As shown by the change of title, this is another reboot for the documentary series – a somewhat necessary change since, not only is the programme refreshed by new characters, but it moves the focus onto a new member of the clergy. As Rev Jamie Allen, the priest at the centre of the first series of A Country Parish discovered, the priest in the programme ends up as an almost de-facto vicar for large numbers of viewers in need of spiritual support, but feeling unable to turn to their local church. The pressure resulted in Rev Allen resigning his post as Rector of Seend, Bulkington and Poulshot. Following that, the series moved to focus on Rev Christine Musser, the new vicar of Boscastle in Cornwall, although she too became a star in the same way as Rev Allen, and even received hate mail since she was a divorcee, I think the programme makers learnt somewhat, and broadened the range of characters, and especially in the most recent seasons, focused as much on the Bishop of Truro, and the wider diocese. To be honest, had it not been for the Boscastle Flood in 2004, I suspect this years reboot may have occurred sooner. Certainly last year Boscastle had a much reduced role, as the programme searched for a new focus, which they have found with the name change. Thankfully, also it seems that Rev Musser has survived being the primary focus of the programme, and is now returning to her ‘real’ job looking after her six churches and their communities.
So this time around, the programme is focusing on one of the most remote parishes in the Diocese of Truro, on the Isles of Scilly. Once again we have Bishop Bill playing a prominent role, and a broad selection of characters on the islands, including the local vet, and a new police woman. The islands featured occasionally in the last series of A Seaside Parish, and I assume proved popular then, hence the decision to change focus.
What is most interesting though is that there isn’t initially a main priest – instead we get to see a fairly unique bit of Church politics in action, and some of the fallout.
At the beginning of the programme, the post of chaplain to the islands (the local title of the incumbent of the parish) is vacant, with the work being carried out by two retired clergy. However curiously, the programme also features Rev Guy Scott, Priest in Charge of Mullion, Cury and Gunwalloe, who we quickly find out is feeling called to apply for the post on Scilly, but importantly hasn’t put in an application. At the end of the first episode we are told that he has decided to apply, and then in the second episode we get told that he has got the job, and get a flavour of the fallout in Mullion, Cury and Gunwalloe.
Now quite what was filmed when I don’t know, and certainly the sequence with Bishop Bill talking about the appointment seems to imply that the the Bishop assumes Farrell, who is behind the camera won’t know Rev Scott – and yet in terms of the programme, Rev Scott been on screen since part way through episode one struggling with his calling. I can’t think that they just happened to pick on Rev Scott by chance. My suspicion is actually that they’ve gone back and filmed some phoney pre-application scenes to try and build the story, although this isn’t explained. Given the reaction from the parishioners in Mullion, Cury and Gunwalloe it is something I hope gets clarified at least to them, or even better that they were forewarned about it.
The key thing to bear in mind is that at the point he resigned, Rev Scott was only just over two years into a contract as Priest-in-Charge. In general in the Church of England unless something happens such as the priest being offered a new role such as being a Bishop, you’d expect your priest to stay a reasonable length of time, generally about ten years. In terms of the Priest-in-Charge appointments, in Oxford at least priests are appointed on a five year fixed term. Certainly if your priest moves parishes after two years, it will certainly provoke discussion about why the priest is moving so soon. Given the large amount of stress and uncertainty that a vacancy causes, it is also a source of much discussion within the parish.
So this was what we saw happening in Mullion, Cury and Gunwalloe tonight. From what we had seen in the previous episode, Rev Scott and his family were happily settled in the parish, and he was involved in many community activities, and popular among his congregation. To be frank he struck me as incredibly naÃ¯ve in not expecting the reaction he got – apparently some parishioners refused even to speak to him after the announcement, and there was what was described as ‘a lot of anger’ – enough to, according to the commentary, cause Rev Scott to consider whether he had made the right decision at all. They interviewed two Churchwardens, one of whom said how hurt many people in the parish had felt, and the other who said that there was an audible ‘Oh no.’ when the announcement was made.
Sadly, from a number of the comments made, the Isles of Scilly role seems much the harder role to fill, particularly due to the isolation from the rest of the wider diocese, so I suspect Church politics played a large part in the appointment, and whereas Rev Scott might well have been told to stay put for a while longer. It does strike me that a strategic decision may well have been made at diocesan level that having someone keen to take the post on Scilly, and dealing with the obvious pastoral fallout of an early departure from Mullion, Cury and Gunwalloe was the best course of action. For obvious reasons you don’t see anything of the other candidates for the post, if indeed there were any at all – the destabilising effects of seeing your parish priest on TV going for a different job are easy to envision – partly why I think that it is important that the people of Mullion, Cury and Gunwalloe are told if last weeks scenes are phoney, as it may well reopen the feelings of hurt and betrayal if they believe that a BBC film crew knew their priest was leaving before they did. Either way, it’s hard to see the whole picture of what happened. However from my point of view, how Mullion, Cury and Gunwalloe cope with what has occurred does strike me as at least as interesting as how Rev Scott copes with the move to Scilly – especially considering that having taken a look at the Mullion, Cury and Gunwalloe parish diary, his last service in the parish was as recently as Christmas Day, meaning that I suspect his first service on Scilly may end up being the finale of the series.
Hopefully the move will prove to be good both for Rev Scott, and the community in Scilly, who it is explained in the programme have been without a priest for a while. Also it is my sincere hope that the interregnum in Mullion, Cury and Gunwalloe goes well. For any parish such a period is a stressful and difficult time, but in these circumstances I’m sure it will be a lot harder, and I don’t envy the Churchwardens and PCC there the task of trying to keep things on an even keel during the vacancy.