Soaps and TV dramas often deal with big issues. Frequently, these issues are explored in the context of a secular, rather than a faith-based take on life – as was the case with the recent suicide of Hayley Cropper in Coronation Street after she learned she had inoperable cancer, and her subsequent Humanist funeral.
But one current show is centred on Christian conviction, and respectfully depicts how faith plays out in everyday life. It is arguably the most persuasive religious programme currently being aired. It’s Call the Midwife.
This drama, based on the autobiographical books by Jennifer Worth is set in Poplar in East London in 1959. I was 7 that year, and this gives the show added resonance for me. The period is painstakingly recreated. Characters watch The Lone Ranger. A young midwife, Jenny Lee joins the small team who provide midwifery services to Poplar, led by a community of Anglican nuns under Jenny Agutter’s wise Sister Julienne.
The show addresses social issues, developments in health-care, and everyday births in a deprived community. There is gentle humour. But above all, it is a celebration of life, of womanhood, of hope and grace in dark places, of the wisdom which comes with age.
Faith is presented as utterly normal. The nuns’ work in the community is centred in their regular prayers in the chapel. When Miranda Hart’s character, midwife ‘Chummy’ Browne is accepted as a short-term missionary in Africa, seeing this as God’s call to her, she is affirmed in this.
One episode earlier this month was, outstanding. It addressed within its well-structured, beautifully-photographed 60-minute span a number of issues. Fear and overcoming fear: both the Jewish mother Mrs Rubin who hasn’t left the house for 12 years, and Sister Winifred, afraid of the responsibility of delivering a baby and unable to enter into the mother’s joy, find freedom.
Infertility: Shelagh Turner, the doctor’s wife who has learned that she is infertile following TB learns to accept that this is ‘the end of the road, not the end of the world.’ Friendship: in deep crisis Jenny Lee says to fellow-midwife Cynthia ‘I need you to help me.’ Cynthia replies ‘I’m right by your side,’ and somehow it seems authentic, not remotely twee. Tragedy: the unexpected death of a key character.
New life: the joy of birth, with the hope it brings. As the much older Jenny, voiced at the start of each episode by Vanessa Redgrave said in an earlier series: ‘Birth was and will always be the most commonplace of miracles, and event at once familiar and phenomenal, timeless and immediate, and event …. briefly making angels of us all.’
All of this is seen through the lens of faith. Mrs Rubin’s escape from the ghetto with her daughter Leah is seen as a ‘miracle’, although there was tragedy in that many of her family perished. Sister Winifred, left to deliver Leah’s baby by herself prays and in praying is given strength to a welcome a new child into ‘a family filled with love.’
The show poses the big question. Shelagh wonders if her infertility is a judgement – has she wanted too much? ‘Do not even begin to think of your childlessness as punishment,’ Sister Julienne counsels. ‘I will not allow it.’
Following the tragic death, Shelagh says ‘Somewhere else a decision was made that no amount of prayer will change,’ voicing belief in a God who is in control, whose ways we do not understand. Sister Julienne, taking a slightly different line, insists ‘God isn’t in the event. He is in the responses to the event, in the love that is shown and the care that is given.’
This is faith in real life, struggling with questions in the darkness. And the show assured us of the undergirding security of God’s love. The nuns chanted in hope ‘In the time of my trouble incline Thine ear unto me.’ And Shelagh’s choir sang Mozart’s profoundly beautiful Ave Verum Corpus at the funeral, reminding us of Christ’s death which gives birth to hope, indeed confidence that death is not the end.
And so in our pain we can, as Mrs Rubin with wisdom birthed through anguish, insisted ‘keep living until you are alive again.’
It’s been said that Jennifer Worth’s book show that though she was not a believer on her arrival in Poplar, ‘things begin to stir as a result of what she witnesses.’
TV drama does not often bear witness to the lives of the many of us in Scotland who believe in God, entrust ourselves to Christ, and seek to live out our faith in the community, who see with us in joy and tragedy, with us in every flowering of grace and love the patient self-sacrificial presence of Christ the Midwife.
(Christian Viewpoint column from the Highland News dated 20th February 2014)