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…]

A grief observed

In a week when the world has mourned the loss of two great stars in the form of David Bowie and Alan Rickman, I’ve spent quite a bit of time thinking about death and how we respond to it. That’s partly thanks to having an evening of curate training at a funeral directors, and a death in the parish, as well as my own response to the celebrity deaths.

Bowie’s death was (obviously) unexpected and a shock, but I’m really the wrong generation for true Bowie affection. However, I was rather surprised by my reaction – a need to listen to his music and hear as much as I could about him – which resulted in listening to BBC 6 Music’s fantastic response en route to work. Bowie was a phenomenal talent and most people expected it to last forever. Like a few other friends, I felt like I needed to learn more about the man, his music and other creative outlets, having previously always known he was there in the background. Now he wasn’t, there was a lifetime of work to catch up on. [Apart from the obvious: Labyrinth and pretty much most of his greatest hits.]

Interestingly, the overwhelming public response to this untimely death resulted in something of a backlash against such shows of grief. Camilla Long [The Times’ journalist that my friend Rich considers to be my doppelgänger] suggested that such displays of grief on social media were insincere and that those involved should “man up”. But why? Don’t we (particularly the British population) already have a reputation of stifling emotions in an unhealthy way?

Bowie grief brixtonThe display of mourning in Brixton. (Credit)

In actual fact, up to a certain point, such displays of grief isn’t just natural, it’s beneficial. On the one hand, it’s completely justifiable to be grief-stricken for someone you never met or knew personally. When someone touches our lives through art, music, acting or writing, we feel a loss when it’s no longer there. In losing a person from this earth, we have genuinely lost something from our lives. Another facet of this grief is almost a kind of practice run for when grief hits us hard in the future. That’s not to say that the grief for a celebrity is a lesser grief, it’s just that it enables people to feel and experience emotions that they may not have felt before, and means that when a family-member or someone similarly close to them dies, they have a reference point for some of what they are feeling. Finally, it can act as a reminder of previous losses, triggering elements of the grieving process again. This is not a bad thing either. No matter how long has passed, moments of grief are still completely natural and even necessary. It’s bottling up those emotions that can lead to trouble…

These were thoughts I was composing in my head en route to a curate study day yesterday. In fact, I even thought that I might get chance to jot them down during the seminar – which I did not, because it turned out to be very interesting and useful! The last 15 minutes of the session were obliterated however, when this flashed up on my phone:

The bad news

My gasp may have been audible. There was eye contact with a fellow curate as I tried to convey the terrible news. Tweets were tweeted, a Facebook post composed, all in a sense of utter disbelief. I had not loved Bowie, but I had loved Rickman. I know exactly when it began – with this Texas video from 2000 – specifically, the moment when Spiteri and Rickman tango across the forecourt of a petrol station. Yes, by this point I would have already seen Sense & Sensibility, but this was what launched Alan Rickman into being one of my all-time favourite leading men. [I went into my favourite Rickman moments in this post from back in 2010 – which in the comments sparked a little debate regarding his allure. The refusenik was wrong!!]

Texas – In Demand. (Once seen it has to be repeated – according to those who saw it for the first time yesterday courtesy of my sharing!)

I don’t need to tell you how amazing Rickman was. I know I’m not alone in having sobbed my way through Truly, Madly, Deeply (I can vividly remember watching it for the first time and my father declaring it a soppy mess). The discerning Harry Potter fan knows that Rickman as Snape brought more to the role that could ever have been imagined – largely thanks to JK Rowling’s insight into who Snape really was. His humour. His presence. His voice. Oh, his voice! As I write, I’m watching Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince and with a mournful sigh, I noted that this voice appears for the first time at exactly 15:06 minutes in. That voice.

14-alan-rickman-roles.w529.h352(Credit.)

Yesterday, I was grieved that I would never see Rickman perform live. I would never hear that sonorous voice in the flesh. I would never get to have a conversation with him. (I know the latter is a far-fetched notion, but I have friends who have!) There are only a few unseen films left to watch before there are no more of them. The thought is a hard one to comprehend.

