OK…so what did you make of Priest Idol last night? For those not within viewing reach of Channel 4, this is a new series about a young American priest, imported to undertake the huge and horrendous task of reversing the fortunes of the parish of St Mary Magdalene in Lundwood, a former mining community near Barnsley, N. Yorkshire.
Apart from the cringeworthy title, I thought there was a lot to learn from the programme, and not only in terms of how not to do 21st century parish ministry (though this message certainly camethrough loud and clear!).
The previous incumbent probably did himself no favours in sharing his (understandable) hurt at the way the community had turned its back on the church. And the picture of him walking the parish in full becassocked finery surely confirmed the general view that the church is not only irrelevant but laughable. But it wasn’t unrelieved gloom even here…a friendly exchange with a small boy on the street was a genuinely smiley moment….and then, enter stage left, young James, the new incumbent.
"Oh HELP! " was my first reaction. "They’ll eat him alive…"
He came complete with huge commitment, enthusiasm and the sort of faith that I can only envy…but he also came with the idea that his mission was to get people into church. No matter if the local teenagers (his chosen primary mission target) think that the building is “spikey” and “scarey”. No matter if the church itself is so run down and repellent that it is hard to imagine anyone actually wanting to cross its threshold, however keen they might be on an encounter with God. James is adamant that if he can get them into the building, he’ll be on the right track.
Sadly, his first experiment fell very flat indeed. He got the kids into church (through an inspired invitation to the pop choir from the secondary school) but when they arrived, they had no idea what behaviour might be expected of them, not could they see any good reason for the expectations of others. What might have been a positive beginning was turned into another “Oh-no-I-can't-bear-to-watch” moment, as the kids left in disgust, after they had been firmly put in their place by one of the tiny congregation. The sight of them walking out during the first carol on Christmas Eve was one of the saddest moments in a sad, sad programme.,
But, I still have hope. Not so much in the marketing men whom the diocese has called in, though they do add an interesting twist to the story. The trouble is, I don’t think they’re really sure that they have anything worth selling,- after all, they too are intent on selling the church, whereas I’d hope to see a bit more aspiration to connect with God…
No, my hope is in the sheer goodness of young James (though he does make me feel so very old,) and his courage, and yes, - maybe even his calling. Why else would anyone cross the Atlantic to minister in Lundwood? I'll certainly watch the whole series...lots to ponder.
(There is more discussion on Dave's rather wonderful Cartooon Church blog...and a good link from there too and an interview with James here )