The first rule of preaching is not to be preachy – and it’s here that the Vicar of Dibley slips up in lecturing her parishioners on Black Lives Matter in an episode broadcast last night.
When I am training curates, I show them Alan Bennett’s skit ‘Take a pew’ from Beyond the Fringe (1961), where a clergyman’s painful attempts at being hip are sunk by the rising of his sing-songy parsonical voice. Dawn French’s character would have been wise to watch too. The normally inoffensive sitcom, which is being broadcast this Christmas in a series of ten minute specials, features the TV vicar ‘taking the knee’. Surely this year, more than ever, we could have done without sermonising like this in a sitcom.
Some sympathetic clergy are, of course, scrambling to the programme’s defence, proclaiming that this is ‘the’ Christmas sermon we all need to hear. This shouldn’t come as a surprise. In some Anglican pulpits, this perspective is even manifesting itself in sermons painting Britain as systemically racist. But vicars would be wise to avoid politics – and instead focus on the Gospel.
Those real-life vicars who do choose to speak up for BLM, would also be wise to reassess their view of Britain. Yes, this is a country that has its faults. As Christianity teaches us, nothing is perfect. But the UK is, on the whole, a tolerant and liberal place to live. John Sentamu, who recently retired as the archbishop of York, was born in Uganda and rose to the top of the Anglican church. He will long be remembered. As for politics, the most likely next Tory leader is Rishi Sunak, a talented Chancellor whose Punjabi Hindu parents emigrated to Britain from east Africa. In this supposed repressive land, where 13 per cent of the population is non-white, 33 per cent of professional footballers are black. Despite the BLM rhetoric,it is clear Britain is not a ‘systematically racist’ country.
It’s true, of course, that more could be done to increase representation of those from minority backgrounds, not least in the church itself. One easy fix would be to invite those African-Anglican growing provinces to lend us ready-made prelates. Yet it’s unlikely that the hierarchy here, for all its good intentions, would stomach an influx of conservative minded no-nonsense Africans who despair at our loss of nerve with the Gospel.
So, yes, this Christmas, Dawn French should feel free to tweet her support for BLM if she wants. But is the Vicar of Dibley really the place to discuss issues like this?
Bring back the inoffensive jokes, vicarage chocolate fountains, copious plates of brussels sprouts, silly crushes, and the most disorganised parish council in Christendom. French's disarming portrayal of a warm, funny and generous pastor won many over to the idea of women priests in the 1990s and is much to be applauded. My plea to Geraldine is that we are too fraught and knackered this Christmas for a PC lecture. What we long for is a message of comfort and joy, one that transcends the ordinary and finds hope in the heavenly, the star of Bethlehem not the editorial of the Morning Star.
No doubt that some will cheer last night's Dibley episode, while others will quietly groan. But it’s unlikely that any one will laugh – and isn’t that what a sitcom is about?