Arguably the most literate, witty, and truly “adult” Britcom ever broadcast was Yes, Minister and its sequel, Yes, Prime Minister . Like any good satire, it skewered both right and left, as this ongoing saga of British political hijinks is told from a bureaucrat’s point of view, played with supernatural ease by Nigel Hawthorne ( The Madness of King George ). The minister he tries mightily to keep diverted and in check is James Hacker, played with just the right combination of cluelessness and devotion by Paul Eddington (Jerry on Good Neighbors ).
As the career bureaucrat Sir Humphrey sees it, parties, parliaments, and prime ministers come and go, but the civil service is here to stay. And the primary goal of any good civil servant is to maintain the status quo and ensure the smooth processing of their next pay rise.
The dialogue typical of this series was stage-worthy, and there was no political topic it was afraid to tackle.
In one episode, Hacker, now prime minister, must choose between two Church of England candidates to recommend to Her Majesty to fill a bishopric. Of course, the C of E, and the bureaucracy, has already decided who Hacker should be manipulated into picking. Between a low-church disestablishmentarianist and a modernist radical, well, the radical will cause the least amount of problems in the long run, especially as his wife is the daughter of the Earl of Chichester.
Herewith are snippets of dialogue:
Hacker: Being a bishop is just a matter of status? Dressing up in cassocks and gaiters?
Sir Humphrey: Yes, but gaiters are generally worn only at significant religious events, like the royal garden party.
Sir Humphrey: Well, the church is trying to be more relevant.
Hacker: To God?
Sir Humphrey: Oh, of course not, Prime Minister. I meant relevant in sociological terms.
Hacker: So the ideal candidate from the Church of England’s point of view would be a cross between a socialite and a socialist.
Sir Humphrey: Precisely.
Bernard: (Of the modernist candidate for bishop) He designed a new church in South London and among the plans was a place for dispensing orange juice, family planning, and organizing demos. But no place for Holy Communion . . . .
Hacker: And the church approved his?
Sir Humphrey: Of course. You see the church is run by theologians.
Hacker: How do you mean?
Sir Humphrey: Theology is a device for enabling agnostics to stay within the church . . . . You could turn both candidates down, but that would be exceptional and not advised.
Hacker: Even though one of them wants to get God out of the Church of England and the other one wants to get the Queen out?
Sir Humphrey: The Queen is inseparable from the Church of England.
Hacker: What about God?
Sir Humphrey: I think He’s what’s called an “optional extra.”
Well, the Right Reverend Dr. N.T. Wright , Bishop of Durham, is neither an disestablishmentarianist nor a modernist, but is instead one of the premier biblical scholars in the world. His three-volume Christian Origins and the Question of God series, especially volume three, The Resurrection of the Son of God , continues to perform the inestimable service of undoing the bad work of the Jesus Seminar and radical historical critics, as well as providing one of the most important theological and apologetic aids any Christian could ask for.
And he paid us a visit today here at the First Things office.
Off the top of my head, I don’t remember Dawkins, Hitchens, Dennett, or Harris ever alluding to Wright’s work in any of their respective atheist tracts. Either they are unfamiliar with itwhich wouldn’t surprise me; what they know about serious Christian theology and a MetroCard will get you on any bus in New Yorkor they couldn’t begin to deal with its level of scholarship, and so realized they were in over their heads.
I told Bishop Wright that I was still struggling to come to terms with his teaching on justification and the atonement. He said he hoped his planned “big book on Paul” would help sort things out. I will be scanning Amazon regularly . . .