They say he is responsible for a surge in church attendance and sales of Marks & Spencer canned G&T (up by 24 per cent since he pulled the ring tab at 11 am in an episode). His legion of Twitter and Instagram fans have dubbed him “HP” for “hot priest”.
There’s no denying it: Andrew Scott’s priest in the cult television series Fleabag is a sensation. He is sensitive, funny and modest, and definitely as cute as the dog-collared poster boys featured in the Calendario Romano. He also, sin of all sins, ends up in bed with the heroine. But I feel this priest deserves to be granted absolution, once he confesses, for he is that rare thing – a sympathetic Catholic priest in a contemporary popular work of fiction.
In this 21st-century version of Thorn Birds, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, the multi-talented creator of Fleabag, has struck a chord with her all-too-human cleric, a spiritual seeker hoping for a glimpse of God and striving, if often failing, for goodness.
In this, he is in sync with the millennial mindset which, according to the authoritative Pew Research Center, ranks spirituality as hugely important. The majority of young millennials seek purpose and meaning, just like Fleabag’s fictional heroine and priest. And just like them, millennials are anguished by the choices before them. How can we be virtuous in this world of temptations? How can we love our neighbour as ourselves when most of the time we are riddled with self-doubt (if not downright dislike)?
In the end the “HP” breaks one of the ultimate taboos, showing himself to be flawed and weak, in the mould of Graham Greene’s whisky priest in The Power and the Glory. Yet, as that 1940 novel reminds us, even when the priest is a “corrupt vessel”, the grace and forgiveness of God flow through him.
Despite its foul-mouthed and dysfunctional appearance, Fleabag drives home a seriously Catholic message about redemption. This seems all the more pertinent today, when Catholics risk being overwhelmed by Vatican scandals and testimonies of priestly abuse. If, in the midst of these ugly global recriminations, a popular television series can portray our priests as human and attractive, I say Amen to that.
And they’re off. Would-be leaders of Britain’s Conservative Party, and the country, are positioning themselves to take over from a frustrated and frustrating Theresa May. We’ve seen the Foreign Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, unveil his secret weapon, Amal Clooney, who will help him fight on behalf of a free press; Dominic Raab MP is winning over some groups by agitating against any collaboration with Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. And William Hill has Matt Hancock, Secretary of State for Health, at 10/1. Boris Johnson, however, remains the pundits’ favourite.
The British have a soft spot for someone who makes them laugh. But a great many people worry about Boris’s tenuous relationship with facts. When the historian Andrew Roberts was asked at a recent lecture on his biography of Winston Churchill what he made of Boris’s earlier book on the same subject, Roberts was at pains to say that he had found the book brilliantly entertaining, especially, he claimed, the 23 new anecdotes – “at least three of which were true”.
Campion Hall, the Jesuits’ lovely, paintings-studded Lutyens building in Oxford, recently hosted the launch of A History of the Bible, by John Barton. Diarmaid MacCulloch, the Oxford scholar whose dulcet baritone regularly features in the marvellous BBC podcast In Our Time, praised Barton for trying to save the greatest legacy of our Judaeo-Christian heritage from the obscurity in which our strident secularism would cast it.
Barton, an Anglican vicar as well as Oriel and Laing Professor of the Interpretation of Holy Scripture at the University of Oxford, expertly unpacks the Old and New Testaments, so that the unwieldy collection of polemic and poetry, inspirational and historic narratives, opens a beautiful kaleidoscopic window on Western civilisation. This is where we encounter Solomon, David, Mary Magdalene and the Good Samaritan; where we visit the Garden of Eden and the Garden of Gethsemane, Babel as well as Bethlehem.
Barton does not indulge in theological point-scoring but observes that this is one book for many faiths. For Jews, the Old Testament explains their status as the Chosen People. For Evangelical Christians, the New Testament is a “paper dictator” that lays down the law and must be taken as literal truth, from the miraculous walking on water, through the multiplying fishes and loaves, and the jugs of wine at the wedding at Cana. For others, the book is one to be interpreted by us, its metaphors holding deep but not literal truths.
As for the atheist, the Good Book is like a crib sheet that explains why they should feel honoured to be compared to David slaying Goliath, but offended when they are told they resemble the Pharisees.
John Barton has rendered a service to all believers – its impact may prove a little less far-reaching than Phoebe Waller-Bridge with Fleabag, but it is welcome nonetheless.
Cristina Odone chairs the Parenting Circle charity
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