American audiences may not know it, but the BBC’s hymn-based Songs of Praise is the longest-running and evidently most watched religious television program in the world. The production has visited well over 1,800 churches, chapels, and cathedrals since its inception in 1961 to broadcast religious discussion blended with the sweet sound of choirs singing. With 27 years’ service and counting, Pam Rhodes is among its most recognizable and enduring presenters, a job she juggles with that of busy novelist. Her new trilogy, “The Dunbridge Chronicles,” features the very human fumbling and gradual maturing of Neil Fisher, the fresh-from-training new curate of St. Stephen’s church. Presenting Neil less as a righteous man of the cloth than as an earnest everyman finding his way into a new community whose joys and sorrows we’ve all experienced, “The Dunbridge Chronicles” exemplifies Lion Fiction’s concept of Christian fiction.
Why did Rhodes, who has a ready-made religious platform at her disposal, choose fiction as a means of communicating her faith? To explain, she points back to her first novel, With Hearts and Hymns and Voices, written in 1995 and showing a Songs of Praise team recording a Palm Sunday broadcast in an East Anglia village. Like the program itself, the novel is community based, capturing Rhodes’s reflections on the many people she has interviewed over the years. “Some of them had very moving and difficult stories to tell, but they weren’t mine, and I couldn’t update them,” she explained in a phone interview. “With fiction, I could remember the true stories but change the characters, so I was not telling anyone’s story completely.” With fiction, too, Rhodes found she could explore difficult issues effectively, using a light and entertaining touch to reach readers on every level.
In the trilogy opener, Fisher of Men, released here in spring 2013, Neil arrives in Dunbridge to take up his first posting and promptly locks himself in the church with only wafers and communion wine for comfort. Dunbridge resembles the author’s own Bedfordshire village of Biggleswade. Just an hour from London, it is a true country town where neighbor connects with neighbor and the big parish church dominates the marketplace, though not as it once did—“a real challenge in our country, perhaps less in yours, which is more church-going,” Rhodes concedes.
Like many a British curate, Neil regularly drops into the local pub for an ale; it’s where he finds his parishioners. But the editor who saw the manuscript before Lion Fiction panicked, telling Rhodes that it wouldn’t sell in the American market; Neil’s drinking simply wasn’t acceptable. “I was told that Neil had to behave perfectly, but I don’t know any Christians who are perfect, and I don’t want my priest that way” exclaims Rhodes. “Neil is a human being”—so human, in fact, that by the second book, Casting the Net (out in March 2014), he’s stumbled into relationships with two very different women, one a nonbeliever. It takes Neil some time—and a third book, If You Follow Me, coming in October 2014—to sort out his dilemma.
Rhodes sees herself as an early practitioner of Christian fiction, but after the success of her first novel she migrated to more mainstream work, returning only after she began rethinking fiction as a good way to communicate a faith-driven message. Yet she says of her brand of Christian fiction, “You can read it if you are not a Christian and still find depth, just as it doesn’t matter if you are Christian or of another faith or none when you hear someone speak movingly of loss on Songs of Praise at Sunday tea time. We can all learn from shared experience, and who knows what fiction will teach?”
Rhodes acknowledges that probably half her readers aren’t Christian, and though she hopes they’ll grasp the Christian aspects of “The Dunbridge Chronicles,” she’s happy if they simply find it enjoyable. In that regard, her use of humor should help. Though she addresses issues of faith seriously, she sees the lighter moments as needed entertainment—and a realistic way of portraying the religious life. A minister’s life flips rapidly between entertaining a playgroup, say, and comforting a bereaved family, and the contrast of light with shading is important to show that “it’s not all relentlessly traumatic,” she explains. “That makes the more difficult messages palatable.” In addition, she wants people to know that believers aren’t necessarily dour. “Being Christian can be quite good fun,” she affirms.
In the end, Rhodes wants to share not just her Christian message but a sense of life’s tears and laughter, of the many heartwarming stories she has heard in her work. Readers of “The Dunbridge Chronicles” encounter a young man gingerly coming of age, as we all do. And they encounter a larger cast of characters with whom they can identify. “The lovely thing about writing about a church community is that at the heart of the story there are some characters who go all the way through,” says Rhodes. “This is not just Neil’s story but everyone’s story. Everyone changes.” The village of Dunbridge may be small, but in Rhodes’s way of seeing, it could be the world.