BBC’s #Broken: 5 things it revealed about Christianity and Faith


I’m sure, like many others, you have been inspired by the Jimmy McGovern series Broken on BBC One over the last few weeks. If you haven’t seen it yet it’s worth trying to still catch up on the iPlayer or getting hold of the DVD which is out now.

Of course, having written a book about the portrayal of priests on the TV, I took a very close interest in this drama! It absolutely exceeded my expectations. In my book I spoke about how we shouldn’t expect too much of television programmes in terms of accurate portrayals of priests because TV is made to entertain and the quiet, faithful, work of ordinary Christians or priests isn’t necessarily interesting or entertaining. I now take that back!

I have done my best to avoid spoilers in this piece, so do read on.

Here are 5 things that I feel this remarkable drama revealed about Christianity, Priesthood and Faith:

The Nature of the Priesthood

I, along with many others, feel that this series truly captured much of the nature of what it is to be a priest. The self-doubt that comes with being a spiritual leader (Fr Michael, Sean Bean’s character, struggles throughout with feelings of inadequacy to the task) alongside the dilemma of wanting to switch off at the end of a long day just as another person calls on your time. The power of just giving people time and listening to their stories. The dogged persistence in offering pastoral care – sometimes when it’s not initially welcomed. The priest’s role as pointing to the presence of Christ all around us all the time – Fr Michael’s character repeatedly lighting a candle to tell people of this. All of these things are part of what it is to be a priest and there has never been a more nuanced or accurate portrayal of this on the television. Read more about this in this article by Cindy Kent.

The Power of the Eucharist

Every episode involves Fr Michael saying mass and as the series goes on the centrality of the mass/eucharist/holy communion only becomes more clear. The power of the body and blood of Christ offered in love for the whole world is evident throughout. This is true not only for Fr Michael himself, as we see that he struggles with his own sin each time he says mass but also for his congregation for whom many it is a lifeline. Read more about this in my article about Corpus Christi.

The radical nature of Christianity

when-someone-asks-you-what-would-jesus-do-remind-them-24587009Every priest and every church group struggles with the often wide chasm between the institutional church and the teachings of Jesus Christ. This is also touched upon throughout the series. Fr Michael preaches about when righteous anger might be appropriate; he speaks his mind on women in ministry; he questions the spending of hundreds of pounds on confirmation dresses. The series also touches on the child abuse scandals to have hit the church. What shines through, rather wonderfully in my view, is that the teachings and example of Jesus are way more important that the institutional structures of the church. It was a relief to see this portrayed so well in the programme, and that it revealed how tangled and messy it all is.

The value of the Church’s ministry

I recently tweeted about an increase in people training for the priesthood in the Church of England. Someone replied by saying ‘not relevant in the 21st century’. My reply could well have been ‘have you watched Broken?’ If there was any doubt that the church isn’t needed in the 21st century, this series, (perhaps unwittingly) proved otherwise! In an interview, the writer Jimmy McGovern spoke about how the church is needed at key moments of people’s lives such as birth and death. One of the characters in the drama walks into church because she can’t think of where else to go. Often, in my own ministry I am struck that the church offers things that are very difficult to find elsewhere – where do you go if you’ve done something you regret? Where do you go when you want to mark a big event in your life? Where do you go if you want to organise a funeral? Where do you go if you can’t feed your kids? The vast majority of Food Banks (which are also referred to in Broken) are run by Churches. I’m not saying that these things aren’t found in other religions or in some charitable organisations but if you took the church out of the picture altogether it is clear that society would be hugely impoverished. Broken was a great response to that person who told me that priests were irrelevant in the 21st Century. Jimmy McGovern in the same interview referred to the film ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ and how the main character after doubting the value of his life is shown what the world would look like without him in it. This was one of McGovern’s inspiration for the character of Fr Michael.

The world and faith are not black and white

The series artfully explores a variety of complex moral dilemmas – should I tell the truth, even if it might harm my family? Are my motives pure or am I really doing this for my own benefit? Broken also challenges what ‘success’ looks like. Fr Michael’s congregation is tiny but his impact on the individuals with whom he works is huge. In a world, and, unfortunately sometimes, a church, that prizes numbers and ‘bums on seats’, this was refreshing and revealed that value is not necessarily found in flashy success. A friend of mine went to a course for small churches called ‘a satsuma is not a failed orange’ – this encapsulates something of what Broken showed about Fr Michael’s ‘success’ as a priest. Read more about this in an article by the Bishop of Jarrow.

I’m sure there are many more lessons to be gleaned from this series, it was beautifully filmed and written and went to depths rarely plumbed by television drama. I hope it wins all the awards going!