Chatting with a one-time classmate (and fellow Wittertainee) after our training, I found myself nearly bursting into tears at the emotion of it all – and he felt the same. I walked my favourite walk back from college, through Green Park and sat on a bench and let the tears flow. It wasn’t entirely Rickman grief, I know that, it was a heady combo of emotion; tiredness from a very busy, over-full ‘part-time’ week at work; pent up emotions about other things that needed letting out; and, interestingly, a recurrence of mourning someone else.

alan-rickman-dead-emma-thompsonYesterday, I also made the mistake of reading Emma Thompson’s goodbye to Rickman while I was on the tube. There’s nothing like tube tears for a very public display of emotion!!

That last one was a surprise, despite being well aware of the fact that I have long associated Rickman with my one-time landlady Angela – because we both loved him, but she got to meet him (and get a photo with him) at the Love Actually premiere. Every Christmas, when I do my ritual viewing of a film that I love dearly (although I know that view is controversial), I remember Angela. It’s not surprising his death prompted those thoughts, especially as they both – as did Bowie – died from the same disease.

Today, I tramped across the mud of Hampstead Heath, thoughts still very much on a Rickman-grieving plain, sorting out my head and getting some much needed downtime. [Side-note: I was in the area for physio on my special feet, but generally if I make a pilgrimage up to Hampstead, it’s for thinking purposes.] I pondered this question of grief some more…

We, as a nation and as a society, are generally rubbish at grief. It goes hand-in-hand with being a nation known to withhold emotion and affection. Public displays of grief (as long as they don’t get ridiculously out of hand) are a good thing, a healthy thing in fact. We need to have outlets to express our grief and social media is perfect for this – especially as it can be a place for solidarity, of grieving together. On Wednesday, our morning prayer group shared memories and prayers of thanksgiving for the life of the parishioner who had died. On Thursday (and today) I shared memories of favourite Rickman moments on social media. Both are good, healthy and necessary!

Tea making became truly epic when Rickman got involved…

We don’t like to talk about death. It is feared and not understood. Perhaps if we were as honest in our feelings as people have been this week, society would find itself in a much healthier place in its attitudes towards death, grief and loss.

Communing with film

One of the things in life I wish I did more of (of which there are several!), is watch films at the cinema. Going alone, in the middle of the day, preferably to the Curzon Soho [which deserves saving from Crossrail 2], with a sneaky G&T in a can in my handbag, is quite frankly my idea of an excellent afternoon off.

Yet, it’s something I managed just once in 2014 – for the exceptionally wonderful Boyhood. [It was available on the plane on my way home from Texas and I watched all 3 hours of it all over again; wanted tell everyone around me to watch it too; and applaud those I spotted watching it while waiting for the bathroom. It’s awesome – watch it!] Instead, I remain loyal to a steady stream of DVD rentals to my door – old school, but the best way of getting new releases without having to pay through the nose for London cinema tickets.

Being an introvert, solo film watching is the epitome of a re-vitalising activity, but even I have to admit that cinema benefits from being viewed within community. I’m lucky, in that I have a number of cine-literate friends who can be relied upon for a good discussion after the event, or for the odd group trip. For a little while, we even had a monthly film club going. Being a member of the Church of Wittertainment also helps – a weekly dose of film recommendations (or warnings); regular rants; plenty of opportunities for listener contributions; and enough knowledge to make it sound as though I have watched every film released since September 2010 (the day I first entered the church).

Ultimately, cinema works best in community. Everyone reacts differently to films (just like books) and the range of subjects covered by the cinema in a year is huge – but, it can be difficult to know where to start. That’s why I was rather pleased to discover an organisation that does the hard work for you – by which I mean they get the discussion going – you still have to watch the actual film!!

Damaris Logo

I discovered the work of the Damaris Trust thanks to a friend offering me her +1 for a screening they had organised for a preview of Unbroken – a film chronicling the real-life WW2 experiences of Olympian Louis Zamperini. I love the Olympics and have a long-standing interest in Japanese POW and intern camps (I’d love to say this was a result of my modern history degree, but it’s actually thanks to Tenko), so I was definitely up for it. Also, free film? No brainer!

Damaris have two elements to their work:
(i) Film Clubs where communities can come together, watch a film, eat food that connects with its theme, then engage in discussion and activities that relate to the film too.
(ii) Providing stand-alone discussion and activity guides for many of the biggest films.

