Last Saturday, in an interview in the Times, the comic actor Rowan Atkinson accused Church of England clergy of being smug and arrogant. He didn’t just poke a little fun at them and he didn’t seem to be joking:
I used to think that the vicars that I played or the exaggerated sketches about clerics were unreasonable satires on well meaning individuals… But, actually, so many of the clerics that I’ve met, particularly the Church of England clerics, are people of such extraordinary smugness and arrogance and conceitedness who are extraordinarily presumptuous about the significance of their position in society… Increasingly, I believe that all the mud that Richard Curtis and I threw at them through endless sketches that we’ve done is more than deserved.
The Times kindly asked for a comment before publication and duly published my response in full:
We take the hit and I am sorry that this has been Rowan Atkinson’s experience. But it takes no account of the thousands of self-sacrificial clergy who don’t fit this stereotype. I would be happy to introduce him to some.
The first mystery, of course, is why my response is described in the Mail as ‘hitting back’ and the Telegraph as ‘reacted angrily’. How unclear is the first sentence of my response?
Of course, clergy do not have a monopoly on smugness, arrogance, conceit or presumption – there are plenty of examples in other instances of human beings. The problem for clergy, however, is that they are supposed not to be like this. And I agree. We should not be arrogant, we should not be smug, and we should not be defensive when accused. As Frank Sinatra might have said, “I’ve seen a few” – and there will be people who will level the charge at me. Hands up, we take the hit, it shouldn’t be like this, but it sometimes is.
Not unsurprisingly, this has played around my mind a bit over the weekend and the first part of this week. I haven’t been able to follow it up or post on it because I have been out and about and had not time to do so.
On Saturday I was up in the Yorkshire Dales licensing a cohort of new Readers (lay ministers) who have given up three years of their time to train to give yet more of their time to serving their communities through their churches. They don’t get paid – indeed, it costs them to do it. Some of them have back-stories that are not uncomplicated and each one has a million excuses for not giving any of their time or energy to the church or community. But, they do.
Smugness? Arrogance? Conceit? None in evidence here. Only serious commitment, some trepidation and a sense of adventure.
On Sunday I celebrated with a small congregation in Bradford where the vicar and his family have faced considerable stress in the few years they have been living and serving in a tough environment. Not glamorous, not pompous, not triumphalistic. Just committed, stressed and humble.
Smugness? Arrogance? Conceit? No evidence here. Just a humility and courage that gets stuck in against the odds witha selflessness that is costly.
Later on Sunday I was baptising and confirming in a small church on a large estate in Bradford. Surely here I would find some justification for Rowan Atkinson’s ire.
Smugness? Arrogance? Conceit? None here either. Just clergy committed to the sort of area Rowan Atkinson doesn’t have to live in – and people Rowan Atkinson doesn’t have to bother with. How about those running from scratch an utterly demanding youth project in an unlikely area?
Monday and Tuesday I have been having face-to-face meetings with clergy in the fifth of the eight deaneries in the Diocese of Bradford. Last night we had an open evening in an inner urban church at which no holds were barred. (They never are, actually.) Eight meetings yesterday and another eight today. Tomorrow I have another four.
Smugness? Arrogance? Conceit? Not here. A weary resignation to the constant media battering, yes. Incomprehension at why clergy are such an easy target (always as a stereotype and never in the particular), yes. These were deeply impressive people who show no sign of smugness, who get on with doing amazing work in their communities without shouting about it, whose only conceit is never talking up their achievements.
My response to Rowan Atkinson was genuine. I have also met conceited clergy, but they are the exception and not the rule. Smugness is a charge all of us might be charged with from time to time, and we will hold our hands up. But, I could easily introduce Rowan Atkinson to clergy who will defy his stereotypes (partly by being genuinely funny, creative, committed and realistic), give him a stimulating and challenging conversation, and open his eyes to a world with which I suspect he is not familiar. It’s a genuine offer – it would make an interesting follow-up radio or television documentary.
Inevitably, the journos also asked Terry Sanderson of the National Secular Society for a comment. Naturally, Rowan Atkinson’s comments pressed Sanderson’s happy buttons and he reported that he had met a few smug clergy and that clergy assume a role in their communities without having earned it. No names, no examples, no evidence. Funnily enough, I agree with him – that clergy do have to earn their place in a community and that is does not come as of right. Those days have gone. But, my experience is that this is precisely what most (but not all) clergy actually do – that the respect they earn is hard-won and evidence of the commitment they live out every day.
And I still find Rowan Atkinson’s film clergy caricatures funny. After all, they are caricatures – based on a certain acknowledged reality, but hopelessly exaggerated and wildly hammed up.