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

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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:

What’s it like to go to a Bishops’ Advisory Panel (BAP)?

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Following in the footsteps of some of my friends who have also been through the discernment process towards ordination in the Church of England, I thought I would share some reflections on what going to a Bishops’ Advisory Panel is actually like for anyone about to go to one themselves or just curious to know how it works.

The BAP (as it’s known – cue annoying sandwich jokes from people you know whenever you mention it) is the final stage of the selection process for applying to train for the priesthood in the Church of England. It’s a gruelling 2 and a half day residential ‘selection conference’. Before going you do get given information on what’s going to happen which is outlined here. Here’s my take on what it was like.

My conference was held at Shallowford House which is near Stafford (the other centre which is used is in Ely). I travelled there by train and I would recommend getting to a BAP by public transport as particularly on your way home, you’ll be in no fit state to concentrate on a long drive. Everyone told me to buy earplugs because this retreat house is right by a railway – I took some but didn’t need them in the end. Some of the rooms are en suite but unfortunately mine wasn’t!

My BAP was a ‘full’ one, meaning that we had 16 candidates – in two groups of 8 and each group of 8 had 3 Advisers (a mixture of lay people and ordained) with a Panel Secretary who ran the whole thing. It’s quite an odd experience because it’s an interview that’s not an interview – there is no competition involved – there is no quota of places but you are all being assessed. I suspect there is nothing that quite compares to this process!

Monday

On arrival you can settle into your room and then after tea and biscuits there is an ice breaker session designed to help you all get to know each other a bit.

Following this is the part they call the Personal Inventory. This is a 40 minute paper where you answer questions on the 3 main areas on which you’ll be interviewed: Vocation, Pastoral & Education. This is an opportunity to share things that perhaps you didn’t share in the massive registration form you completed before you went. What you write on this Personal Inventory is used quite a bit by the interviewers when they see you. It’s virtually impossible to prepare for this bit, but the best thing to do is just write the first thing that comes into your head in answer to each question. There are three short papers asking questions on education, pastoral and vocation – you spend about 12 minutes on each one.

Once you’ve done it you can forget about it though – it’s not really a test (although it feels like one).

After that everyone is given the pastoral exercise to complete – you have the rest of the panel to write a 500 word letter in response to a complex pastoral situation. All I would say on this one is make sure you write a pastoral letter – ie a friendly, warm one, in the most natural way you can. Mine was a blessing and a curse as it was very close to a situation I’m experiencing at the moment – so on the one hand I had already thought about the issues quite a lot but on the other it was a bit close to home!

Then it’s dinner and off to bed or the bar for a drink first (where the Advisers don’t hang around so it’s a bit more relaxing than you’d think).

Tuesday

This was the toughest day. All morning from 8.45am to 1pm you have the presentations in your two groups. You are each given a card with the number 1-8 on to decide the running order. I got 7 :-(! Then you have 2 presentations, a break and so on until you’re all done. The exhausting thing about this is that you are being observed throughout – in your presentation, the way you lead group discussion, the way you respond etc. So you need to be as perky for the first one as you are for the eighth! Fortunately, you’re all rooting for each other and it is actually interesting to see what each person speaks on – we had a nice mixture of topics although 5 out of the 8 chose ‘mission and evangelism’ for their criterion to speak about. Apparently sometimes people choose the same topic but this didn’t happen at my BAP.

I was utterly exhausted after all of that – I felt like I did when I was at university doing exams – really really tired but really wired at the same time! Fortunately they feed you well – we had a good pasta bake for lunch which settled me back down a bit!

Following lunch I had my first interview – the Education one.

The education adviser looks at Faith, Mission and Evangelism and Quality of Mind. Many people I’ve spoken to have said this is generally the toughest of the 3 interviews – and I would agree with that. I think they are trying to figure out if you can cope with some tough questions and hold your own. Mine was pretty tough, I was asked about the 39 articles(!) and also told to improvise a sermon about the ascension! It’s best not to talk to other candidates, however, about your questions because everyone gets different questions depending on what’s in their paper work so don’t worry – I happened to have the 39 articles mentioned in a reference which is perhaps why that came up. They will throw a curve ball or two at you. Try not to panic and answer as calmly as you can. I was glad this was my first interview – I got the hardest one out of the way first!