Having watched Unbroken, I had to wait a week or two before the resources came online (it wasn’t released till Boxing Day), and I have to say, I was impressed. Unbroken was a hard watch – as most WW2 films are – featuring Zamperini’s 47 days in a life raft after being shot down over the Pacific, followed by his brutal treatment in POW camps. It took me a while to process what I’d watched – its first 30 minutes is not dissimilar in its intensity to the opening of Saving Private Ryan.

Unbroken-poster_1-1024x557

It’s a story that deserves being committed to film, but as my friend and I reflected as the credits rolled, the film could almost be said to have told the wrong story. Having not been broken by the persecution he received at the hands of a Japanese camp commander [you can see where the title came from], after the war Zamperini’s life was transformed by a Billy Graham rally he attended in 1950. Having dedicated his life to God, he decided to set about forgiving all those who had persecuted him – an embodiment of “as we forgive those who trespass against us”. And that’s the story I would have liked to have seen on film!

Maybe the war could have been the first third, and the rest his transformation and subsequent journey through forgiveness? 2013’s The Railway Man is similar in theme (POW, mistreated, traumatised, goes in search of his persecutors…) but that real-life story went in different direction at the war’s end. It’s a shame that the film about a lack of forgiveness got made, and the one with it did not.

However, the story is there before the credits – albeit in subtitles – and it packs a punch. And this is where the Damaris resources come in. Forgiveness is something that it’s easy to talk about, but hard to enact. We mean well, but ultimately it’s one of the hardest things we mere mortals can do. Therefore, it makes for a great discussion starter. How would you have coped in his position? Who might we need to forgive? Although there is a Christian slant, it’s by no means the primary focus – forgiveness is a concept that’s relevant to everyone. (And if that fails, there’s also a sport section in the resource!)

To be honest, discovering Damaris is something of an answer to prayer. I’m always keen to legitimise fun activities as ‘work’ and in a church context, community film watching and discussion would be a valuable tool! In fact, come the first day back at college after Christmas, I found myself recommending Damaris to a friend, after they’d mentioned a trip to see Exodus. And, having spent a sizeable chunk of the last few months writing a mammoth resource full of activities, I appreciate it when someone else does it for me!

Universal Screening

NB: I was under no obligation to write this post – I got to see a film for free in Universal’s private screening room, with wine and popcorn, but a blogpost wasn’t required in return. As usual, I only write about stuff that I think is worthy of it! 

A little shallow fun

Earlier this morning I had a conversation with a friend in which I mentioned the fact that my mother finds the Bishop of London’s voice rather sexy. [Can I just say, I think that might the first time I’ve ever used the word ‘sexy’ on this blog, it’s an awful word…] The fact that my mother thinks this is deeply disturbing – not least because it proved to be something of a distraction when the Bishop came to preach at my church.

Friend responded with a comment about women finding the bizarrest men sexy. Even as he spoke, my weirdest crush immediately sprang to mind, so it really didn’t surprise me that the example he used was ‘that man who plays Professor Snape’, i.e. the immensely wonderful Alan Rickman.

This inevitably led me to look up this video, which I can pinpoint as the precise moment my crush began:

Beautiful.
[Note to potential suitors: I am very easily pleased. All I need is to be engulfed in manly arms, have my hair stroked and spend a re-fuelling the car stop tangoing across a petrol station forecourt.]

The love of Alan Rickman spans the generations. Yes, he is just about old enough to be my grandfather. Yes, women of my mother’s age and beyond also find him hot. Yes, he looks a bit funny (have hope funny looking men!), but he has an amazing voice.

If you’re young and have missed out on this (or older and simply think I’m mental), I provide the following ‘must see’ list for your education and illumination:
Truly Madly Deeply (1991) – you’ll cry buckets and want to play the cello.
Dogma (1999) – he’s the Angel Gabriel and Alanis Morrisette’s God, what’s not to like?
Galaxy Quest (1999) – this is less about the lovely Alan and more about the fact that it’s a hilarious pastiche of the entire sci-fi genre.
Love, Actually (2003) – I don’t need to explain this, surely?
Snow Cake (2006) – it’s bleak and harrowing but an interesting indy film starring Sigourney Weaver as an autistic woman.
Sweeney Todd (2007) – he and Johnny Depp sing. Enough said.

And of course any of the Harry Potter franchise, though I’m particularly looking forward to how they bring Snape out in the final instalments…

Ahhhhh, do excuse me, I’m off to watch the video again and reminisce about the day my one-time landlady met him and taunted me with the photo of the two of them together.