Here are some interesting clips to watch about the making of the show:


Corpus Christi – discovering the power of the mass through TV’s #Broken 


I’m really enjoying new BBC drama Broken, starring Sean Bean as a Jesuit priest (it’s on the iPlayer if you need to catch up). It’s very similar to the film I, Daniel Blake in that it is an honest portrayal of life in modern Britain – but in this case seen through the ministry of a priest. It’s not easy to watch at all but it is real.

Today is the feast of Corpus Christi – a celebration of the gift of Holy Communion. This week’s episode explored issues of truth and lies, guilt and forgiveness. A policeman struggles to do the right thing and in the end chooses to lie (and tells the priest why he’s chosen to lie) but then goes to mass. I thought this short clip here revealed something of the mysterious power of Holy Communion, Corpus Christi:


– Why did you give me communion, Father?

– Why did you come up for it?

– Because I’ve never needed it so much in my life.

– That’s why I gave you it.


It is often at those times when life is most desperate that we need not words, but actions, not words but something beyond that. That is what Holy Communion offers to us. As the old Book of Common Prayer service says before the bread and wine is distributed:

Come to me, all who labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.

Thanks be to God for the gift of the Eucharist.

Listen to an interview on BBC Newcastle about my book ‘More TV Vicar?’


I had the exciting opportunity to go on the radio this morning at BBC Newcastle and be interviewed by Ingrid Hagemann on the breakfast show about my book ‘More TV Vicar?’

You can listen to the interview in full here:

Facebook needs to reinstate a ban on all beheading videos #banbeheading


I was emailed by a friend last night and alerted to the fact that Facebook had reversed a ban on videos showing graphic violence such as beheadings. The BBC reported it last night. Then today PM David Cameron tweeted:

After I hastily looked for a petition to sign against this and had an email exchange on what could be done last night, today I was invited to speak on News Hour on Premier Radio. You can listen to the interview here:


I have been trying to decide what is the best course of action. I’m hoping that partly the media furore this has caused will make Facebook reconsider this move. A spokeswoman for Facebook said:

“Facebook has long been a place where people turn to share their experiences, particularly when they’re connected to controversial events on the ground, such as human rights abuses, acts of terrorism and other violent events. However, since some people object to graphic video of this nature, we are working to give people additional control over the content they see. This may include warning them in advance that the image they are about to see contains graphic content.”

I believe that the argument that people share these videos to raise awareness of human rights abuses is fundamentally flawed. We don’t need to watch a video of someone being beheaded to know that it is wrong – not to mention the psychological damage to us from seeing these images (and they are not only detrimental to children but to adults as well). Having a warning that the image contains graphic content is an enticing statement (I have to admit that kind of warning usually makes me want to watch the content – so I’m sure children would be even more likely to want to see all the gory details). This clearly does not go far enough. Facebook needs to reinstate the ban immediately.

What seems very strange to me is that Facebook’s own policy on videos is stated as follows:

Photos and videos containing nudity, drug use or other graphic content are not allowed on Facebook. We also don’t allow photos or videos that glorify violence or attack an individual or group.

How these violent videos of beheadings do not violate this policy I do not know.

In an attempt to do something more about this I have created a twibbon campaign.

Ban videosIf you agree with me you may well want to sign the petition and also change your Facebook profile picture here until Facebook reverses their reckless and dangerous decision.

I will post up here any further campaigns and details as they become available.

Update 23 October

Things are moving at facebook but perhaps not far enough: Facebook in death clip policy U-turn

Is baptism the new wedding? Responses to reports that by 2016 most children will be born outside of marriage

By National Library of Ireland on The Commons (Christening Day Uploaded by russavia) [see page for license], via Wikimedia Commons

The BBC reported today that the majority of babies born in three years’ time will have parents who are not married. This is a trend I noticed two years ago when we ran our first Wedding Fayre at Pudsey Parish Church. Incidentally, this triggered an idea for the presentation I needed to give at my BAP (Bishops’ Advisory Panel) for selection for ordained ministry. I thought I would share my presentation here as it explores what this new trend might mean for the church – and especially the Church of England.

By National Library of Ireland on The Commons (Christening Day Uploaded by russavia) [see page for license], via Wikimedia Commons

Is baptism the new wedding?

Last year (2011) at our church we ran a Wedding Fayre. The idea came from a member of the congregation who is a local florist and wanted to help us to find a way in which we could make better connections with the local community. It happened to be the 5th anniversary of the reordering of the church interior and seemed like a good way to celebrate that. So in running the Fayre we were both supporting local businesses who exhibited their services and promoting getting married in church. I was on the door welcoming people in. Something happened that surprised me but shouldn’t have. The vast majority of couples coming through the doors arrived with their children. As we were planning the event, I and I think the rest of the team, was imagining young couples in their twenties and thirties and we provided facilities for that demographic. We didn’t factor in children! We realised that when we run the Fayre again this year (2012) that we’ll need to provide a crèche and some other facilities for children.

