From the Reverend Caleb Dane Calthrop in crime novel The Moving Finger by Agatha Christie to the Reverend Geraldine Grainger in hit BBC series The Vicar of Dibley, from Bishop Len Brennan in the Channel 4 comedy Father Ted to Bishop Blackie Ryan in the Andrew Greeley novels – the clergy have always held a fascination for writers.
Now, the Revd Lissa Gibbons, Vicar of St Michael’s Heighington, St Matthew’s Darlington and St Andrews Bolam – has completed six months of research into the way the clergy are perceived in fiction, based on an analysis of 75 books published over the past 260 years and a large number of popular television programmes and series.
Lissa, who lives in Heighington, says of her conclusions: “The vicar remains a popular figure in fiction – both novels and television – even though we increasingly describe ourselves as a secular society. Broadchurch is a particularly poignant example of this, but it is also true of popular soaps such as Emmerdale and Doctors, and even graphic novels.
“There has been an interesting and significant movement away from the traditional stereotype of the vicar in fiction in recent years.
“If we are going to be effective vicars, we need to know about and respond to people’s perceptions of us, regardless of their accuracy.
“To some extent the vicar represents the church: there are implications in the changing views on the vicar for members of the congregation too.
Lissa says the portrayals show that:
“We are there to listen, to affirm people as valuable, and to speak for the marginalised and vulnerable.
“We are meant to be Superman or Superwoman – available at all hours and keeping open house. Yes, this causes stress but it’s what we’re for – to be there for everyone, even if they never set foot in church.
“We are allowed to make mistakes, even serious ones, provided we admit them, learn and grow.
“Above all, despite talk of a secular society, we are increasingly needed as a spiritual presence, able to deal with death and evil, whether human or supernatural, and bring healing and integration.”
Her conclusions for her ministry and that of colleagues are:
“Despite the pressures to be a business woman, good with fabric, finances, strategies and business planning, that is not what it’s all about. I must never lose sight of the need to listen to and respect people – to love them.
“Vicars still have an important role within the community, even for non-churchgoers. The vicar’s role is actually portrayed as more powerful and meaningful in the past 25 years than in previous generations.
“People often talk of the church being increasingly irrelevant in a secular society, but this doesn’t seem to be reflected in contemporary fiction, which is quite encouraging.”
Lissa Gibbons grew up in Bristol and studied English at the University of Birmingham, before becoming a teacher of English and Drama for 20 years.
Her training for the ministry was on the non-residential St Albans and Oxford Ministry Course, while she was still teaching and then she did a curacy in Princes Risborough, Buckinghamshire.
After an 18 month spell as a hospital chaplain at Stoke Mandeville, she moved to Sunderland as a Team Vicar, before moving to her current post in the Darlington Deanery in June 2011.
While leading a church drama group which put on Murder Mystery nights, she was approached by Red Herring Games to write for them. She has now devised three Murder Mysteries – two of them with a church-based plot.