Televised Prayer: Rev.
People don’t pray on television. Let me rephrase that: when people pray on television, they pray badly. They ask God for stuff, and then they get it. Television prayer is usually depicted as a quid pro quo. That’s why it was surprising, in one of the final episodes of the BBC series Rev., to see a character whose faith life has mostly been one of non-stop exasperation suddenly start talking, in a voiceover, to God.
Rev. is about a priest trying to save a dying inner-city parish in London. The congregation is down to a handful, one of them a homeless man. The priest is sabotaged by his assistant, a closeted gay man who likes to show off his knowledge of obscure theology. The priest is married to a harried, overworked legal aid solicitor. The priest smokes, drinks too much, lusts after the principal of the parish’s day school, steals money from a sleazy rich guy to balance the parish accounts, and leaves his infant daughter in a shop. He officiates at a gay wedding, against the rules of the Anglican Church, and frustrates the fussy archdeacon assigned to his parish. He’s wheedled by the local crackhead, whose mother somehow dies three times within the same year; subject to the unwanted sexual advances of an older female “cassock chaser”; and constantly asked where the money will come from that will pull the parish out of debt.
Throughout it all, he talks to God. Cajoling, pleading, and cursing, the priest’s voiceover prayer resembles Job’s, or one of the Psalmist’s, more than the pious and cheesy prayer depicted on American shows like Touched by an Angel or Seventh Heaven. Does the priest get what he wants when he asks God for it? Sometimes. But more often, he gets something that doesn’t look like what he asked God for. Throughout the entire series, God remains stalwartly silent, until a cheesy Easter hymn that Christians throughout the UK and America have learned to love and hate prompts God to finally speak up.
Throughout his flailing and sinning, the priest becomes human. He becomes Adam, rather than Father (though he also becomes a father, albeit one just as flawed as he is as a priest). Much in the same way that priests I’ve known have slowly revealed themselves as people, in a dropped curse word, in a joke shared after service, or in a moment of compassion for a homeless person who runs screaming into the church during service (the latter has actually happened at my parish more than once), Adam reveals himself to be morally complex. For all of his fuck-ups, he is a man of deep compassion and love for the people he serves. Priests, contrary to the typical literary and filmic/television representations of them, are neither morally pure nor completely morally corrupt. They are complex men and women who happen to talk to God more than most of us do. Their lives are completely consumed by their work, and for those who are partnered, their partners’ lives become consumed by it too. And in a time when many churches in the UK and the US are shrinking and dying, they are trying to plug holes in ships so leaky that the entire fleet is threatening to go down at once.
Watching Rev. during a complicated time in my own faith life didn’t make the life of a priest look more appealing than my current work. But it did make it look like a vocation, vocation in the sense of vocare, which in Latin means to be called, but it also means to call. Priests are both called to the lives they live, and they call others to participate in community, even if that community is flawed, shrinking, and deeply irritating. Have I mentioned that it’s a comedy? Because, like many moments in a life of faith, it is.
Kaya Oakes is the author of The Nones Are Alright: A New Generation of Seekers, Believers, and Those In-Between (Orbis, 2015), the memoir Radical Reinvention: An Unlikely Return to the Catholic Church (Counterpoint Press, 2012), and a social-science based exploration of independent art and culture, Slanted and Enchanted (Henry Holt, 2009). She teaches creative nonfiction, narrative journalism, expository and research writing at the University of California, Berkeley.