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

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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:

Transcript:

– 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.

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What I learnt watching telly for @sandfordawards

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This year I was invited to help shortlist for the Sandford St Martin Trust Awards – an awards scheme for excellence in broadcasting that engages with religion, ethics or spirituality. The shortlisting process involved watching a lot of television (obviously) that covered themes as wide ranging as Joan of Arc, Muslim Drag Queens and Srebrenica.

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Me at the Church and Media Conference in 2015 with some of the Sandford St Martin staff

I think broadcasting that covers themes of religion, ethics and spirituality is only going to become more important in our current times. You have only to see some views espoused on social media or down the pub about religion and belief to realise how ill-informed most people are (and I include myself in that). Despite the decline of print media and even the decline in live television viewing – most of us still consume a lot of television – we simply do this via catch-up now or streaming services or saving up for a box set. Levels of religious literacy in particular are at an all time low, we don’t even understand our own religious background (which floats around like a ghost in the back of our mind with a refrain of ‘he who would valiant be’ from Primary School) – let alone understand what makes a Muslim tick. Most people wouldn’t get the ‘Blessed are the Cheesemakers’ joke from the Life of Brian any more – or at least wouldn’t be able to say where the joke comes from in the Bible. So we need good religious broadcasting. We need to understand the ‘other’ better in our world of angry tweets and incendiary Facebook posts.

Fascinatingly, a lot of the programmes I watched for the shortlisting were about extremism – either Islamic extremism or forms of fascism and white supremacy. Whilst I found these quite interesting, they didn’t teach me anything new, but perhaps even hardened my view on extremism.

The programmes I found most affecting were those in which we saw ordinary people trying to live out their faith. I particularly enjoyed the Irish documentary series ‘Baz the Lost Muslim‘ about a man who had grown up in Catholic Ireland with a Catholic mother but Egyptian Muslim father who decided to explore the faith of his father for the first time at the age of 40 – he had some profound moments along the way – particularly the first time he prayed.

Another wonderful programme was a short film about Muslim style vlogger Nabiilabee meeting with ex-Girls Aloud singer Nicola Roberts – they were sent on a mission to buy each other an outfit that worked with their own preferences – of course with modesty for the Muslim woman. This is a lovely programme which you can watch here – I particularly loved hearing Nabiilabee talking about ‘bad hijab days’! This was a really honest conversation about clothes and religious beliefs.

Another programme which showed the levels of diversity within a big religion like Islam was Muslim Drag Queens. Initially the provocative name put me off but this was a very moving documentary. The most striking part for me was when one more seasoned drag queen was teaching a new lad some moves in a night club (during the day). It came to prayer time and the younger lad was going to take his prayer mat into the corner to say his prayers. The older drag queen was horrified that his friend was happy to pray in such a place. It was fascinating – the discussion was not about their sexuality or the fact that they were drag queens but about their faith and how they live it out in Western Society. This was such a refreshing surprise – I’d love to see more programming like this. You can watch the programme on All 4 here – don’t let the title put you off!

My favourite programme which sadly wasn’t shortlisted ultimately (but got top marks from me!) was You, Me and the Apocalypse. This was a drama shown earlier in the year on Sky1. It is the most innovative drama I have seen in a long time. It benefits from having very high American drama production values and a very witty British script with a mixture of British and American actors. I think the reason it wasn’t shortlisted was that we shortlisted individual episodes, not whole series, and this is a series that really needs to be seen in its entirety and not one episode in isolation as the plot is complicated. The series is by turns hilarious, profound and moving and generates plenty of questions in the viewer. In my view it would be a great programme to watch over a few weeks as a small group from church or even as an adult confirmation course! The premise of the programme is that there is a meteor coming that will destroy the planet in 30 days and it tracks the response of a variety of characters in the UK and USA and other places whose stories begin to connect as the series progresses. I really recommend it and I was disappointed it didn’t ‘make the cut’ so to speak so I will sing its praises here!

I have only written here about a few of the programmes I watched. I thought it was a sad indictment of our times that so many were focused on the negative things to come out of religion or extremist beliefs. I hope that programme makers might look a bit more in the future at the more human stories of people working out what it means to live out their faith in the modern world as it is these stories we need to hear more. We all know what happens when religion goes wrong – we have the news for that – but drama and documentary makers have the opportunity to report on the real lives of believers and the complexities of being a person of faith – that is far more engaging and interesting!

If you’re interested, these are the final programmes I helped to shortlist. The awards will be presented on 8th June 2016.

