Last Friday, the Archbishop of Canterbury told trainee priests at Ripon College in Oxford that, along with instruction in theology and ethics, they should watch soap operas to strengthen their connection with the world around them. Dr Rowan Williams has already made no secret of his affection for The Simpsons, and is the most culturally switched-on cleric since Dr Robert Runcie gently reminded members of the General Synod to rebook Genesis, presumably for their summer party, although it's always possible that Dr Runcie was gently reminding them to read the book of Genesis.
Maybe Dr Williams was misquoted too, although I doubt it. He isn't wrong about much, and he isn't wrong about this. If he says that priests should keep up to date with the goings-on in the Queen Vic or Rovers Return, then plainly they should take heed. The Church of England would only be following the example of government. The Culture Secretary, Tessa Jowell, recently observed that "a storyline on Coronation Street or EastEnders is a much more powerful medium from which to engage the public than any bundle of government leaflets are likely to be."
But whatever it says in the Old Testament about an eye for an eye, if the Church does start keeping a respectful eye on the soaps, it won't get a respectful eye back. As far as I am aware, neither Coronation Street nor EastEnders has ever had, as a major character, a member of the clergy.
Maybe this is because religious sensibilities are even more delicate than political ones. Various Coronation Street characters have gone into local politics down the years, but usually as "independents". The late Alf Roberts would undoubtedly have been a Tory - as an alderman and the owner of a corner shop he uncannily shared much more than a name with the father of Margaret Thatcher - but it was deemed too contentious to make him anything other than an independent.
So, since a minister of religion can't very easily be independent of a faith, perhaps it is considered safer for the soaps not to have one at all. Imagine the fuss if on Albert Square there lived a Roman Catholic priest or an imam or a rabbi who was anything less than completely virtuous? And even if he was the embodiment of good, consider the pressure that the other religions would exert to get a similarly-sized dollop of positive PR.
There is the added possibility that the soaps do not have priests because the writers don't consider religion to be especially relevant to tight-knit urban communities such as those of Walford and Weatherfield. This raises an interesting paradox. Dr Williams is urging his clergy to become more connected with their living, breathing communities by watching the soaps, while the soaps eschew religion because in their fictional communities it would seem out of place.
There is the further question of whether Dr Williams wants his trainee priests to watch the soaps because they are the television programmes their flocks are watching, or because the soaps offer useful terms of reference when it comes to interpreting the Bible, or because the soaps will enlighten them in modern matters of truancy or crises of sexual identity or fires in undergarment factories.
Probably a bit of all three. It couldn't hurt the relationship between a minister and a parishioner if, over a cup of tea and a custard cream, they could enjoy a brief conversation about the new barmaid at the Queen Vic. But the soaps can also elucidate the Bible. For example, it's not easy to comprehend the New Testament except in the context of first-century Palestine under Roman occupation. The parable of the Good Samaritan depends on the awareness that in that society the Samaritans were outcasts, almost untouchables. But turn the Good Samaritan into poor Todd Grimshaw of Coronation Street, reviled even by his own brother, and for many the fog will begin to clear.
Moreover, on a pastoral level, it could only help a minister if, consulted by a teenager confused about his sexuality, he had kept up to speed with young Todd's predicament.
As some Independent readers might be aware, Todd is the character whose bisexuality is currently causing a right old hoo-ha in Weatherfield. Which brings us back to the Church of England. Should anyone suggest that Dr Williams is demeaning the priesthood by advising them to become born-again soap watchers, a reasonable counter-argument might be that the more robust, more mature of the two institutions is the one that has openly and helpfully embraced homosexuality.
Undoubtedly, by making Mark Fowler HIV-positive, EastEnders contributed hugely to the understanding of the Aids virus. By getting its cassocks in such a twist over gay bishops, on the other hand, the C of E has at worst retarded the cause of gay rights, and at best made itself look ridiculous. Far from the Church being too grown up for the soaps, maybe the soaps are too grown up for the Church, Dr Williams being the most luminous exception. He would ordain a wagon-load of gay bishops tomorrow if he could, and is doubtless rooting, or even praying, for Todd Grimshaw.Reuse content