the vicar who finds himself right in the middle of community attempts to come to terms with death, a profound loss of innocence, and the ensuing fear and suspicion. Darvill shadowed a local vicar for his acting preparation and has spoken about how he imagines the loneliness of ministry and yet the opportunity for bringing a community together:

As the local vicar, Revd. Paul is involved in the school where murdered boy, Danny, was a pupil. He breaks up fights, chats with locals in the hotel and talks to the media. He seems to know Danny's parents, Beth and Mark. From the pulpit he voices what many feel, that it's when tragedy strikes that we wonder if God has abandoned us. 'Nineteen people out of a population of 12,000', is his rueful comment afterwards, looking around a mostly empty church. But it means a lot to Danny's Grandma: 'it was comforting; it was just what we needed to hear'.

After suspicion falls on local shop owner, Jack Marshall (a kind of Jude the Obscure figure, with a spent conviction for underage sex) an angry mob gather, wrongly assuming he's guilty of child molestation. The vicar warns he'll need protection, but this goes unheeded and tragically Jack takes his own life. It's up to Revd. Paul to defend his innocence in the funeral address: 'Jack Marshall was a good man' a man who was lonely, who had also lost a child many years ago. This time the church is full of people feeling guilty. He practices just the right tone as he paces his vestry beforehand. It's as if he's earned the right to speak some hard words.

Danny's parents are not religious, but desperate people need comfort. They want to talk to the vicar about their grief ('you can mention God if you like'). A further emotional complication is that Beth is pregnant. Her husband thinks they should focus on the baby but how can she love this new child when every fibre of her being cries out for the other child? Wisely the vicar suggests they have the scan; this new life growing inside might be a gift.

The murder case is brought to conclusion. Now, not only must Paul Coates do that thing all vicars dread - take the funeral of a child - but as a Christian leader he must dare to introduce the first hint of the extraordinary possibility of forgiveness. His funeral text: 'Put away from you all bitterness, and wrath and anger, and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tender hearted, forgiving one another, just as in Christ, God forgave you' (Ephesians 4:31-32). You can't really imagine any other words being so appropriate.

As the camera pans round the packed church, we remember that as well as a family grieving, there's a community struggling with fear, anger, betrayal and the truth behind complex, misplaced human expressions of love. Finally, it's also a community which comes together under Paul's leadership to light a beacon to Danny on the beach where his body was discovered. It's an incredibly moving and fitting act of solidarity, even hope.

So well done Rory. Serious, single minded and entirely solid. Now that Christianity as a practised religion is pretty rare in your average community, is it the case that our media clerics no longer have the luxury of being lazy, incompetent or ineffectual, but instead need to be wholly convincing, in tune with the community and willing to step up when the occasion demands?

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