A Vicar’s Life on BBC2: so much more than collars and cassocks

Don’t be put off by the title: the BBC's new documentary series continually subverts our expectations says Mark Braxton

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It would be all too easy to see the title of BBC2’s six-part obs-doc and imagine a dusty world of bells and smells, of liturgies and lecterns, and conclude that this is not a world that you inhabit. Surplice to requirements, you might say.

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But A Vicar’s Life exists in a very different parish to such speculations, with its thought-provoking reflections on homelessness, poverty, immigration, dementia and loneliness.

The producers have been careful not to alienate the casual viewer with canonical procedure and Bible bashing. Instead we see the practical support offered by four members of the clergy in the Diocese of Hereford.

When we’re first introduced to the clerical quartet, there’s an element of the sitcom Rev (no bad thing) as we see the funnier side of spiritual life: team rector Matthew Stafford commissions a jazzy shirt in which to marry a couple, and shows us some of the amusing tat he gets sent including a solar-powered Pope and a “Cheesus Christ” cheese grater.

But the twinkly music and the Bake Off aesthetic of marquees and cakes belie serious issues. In week one we followed team vicar Ruth Hulse on her visit to a hospice to comfort dying congregant Barbara (“It’s really hard to see her like that”).

And rural dean Nicholas Lowton has to report the theft of priceless records from one of his rural churches. In this week’s edition, he also visits a couple in the Black Mountains who are forced to vacate their farm and don’t know where they’ll be living next.

Unconsciously or otherwise, the series seems to focus largely on jovial Matthew Cashmore, who has givien up his job as the director of a large bookseller to become a deacon (“I’ve no idea what’s next, and that’s terrifying”). Maybe the newbie is seen as the best way in for viewers, especially the uninitiated. It’s a common trope used by writers of drama.

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This week we’ll see Father Matthew meeting a homeless woman who has pitched a tent on a Hereford roundabout. Tearful Sam, who has been served with an eviction notice, and has no access to her children, says, “Why are people so quick to judge?” It’s a question that reaches out to us all. What would your answer be?

But then A Vicar’s Life is continually subverting expectations and throwing us off guard.

Father Matthew is determined to find Sam shelter – it turns out there’s a very good reason he feels so passionately about the problem.

Despite what you might think about the state of our nation, you’ll find that people really do want to get involved. Programmes like A Vicar’s Life can only boost awareness, and the desire to help.

In next week’s harvest-time instalment, at Breinton near Hereford, Father Matthew asks local growers to part with their produce so that he can feed asylum seekers trapped in Calais. “The response was immediate and huge,” he beams, “and that says everything you need to know about rural communities.”

Not content with making sure all is safely gathered in, Matthew joins a team that delivers the fresh veg straight to Calais, and talks to refugees while he’s there.

That said, the series is not afraid to address the elephant in the room: dwindling congregations. We are told that Church of England attendances have fallen 15 per cent in the past decade. On his rounds Nicholas Lowton is told by one parishioner, “I’ll see you Sunday vicar – but I’m not saying which Sunday.” You wonder just how many times Nicholas and his colleagues have heard those words or similar.

But the reverends have ideas to stay relevant, and it might surprise you how pragmatic they are. Next week Father Matthew trains in First Aid to be one of Hereford’s nightly street pastors, then puts in a six-hour night shift (the volunteers can save 24 ambulance calls a month).

As for the conspicuously ageing congregations, house visits are all part and ministerial parcel of the job. Dementia is a common problem – one that we’ll learn is especially close to home for Matthew Stafford.

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All in all, preconceptions may well be confounded, and Jo Roe, executive producer for A Vicar’s Life, agrees. “People might assume the life of a country vicar gently revolves around church fêtes, picture-postcard weddings and Christian ritual. We wanted to show how vicars today juggle multiple parishes, often providing vital support to isolated and under-resourced communities.

“Especially in rural areas, vicars are often the only public figures at the heart of fragmented communities, bringing us together for the landmark moments in our lives, as well being there for people in times of need or trouble.”

A Vicar’s Life turns out to be an engagingly human portrait of a spiritual calling. It offers a window onto areas of life we know exist but don’t always see. Finally, there is something inspiring about a collective keenness to help. As Matthew says, “Ultimately what shifts the world are everybody’s individual small acts of good.”

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A Vicar’s Life continues Friday 26 February at 8.30pm on BBC2