Later that day I had my Vocation interview.

The Vocations adviser looks at Vocation, Ministry in the Church of England and Spirituality.

I enjoyed my Vocations interview the most I think. It’s a chance to tell your story and for me didn’t feel like a test at all but just a conversation. The only advice I would give is be sure you can answer the question of what the role of a priest is – you’re likely to be asked that and need to be able to give a good response. (I have to say, I found the book ‘On being a priest today‘ absolutely brilliant preparation for the BAP – a must-read).

Wednesday

On Wednesday I only had one more interview to go (people have their interviews scattered at different times over the two days). So I spent the morning writing my pastoral letter and then went to the last interview – the Pastoral one.

The Pastoral adviser looks at Personality and Character, Leadership and Collaboration and Relationships. This is the most personal of the interviews and felt a little like a counselling session (if you’ve ever had counselling you’ll know what I mean). They will ask you some very deep and personal questions which are quite hard to answer but my adviser was really sensitive and gentle (I don’t think they’d let a dragon do these interviews!) It was a bit emotional but ok, not surprising given the personal nature of the questions.

Every day is punctuated by morning and evening prayer in the chapel. There is a nice mixture of Common Worship, other forms of prayer and Book of Common Prayer. They say this is all optional but you’d be a bit daft not to go! Also it’s nice to have some structured worship as I found it quite hard to focus and pray on my own whilst there – it’s so intense it’s nice to have some prayers to follow instead (but then I like liturgy anyway!)

Things that surprised me:

  • The warmth of the other candidates. The other candidates made the process a real pleasure, we were all rooting for each other and had a good laugh each evening in the bar dissecting some of our interviews and just chatting about other stuff too.
  • I really enjoyed all the worship in the chapel and particularly the closing service where there was a brilliant homily.
  • The food was really good and meal times were convivial.
  • Just how exhausted I was on my return home – I nearly slept for the whole day afterwards – so try and get the day off on the Thursday if you can!
  • How painful and horrible the 10 day wait to hear was! I didn’t anticipate quite how hard the wait would be – I kind of wish I’d been more busy with work – the last two days I wasn’t working and so I had plenty of time to convince myself it would be a ‘no’!

The good advice I received that I also pass on to you if you’re going to a BAP:

  • Tell people you’re going to the BAP – get them praying for you. I felt very buoyed by prayer whilst I was there and had an almost floaty journey down on the train! One great thing for me was that I posted on Facebook that I was going (a lot of my FB friends didn’t even know I was on this journey – so I kind of ‘came out’!) – I got loads of encouragement from people, some of whom I haven’t seen for years. So if you’re like me and share your life on social networks, it’s worth sharing this as all sorts of people come out in support of you that you’d never expect!
  • Be yourself – all they’re trying to work out is if you match what’s been said in your references and other forms and if God really is calling you specifically to ordained ministry (not just ministry per se).
  • Try and enjoy it – it’s ridiculously intense but you go through it along with the other candidates – and it’s a bit of an ordeal for the advisers too – there is a real sense of camaraderie which helps to make the process less daunting.
  • Give yourself time on your return to recover – I needed to sleep for a whole day – you really feel like a spent match at the end of it.
  • After you’ve rested, try and get busy – I wish I’d occupied myself more whilst I waited to hear.

Here are some other great blog posts to read before going to a BAP:

Liz Clutterbuck – So you’re going to a BAP – really humorous take on going to a BAP

Rachel Hartland – To BAP, BAPing, I BAPed – encountering the verb of selection for ordination! – read this especially if you’re going to Ely

Emma Goldby – Bishops’ Advisory Panel thoughts – some very sage advice

That’s the story of my BAP. The process is very rigorous but made me realise what care is taken to ensure the right decisions are made for everyone concerned. I think it’s one of the hardest things I’ve ever done but when you think of the consequences – which are truly life-changing – you can see why! I especially want to thank Rachel (@ramtopsrac on Twitter) for her encouragement and support – it was so nice to have someone go through a BAP just before I did! Now on to the next stage of the journey!

What if you don’t get recommended?

To round off this article I think it’s appropriate to also share a story of someone who didn’t get recommended. You can read Ernie’s frank account on the Big Bible site. My thanks to Ernie for his honesty and for sharing such a personal story.