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Parish priests’ role in real life – and as seen on TV | Letters


Re your editorial (26 November) on Justin Welby’s complaint about the way Anglican clergy are portrayed on television, maybe the problem with the perception of clergy is in part due to the church itself, which has become more centralised and managerial. The role of the parish priest has been diminished, even to the point of disappearance in some rural parishes.

When I was a child in the 1960s, my father was a priest in charge of a large parish in north Derbyshire. On a visit back a few years ago, I found that older members of the Mothers’ Union vividly remembered one story about his time there. When he was visiting a new mother, he found that she was in need of urgent medical attention. He knew all the women in the parish who had recently given birth and dashed round them until he found the midwife, who was out on her rounds. While she was tending to the mother and arranging her admission to hospital, I believe my mother looked after the baby.

Such a mercy dash may not be necessary in the age of mobile phones, but it would not have been possible without the knowledge my father had of people in the parish. After reading about 23-year-old Saam, who fled Iran after converting to Christianity (‘I come, or I die’: fatalistic refugees say Channel crossing their only option, 26 November), I am left hoping that the parish priest where he is facing being alone in his room at Christmas is able to find him and welcome him into his church – and maybe even, as my parents probably would have done, lay an extra place at the dinner table.
Cate Gunn
Colne Engaine, Essex

Many years ago, I was rector of a group of small Church of England parishes in mid-Suffolk. One day, after I had been there eight years, I was talking to a little girl, who said to me: “You’re not like a real vicar.”

At the time, I was just over 40, fairly energetic, played the electric guitar and hadn’t a grey hair on my head – nor did I speak in a peculiar singsong voice, littering my sentences with “thees” and “thous”. Clearly, I didn’t fit her idea of a “real vicar”, who was usually old, white-haired and archaic of speech and manner.

But what was strange about this conversation was that I was in fact the only “real vicar” she had known: I had baptised her, taken weekly assemblies in her primary school and conducted a range of weddings, funerals and baptisms in her extended family. Talking to her, I realised that, for good or ill, TV images of vicars were in fact more powerful than the evidence of real life. In light of this, I suggest that your conclusion that “the bland, benign, bumbling Anglican clergy of the small screen reflect the popular view of the church itself” is naive.

In an age when being a TV celebrity is a major qualification for becoming a president or a prime minister, it seems that the Guardian is still in what we might call a pre-industrial mindset as regards the power of contemporary media to supplant real experience with fantasies and caricatures.

As a theological educator for the last 30 years of my working life, I have many criticisms of the Anglican clergy (as well as some praise), but I wouldn’t be holding them accountable for “TV vicars”.
George Pattison
St Monans, Fife

Your editorial reflected a very narrow lens. The series Broken, written by Jimmy McGovern and with Sean Bean in the lead, was outstanding. That is because it reflected a very sanguine, compassionate and authentic observation of a Catholic priest in today’s world. It was no surprise that it picked up a number of awards.

To reduce the depiction of vicars and priests on TV to mainly comedy shows and miss something as striking as Broken, and what it says about the fragility of the church today in the inner city, is a glaring omission.
Danny Sullivan
Basingstoke, Hampshire

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