Tuesday, May 09, 2017

THE CHURCHMEN: review and reflection on the series

Jean-Luc Bideau as "Pere Fromanger" in "The Churchmen"

When Macron, via video, recently invited the suppressed and discredited young, the brilliant, and the innovators of the US to emigrate to France, a country that appreciates such traits, he probably had his tongue in his cheek, but not entirely.  For evidence I suggest the television series “The Churchmen,” which was originally presented in France and written by two Frenchmen:  Vincent Paymiro and David Elkaim.  Information sources in English have not caught up, but here is a vid link to a French trailer so you can see the characters for yourself:

Years ago, maybe decades, there was a television series portraying a Catholic church in Chicago, a fictional version of “Our Lady of the Lake.”  Christians, particularly Catholics, struggle with the tension between their devotion to institutions, edifices, and hierarchy and their need for resources, versus the New Testament call to social action and compassion — which demands money for food, shelter and healing.  This is also characteristic of the US and perhaps what makes us most “Christian” as a nation.  That series also addressed the poverty and overwhelming obligations of the ordinary parish priest, since all the money in hierarchies always rises to the top, which forms a defensive oligarchy, often extended by family ties.  Just like the USA.

“The Churchmen” does not shrink from these issues, right down to the invasive godless mafias of Russia who simply take their victims out into the woods and shoot them.  Since one of my fav characters here is José, who served time for murdering a Russian, I was distressed when this happened to him.  (This is a spoiler.)  

The seminarians en masse get into trouble when they act like Jesus by trying to shelter immigrant refugees, whose homelessness is prefigured when they go to spend Christmas in a small town as a vacation, but discover that not only has the offered home hospitality evaporated, but also the priest is so mired in doubt and alcoholism, that he can’t rise to the occasion of “Noel.”  The seminarians present a Mass, but not offer Communion.  (The meaning of Communion is not addressed in this season, though we witness it.)  

The trailer for the third years of the series has subtitles.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IG5zwnyTz-k

Two Montana connections.  When I was circuit-riding among four Montana congregations, I was flown to Boston to the UUA headquarters for special training in extension.  (Growth is everything for denominations because it is money and political influence.)  This was in the Eighties.  I had not really been in Boston before and since we were housed in a UU building (now sold) on Beacon Hill, I walked down through the graceful park just as night fell.  Homeless people were gathering in doorways to sleep there.  I stopped to talk to them.  One woman had two dogs with her.  They were ordinary people who had lost their footing in conventional life.  Their complaints were about food.

When I got back to the UU house, a very substantial brick building with wonderful woodwork, the kitchen had been stocked with boxes and boxes of food for the workshop.  I wondered what would happen if I simply carried one of those boxes down to the homeless.  Another extension minister had arrived.  He said if I did such a thing, I could kiss my career goodbye.

The central figure of “The Churchmen” is played by the Swiss actor Jean-Luc Bideau, a tolerant and aged man with a devotion to China through having served the church there and through his love of calligraphy.  This is a plot point, but it echoes a real life essay by Patricia Nell Warren in her book called “My West.”  If you’ve forgotten who she is, think of the Grant-Kohrs Ranch in Deer Lodge, preserved as a crucial part of Montana history.  She grew up there, a daughter of the family, and went on to write the beloved novel about a doubting gay priest, “The Fancy Dancer.

I carry “My West” with me in the pickup so I always have something to read, and yesterday at the laundromat I came to a remarkable essay that was synchronistic.  Warren describes a man in Deer Lodge who was different from any others, but identified only as “Jan.”  He would be dead by now, but as a “stocky silver-haired man in his 60’s, who loved to camp and tease” and who “in a town where most men stuck to cowboy shirts and jeans” instead wore slacks, leather sandals and California-style short-sleeved shirts.  “It turned out that Jan’s ancestors had arrived in Montana before the gold rush, as had mine.  One of his greatgrandfathers was an eastern Ojibway to make a dollar in the fur trade.  Once there, he married into the Stewarts, one of the many Scottish families that pioneered into the territory’s early trading networks.  Jan had grown up on a little ranch in southwest Montana.”  

As soon as he was of age, he went to California to become a Buddhist.  He was gay and the Buddhists didn’t care — they had other issues.  Eventually Jan came as a scholar in retreat to live simply in Deer Lodge while translating Chinese texts.  He was supported financially by a foundation and socially by an elderly female neighbor who shared his temperament.

He was an echo of Jean Luc Bideau’s character in “The Churchmen,” “Pere Fromanger.”  It would be fair to call these wise, gray, simple scholars as an archetype, even what we would like a priest to be.  Jesus died young.  He’s a different pattern, like the young seminarians, not quite churchmen yet.  

I was trying to think of an equivalent in the UUA.  The closest I could come is Leon Hopper, whose obituary was just republished though he’s been dead for a year — much missed by all.  Gentle, tolerant, absolutely unshakeable in his values, but not celibate, a family man.  His wife was truly his match.  The UU’s used to have a number of these types, but they are all gone now.

What sort of circumstances create and then destroy — over and over — churchmen like Pere Fromanger?  This is as much the central question of the TV series as the familiar issues of church corruption.  (God doesn’t have much to do with it.)  Mysticism comes into it, but in what form?  Can it be invited?  Why does the US turn away from its own heritage, forcing people to take refuge in France or China?  

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