The mystery within the clergy soul
August 24, 2023
In 2012, British author James Runcie created The Grantchester Mysteries, a book series about the murder mystery-solving vicar Sidney Chambers. While certainly following the many conventions of an English murder mystery, this series does not depict the first clergy person to be featured in crime fiction, having been preceded by G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown and Ellis Peters’ medieval monk Cadfael.
However, James Runcie does have a unique insight into the English parish. He grew up the son of Robert Runcie, a Church of England cleric and later Archbishop of Canterbury (1980-91).
Sidney Chambers comes to Grantchester, a small town just outside Oxford. After serving in WWII, Chambers becomes a priest and experiences the quiet life of the countryside.
Until a murder happens….
Chambers becomes involved with solving the murder, assisting Detective Inspector Geordie Keating, leading to a friendship where the two men find themselves enjoying a leisurely night at the pub just as often as they wind up investigating the baffling murders that seem to outpace the homicide per capita rate for a small town.
Runcie modeled Sidney Chambers on his father. Many of the biographical details come from Archbishop Runcie’s early years as a priest. (A prequel story The Road to Grantchester, published after the six Grantchester novels, tells Chambers’ backstory, which has parallels with Archbishop Runcie’s career.)
The novels are a matter of short story murder mysteries, usually uniting Geordie and Sidney with some incidental scenes of life around the vicarage and parish (where the hapless curate Leonard and the formidable housekeeper Mrs. Maguire await Sidney each day with their respective quirks and foibles.)
In the television series, James Norton portrayed Rev. Chambers for the first four series. With aspirations for new projects, Norton departed, and a new priest was called to the television version of the Grantchester parish, Will Davenport (Tom Brittney). And, after four years of stories, Tom Brittney is moving on, so a successor priest will come to Grantchester in Season Nine: Rev. Alphy Kotteram, portrayed by Rishi Nair. (One could say the change of actors playing the priests every four to five years is also true to life, as increasingly ministers today serve shorter tenures themselves!)
The general theme of the books continues with the mystery of the week and the rumination of a young priest as the times are changing, and the rather staid life of an English village feels the effects of the 1950s moving into the upheaval of the 1960s.
Clergy will find some collegiality with Sidney Chambers in James Runcie’s Grantchester Mysteries book series (and the two priests of the Grantchester television adaptation). The times are changing, the pastoral calling continues, and those in service of a parish call keep the faith, sometimes even despite themselves.
With the television series now surpassing the book series’ storyline as well as the change of lead actors, the on-screen Grantchester explores even more of these times that “are a-changin” (to riff on Dylan). Issues of race, youth culture, feminism, and sexuality appear far more in the TV series than in the books. And in the midst of this, Sidney and later Will keep the rhythm of leading and tending the parish, more often than not with pensiveness and introspection as another victim is found, and life in Grantchester is more complicated than the average tourist might expect.
In the fifth book, Sidney Chambers and The Dangers of Temptation (2016), Runcie writes a scene where Sidney Chambers finds himself in a moment of introspection:
“Because it was Lent, he was working on a study of conscience and guilt, trying to negotiate his way through the vexed question of human fallibility and the necessary distinction between the sins we can live with and those we can’t. He had read that it might be helpful for a priest, or any other believer, for that matter, to imagine that Jesus was walking alongside you at all times, as if in conversation, on the road to Emmaus perhaps, as guide and conscience.
Sidney was not at all sure he wanted Jesus to be walking alongside him at all times; certainly not when he was with Barbara Wilkinson or having a man-to-man chat with Johnny Johnson in the jazz club. There were times when discretion was needed, moments when surely even Jesus might have to absent himself until things quietened down a bit.”[i]
Clergy will find some collegiality with Sidney Chambers in James Runcie’s prose (and the two priests of the Grantchester television adaptation). Sidney struggles with his faith and call. He cannot deny his attraction to possible love interests, even as he ponders how to keep boundaries yet explore relationships. He listens to jazz records in the solitude of his study, and he spends much of his time in the work of tending his parish, despite the occasional sleuthing.
The times are changing, the pastoral calling continues, and those in service of a parish call keep the faith, sometimes even despite themselves.
Rev. Jerrod H. Hugenot is associate executive minister, American Baptist Churches of New York State.