Susie Rushton: Good clergy can see the humour in irreverence

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The Independent Online

Just over the road from i's Kensington offices is St Mary Abbotts, a magnificent spired church which attracts a flow of tourists and, at weekends, an enthusiastic congregation. It also happens to be in the centre of one of London's property hotspots, and Sunday-service attendees include a steady stream of parents hoping to send their Archies and Rubies to the Church of England school next door, which happens to be, says the Daily Mail, "the most sought-after primary in England".

David Cameron and Michael Gove have children at the school, which has a high proportion of children from wealthy backgrounds, a smart uniform and an "outstanding" Ofsted rating. Presiding over this picturesque enclave is the church vicar, and chairman of the board of governors, Father Gillean Craig, a clergyman variously described as "charismatic" and "theatrical".

Now the actor Tom Hollander, pictured, who lives nearby, has revealed it was tales of Father Craig's status as "the most-invited man" on the Notting-Hill dinner party circuit that inspired Rev, the gently brilliant BBC2 comedy currently out-performing Ricky Gervais on Thursday nights. "If you think of the classic image of a slightly awkward Anglican vicar being thrust into the metropolitan world and people fighting to get his attention," says Hollander, "It's a rather funny story to tell."

Hollander might have thought he'd struck comic gold on learning of Rev Craig, but of course the actor simply follows in a grand tradition of affectionate send-ups of Church of England clergy. Could he have created the neurotic, hapless yet rather worldly Rev Adam Smallbone without foundations laid by Derek Nimmo, Rowan Atkinson, Dawn French, [add the name of your favourite TV dog collar here]?

Well, yes. Because the comic Anglican vicar of televisual fame isn't so far from real life. They really are like that. Who hasn't met a genial, clubbable and occasionally hapless vicar? In fact, I think I've never a met an unfunny vicar in this country. Not all of them tell actual jokes, of course, but most of them certainly know how to entertain. Perhaps that's why so many of them have embraced Twitter. It is a job in which one is allowed to express all the qualities of the English eccentric without being unemployable. Happily, most vicars seem quite aware of the inherent comedy of their position in society, and arenot offended.

There must also be hilariously self-depreciating imams, not to mention sardonic rabbis and witty buddhist monks, but I've less occasion to meet them, and they have had a low profile in TV sitcoms. Yet not all Anglicans will see the funny side. Hand-wringers might say the fond irreverence for our reverends is a sign of the retreat of belief. Most of us take the healthy attitude that it's OK to see the funny side of the clerical life. You don't have to look far to see that unthinking, humourless devotion to any religious leader is no joke.