Television Shortlist

A DEADLY WARNING: SREBRENICA REVISITED

BBC Religion and Ethics for BBC One

Read more:

BAZ: THE LOST MUSLIM (PART 2)

Brown Bread Films Ltd for RTÉ2

Read more: 

GENIUS OF THE ANCIENT WORLD: BUDDHA

BBC Religion and Ethics for BBC Four

Read more:

JOAN OF ARC: GOD’S WARRIOR

Matchlight Limited for BBC Two

Read more:

MUSLIM DRAG QUEENS

Swan Films for Channel 4

Read more:

MY SON THE JIHADI

True Vision Productions for Channel 4

Read more:

SONGS OF PRAISE (16/08/2015 FROM THE JUNGLE, CALAIS)

BBC Religion and Ethics for BBC One

Read more:

THE ARK

Red Planet Pictures for BBC One

Read more: 

Hammy and hokey but fun, my review of ITV’s Midwinter of the Spirit

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This autumn saw ITV release a new drama with a clerical lead, Midwinter of the Spirit, based on the popular books by Phil Rickman. Of course, I had to tune in, given that the main character, Merrily Watkins (bit of a daft name) is a woman priest recently trained in the art of Deliverance Ministry (or what-we-used-to-call exorcism).


During my training I had more than one person ask me if I would get to ‘go ghost hunting’ as a priest. Because of films like the Exorcist the whole area of priests and demons is a source of much fascination – the two often go together, although in the popular imagination, the exorcist priest is always a man and always Roman Catholic. So Phil Rickman, in creating a woman priest exorcist character is tapping directly into this fascination by adding a further layer of interest: what, a woman exorcist? Does the Church of England get involved in that?

Well yes it does as it happens and this TV mini series pulled out all the stops in this dark horror, complete with creepy music and the evil lady’s maid from Downton Abbey playing a sinister occult leader.

Friends of mine that have read the books have said that the character of Merrily was not how they’d imagined her. I haven’t read the books so can’t comment on that. I thought she was quite well-drawn, shown to be a vulnerable woman, a single mother having moved to a new place to help her get over her abusive (?) husband’s death in a car crash. Merrily’s bishop, played by Nicholas Pinnock, is young, black and handsome. So far, so good.

There are a few flaws in the production, however. The horror set ups are a little hammy, the music warning you about each jump (although it is quite genuinely scary, the scene in the hospital will make me nervous about night visits for a while!) The most irritating flaws, however, are down to the costume department. The bishop wears a black cassock over his purple shirt that clearly looks like it’s come from the bottom of a dressing up box. It doesn’t fit him and looks all wrong. It kind of clashes with his character who is sharply dressed and dynamic. Merrily is seen at one point coming out of a baptism service wearing a chasuble with a stole over the top – totally wrong. She also, although this is more a matter of taste than anything, wears a really hideous denim clerical shirt! Why is this an issue? Well you could argue that people watching Casualty or The Bill would point out similar errors (my husband is always pointing out the cheap stethoscopes doctors use on Casualty that you’d never be seen dead using). Make a programme about a particular profession and people are always going to point out mistakes. However, for me, it is important to get these things right – and not that difficult. Many people will have watched Midwinter of the Spirit and found out for the first time that Church of England vicars do get involved with deliverance ministry. The programme will have had a lot of curious viewers. So to get some of the basics wrong just lent the whole thing an air of inauthenticity, and perhaps, incompetence. This was frustrating as it somewhat diluted the thrill of having a black bishop and a single mum priest on prime time television.

For the sake of the drama/plot quite a few rules are broken. I can’t imagine someone being made Diocesan Exorcist by a bishop when they’ve barely completed the training. But then, rules and regulations (especially those of the Byzantine Church of England) certainly do not make for compelling television!

That said, I predicted when interviewed about my book earlier this year that we would see more vicar characters on TV precisely because ministry in the Church is an area alien to a lot of people, and therefore arouses curiosity. Coupling this with a bit of horror tapped right into people’s fascination with the darker edges of ministry today.

On the whole I enjoyed this new thriller, I liked the fact that the lead character was a woman priest and was well-rounded and realistically portrayed, experiencing the same challenges as any other single parent might. I enjoyed the exploration of the occult and the hokey historical storyline of saints and demons. Roll on series 2!

More TV Vicar? Christians on the Telly: The Good, the Bad and the Quirky by Bryony Taylor, is available now in paperback and eBook priced £9.99.

This review first appeared on the DLT Blog.

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

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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:

Read the beginning of More TV Vicar? by Bryony Taylor – out now from @DLT_books

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My new book ‘More TV Vicar?’ is out now. You can buy the book from the publisher here or download the Kindle version here.

Here is an excerpt from the beginning of the book to whet your appetite. If you can’t read the extract below, click on the Kindle link and go to the ‘look inside’ option.

book preface1

book preface2

Being Human

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Being Human is a BBC comedy drama about a ghost, a vampire and a werewolf sharing an apartment. It sounds like a pretty awful idea but the issues explored in this drama are those of what it means to be human and what happens when we die. Quite profound stuff – especially for BBC3 – not reknowned for quality drama.

Not something to use if you don’t like swearing or a bit of gore. However, this would be great to show to generate discussion and debate with a group of believers or seekers. A thought provoking drama that also happens to be very funny and moving.

Here is a clip from the very first series: