The curse of Hot Priest

Last month, the Guardian published an article entitled “Is this the cultural moment of the hot priest?” In the words of its author, “when I thought about it, I began to notice hot priests everywhere.” Obviously, there’s THE Hot Priest of Fleabag series two fame; but then there’s Grantchester, the Young Pope, and a trendy priest in Derry Girls. [If you haven’t watched this gem, why? In our current political climate everyone should watch a comedy set in 1990s Northern Ireland.]

The writer of the article decided to do some fieldwork, checking out their local Episcopal church (first sign that the article was written by an American dwelling Guardian writer) for evidence of hot priests in the wild. Their discovery?

The priest who administered my communion was fairly good-looking. But was he a hot priest? I wondered, tripping as I entered my pew. And how do you define “hot”? The scale itself is subjective, is it not? Does a man (or woman) of the cloth need some other, more je ne sais quoi quality in order to qualify? Is it more about charisma?

And this is where I begin having a massive issue with the hot priest trope…

Don’t get me wrong, Andrew Scott IS categorically hot. (And also bears an uncanny resemblance to Ant *and* Dec, which once pointed out to me, I can’t unsee…) The chemistry between him and Fleabag positively sizzled and honestly, drinking a gin in a tin on a bench in a church yard will never be the same again.* [See below for a sidenote of a story…]

Hot Priest was hot, and flawed. Each week I would ponder why he wasn’t thinking about crossing over to the Church of England. Whether he was playing Fleabag. Why he thought snogging someone in a confessional was a good idea. Why he hated foxes… Hot Priest needed to be hot. That was the point.

But take the hot priest phenomenon into a local parish and I have problem.

For starters, please don’t contemplate the hotness of the priest presiding at Eucharist – male or female. It’s not exactly the point of the sacrament.

And could we not expect priests in real life to be like the ones on TV? (In so many ways! I don’t want a priest like Hot Priest leading a church!) True, Adam Smallbone of Rev and Father Michael of Broken had moments of brilliant realness and embody some of what I know many clergy do in their day-to-day ministry, but they’re rare bright sparks in the media’s depiction of the clergy.

But the biggest issue I have with the fetishisation of the hot male priest is the way in which it undermines the campaign to smash the stained glass ceiling. Society’s ideas about female appearance and sexuality are shown to be a major factor in objections to women taking on leadership positions in the church. A recent video from the United Methodist Church showed male clergy reading aloud comments that their female colleagues had received from congregants. Many of the comments related to their appearance, including:

“It’s hard for me to concentrate when you say ‘this is my body given for you’ during communion…”
“I can’t concentrate on your sermon because you’re so pretty.”
“I keep picturing you naked under your robe.”
“If I were 20 years younger, you wouldn’t be able to keep me away from you.”

In the era of #metoo and #churchtoo, surely we should be beyond such a superficial obsession? Would the Guardian have published a similar piece on hot female priests? No – partly because there are none in TV sitcoms or dramas (would we call the Geraldine Granger “hot”? Or the feisty women clergy in Rev?); and – more likely – because it would be called out for being horrendously sexist and exploitative.

I’ve seen the occasional piece that’s made a thing of a female vicar’s looks – I recall a Daily Mail piece nearly a decade ago that suggested that the growing congregation of a rural church was down to its young, blonde female priest. I know friends who’ve been wolf-whistled while wearing their dog collar. There was my well-meaning parishioner (sadly no longer with us) who told me a few years ago that I should wear my black DM boots more often because they made me a “sexy vicar”. (He meant well. I never wore them to the office again!)

Perhaps the hot priest phenomenon is considered acceptable because it’s not new. The classic trope of the male curate adored by spinster parishioners has featured in literature for centuries – whether it’s Jane Austen or Barbara Pym. The history of film is littered with attractive actors playing men of the cloth, including Oscar winning performances from Spencer Tracy & Bing Crosby, not to mention the fact that Robert de Niro has played a priest at least four times. But Hollywood is always going to prefer a priest who’s on the hotter side of the spectrum…

Don’t get me wrong, I’m really happy to see some more mainstream depictions of clergy in the media; but it strikes me that we are heading down a road that’s unhelpful. Two of my favourite TV priests (or aspiring priests) of recent times have been attractive, but that’s not been a deliberate part of their character arc. Father Brah on Crazy Ex Girlfriend was a recurring character who dispensed wisdom and occasional dance moves. Daveed Diggs playing a seminarian on Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt was a genius way to introduce Kimmy to church.

It would be lovely for more of these characters to be female. Where’s the gritty drama starring a over-worked female vicar? Why, 25 years after the ordination after women as priests in the Church of England, is the only female vicar who’s the protagonist in a TV show the flipping Vicar of Dibley?? (In the 90s Dibley was groundbreaking. I am now thoroughly sick of it being the only pop culture anyone can make relating to my vocation.)

Yes, Fleabag is one of the best things that the BBC has ever produced, but it’s led us to something of a dark place. Society, could we get a grip please?

Fetishising priests doesn’t help anyone, especially not real priests. Especially at a time when churches of all denominations are having to rebuild trust between their leadership and wider society.

Fetishising male priests really undermines a lot of the efforts to level the playing field for women.

And, there will never be – ever – a member of the clergy who can compare to Andrew Scott. Apologies if that shatters any illusions, but it’s the truth!

[*Sidenote: In the middle of series two airing, I made a trip back to the shire to visit my family. Arriving at my parents ahead of a Sunday roast, my mum offered me a G&T which I declined on the basis that I’d had a train gin en route. She replied: “Ah, I thought you’d have a can of gin – they’re very popular these days, thanks to Fleabag.”

My first thought was “well, we’ve been drinking cans of G&T for absolutely years and I’m pretty sure you’d have been more surprised if I hadn’t picked one up for my post-church train journey”. This was swiftly followed by “wait, what??! You’re watching Fleabag?!” When questioned, she declared “Oh yes! It’s one of the best things I’ve ever watched!”

Reader, think about Fleabag and then think about whether it’s a TV show you’d expect your mum to be watching…]

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