Change in the Church: The Vicar of Dibley (s1e1)

Last time on Imports TV: I got excited about almond milk and introduced this blog’s objective: to explore the UK through television. Now on to the show!

The first show we’re going to delve into at Imports TV is a critically-acclaimed ’90s sitcom and one of my favorite television shows: The Vicar of Dibley, which aired from 1994 to 1999 (and with sporadic special episodes thereafter). Netflix describes the central premise of the show: “When a boisterous woman named Geraldine becomes their new vicar, the dumbfounded residents of the conservative English village of Dibley have a fit.” Will the townspeople warm to Geraldine’s modern views? Or will they push her out with the combined powers of pastoral tradition and institutionalized sexism? Stay tuned for more!

The Anglican Church, or Church of England, has been around in some form or another since Britain’s inclusion into the Roman Empire. You may remember that it split from the Catholic Church in 1533 so King Henry VIII could divorce his wife, bone Anne Boleyn, and produce a male heir. Like many religious organizations, the Anglican Church is based on tradition, including those that bar women from its ranks. In 1992, the Church decided that women could be ordained vicars (priests); the first ordinations occurred in 1994. The Vicar of Dibley‘s eponymous clergy, Geraldine Granger, is based off of Joy Carroll, one of the first 32 female vicars ordained. In this way, The Vicar of Dibley grapples with the question of change.

From at least the 1990s onward, a significant number of religious organizations have found themselves losing membership, especially amongst young people who do not value tradition as much as they used to. The village of Dibley is one such place affected by a decrease in parish membership. The crowd of four, as Geraldine sarcastically refers to it, is made up of mostly older adults (in 2010, the median age of Christians in the UK was 45). One could argue whether allowing female vicars into the Anglican Church came from an honest change of heart or merely an attempt to increase membership. In this post, I’m not interested in motive, merely in change and how the residents of Dibley decide whether keeping Geraldine as vicar constitutes a good “change” or a “bad” change.

Geraldine Granger represents the progressive wing of the Anglican and I’d argue the modern 1990s as well. Of course the little village that time forgot is not so sure what to make of that. The parish council are especially skeptical at first, but soon become divided. They assume she will somehow ruin the practice of religion that they all so strongly support. Once Geraldine arrives though, she charms them with her frank humorous manner all while pissing off David Horton. Horton represents the traditional wing of the Anglican Church that wants to hold onto the past, even if it’s not getting the same results in the present. If something works then by all means keep at it, but in Dibley the old ways don’t seem to be working. There are very few people who attend weekly mass. Whether that’s because of the previous vicar’s unappealing sermons or a larger trend in general away from religion is unclear. Trying something new would surely bring about different, perhaps surprising, results.

As we see though, David is still unconvinced that a female vicar is the way to go. He objects to Dibley becoming an “experiment ground for the more frivolous excesses of the modern church” to test what “right thinking Anglicans still think is heresy” at the expense of “traditions that have made this village and the Church of England what they are today.” But as I said, what the Church of England was at that time and today is something that less and less people find appealing. It might not be losing its status or honor in the UK but it surely is losing membership.

The other council members are more ambivalent than David. The conversation among Latisha, Jim, and Owen is funny but also illustrates the pull between change and the past present in many areas of 1990s Britain. Latisha asks, “things have to change, don’t they?” For every positive change that Jim mentions, like traffic lights, Owen mentions a negative one (prawn-flavored potato chips). Jim, Owen, and David mention that Jesus didn’t have female disciples or appoint women to spread the word of God. Despite this point, their conversation ends when they decide to give Geraldine a chance on Sunday’s sermon.

Her sermon goes over well and she pulls a huge crowd, most of whom I’m sure were merely curious to see what she would do. That curiosity to at least hear what the other side has to say is a powerful and important thing. It’s so powerful in non-fictional Britain that female bishops may soon join the ranks of female vicars as of a vote last November. Geraldine’s passion in her sermon shows that anyone can find something in the Bible regardless of that person’s gender; she genuinely cares about spreading the word of God. Isn’t that what’s most important, not someone’s gender?

From this episode, we learned about the impact of tradition on the UK, especially religious tradition. The Vicar of Dibley asks us what the role of religion is or should be in our lives. Should religions adapt to contemporary times and accommodate modern needs? Is a “vicar in high heels” really a threat to the established order of things? Tradition and its impact on culture is something to keep in mind throughout the rest of our cultural explorations.

Next time on Imports TV: I talk about the British school system and the most effective pilot episode I’ve seen on television. Stay tuned for Skins!

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