What happened on that day is perhaps symptomatic of the church’s response to societal change. We can go about in our own church bubble completely unaware of the changes around us. As I said, I was surprised by the number of children coming in but I shouldn’t have been, really. Traditionally, couples who had decided to stay together first got married, then moved in together, then got a mortgage and only then had children. An awful lot of people are now reversing that model – without any controversy – couples move in together first, then perhaps get a mortgage, then have children and then get married – perhaps some years later.

There is a parallel trend in that baptism parties are becoming more and more elaborate – in some ways you might say that baptism is the new wedding. People are sealing their relationship by having children, rather than by getting married, and want to celebrate that. You can see it in a lot of the baptisms at our church – people are dressed as if they’re going to a wedding and you hear that the family has booked a function room for a big party.

If we approach this in a sensitive way, this cultural shift could be a real opportunity for the church and more importantly for the Kingdom of God. I had a conversation on Twitter with a priest friend of mine and he told me that recently he did a baptism with a surprise wedding in it, and a wedding with a surprise baptism! Two sacraments for the price of one! These were examples of people wanting to involve their children in some way with their wedding day and bring the whole family into Church together – perhaps we’ll see more of these kind of requests.

How should the church respond to this change in the way people are starting families?

  • One response or idea I had was that we offer marriage preparation classes for couples, should we offer family marriage preparation? Should we be talking to children of couples about what it means that their mum and dad are getting married?
  • The second thought, is should we be making a more deliberate connection for these families between marriage and baptism?

Springboks Jumping for Joy – BBC Africa – perfect for Easter Sunday services!


Perfect for Easter Sunday – Love is come again like wheat that springeth green.

“We still don’t know exactly why they do this. The simplest answer is that they’re dancing for joy” – David Attenborough on the Springboks’ ‘pronking’.

‘Startling results’ of poll of young people stating that looking after family more important than having religious belief #bbcrethink


The BBC is currently running a festival of Religion and Ethics called RE:think. As part of the festival they have released details of a poll of 585 (not that many people when you think about it, not even a school’s worth) 16-24 year olds about their beliefs. Here’s an extract from the BBC article about this:

The poll undertaken by TNS BMRB among 585 16-24 year-olds asked them to rank the most important moral issue for them, from a list of eight options. These options were:

  • Paying taxes
  • Having religious faith or beliefs
  • Caring for the environment
  • Buying ethical products
  • Being faithful to a partner
  • Looking after family
  • Playing a part in your community
  • Putting others before yourself

Fifty-nine per cent of 16-24 year olds said looking after family was the most important moral issue for them. Only four per cent said having religious faith or beliefs was the most important moral issue. The same percentage listed paying taxes and playing a part in your community 12 per cent said putting others first, eight per cent said being faithful to a partner; five per cent said caring for the environment. One per cent listed buying ethical products as the most important moral issue.

Having ranked the eight issues in order of importance, religious faith or belief was considered to be least important by almost one third (32 per cent) of the respondents. This was followed by 22 per cent who said buying ethical products was the least important, and 15 per cent who put paying taxes at the bottom of their moral list.

The head of religion and ethics at the BBC called these results ‘startling’. I can’t understand why. If I were asked to rank the statements in terms of importance I think I’d put caring for others and family first too, despite being a ‘religious person’. It’s a case, yet again, of people thinking that religion is something abstract – something that sits over in its own category. My religion gives me the motivation and desire to put others first. Anyone knows that simply holding a religious belief means nothing if it doesn’t bear out in the person’s life. As James writes in the New Testament:

14 What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them?15 Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. 16 If one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? 17 In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.

– James 2:14-17

I don’t find the results too disconcerting. It’s true that religion is being put more and more to the boundaries of society but part of me is glad about that. It’s not religion I’m interested in, it’s the outworking of belief on our wider society that is important. If religion had come top in the poll with caring for others or family much lower down I think there would be much much more cause for concern.

This poll is the equivalent of saying ‘what’s the most important issue in society?:

– being a member of a political party

– providing free education to all

– having good roads

– having good hospitals

– building a strong economy

The likelihood is that no one would choose ‘being a member of a political party’ but those who were members of a political party would care very much about the list below that.

Still, the talks at the festival look pretty interesting anyway so I’m glad this has brought discussion of religion and ethics into the public sphere.