Many of us first encountered Rowan Atkinson as a vicar. In 1994’s Four Weddings and a Funeral he was the officiant at half of the film’s more cheerful ceremonies -- he was the one with a tendency toward malaprops (“in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spigot,” for example). Many others already knew Atkinson from his television roles as the Blackadder and Mr. Bean, but Father Gerald was the first time he stood out on the big screen.
Keeping Mum, playing the Rev. Walter Goodfellow, pastor of a rural, English parish. He’s not very good at his work. His sermons bore the small congregation, which seems to be mostly a bickering assortment of old biddies.
He may be worse as husband and father. His wife (Kristin Scott Thomas) feels neglected and is considering having an affair. He seems oblivious to his daughter’s promiscuous behavior and that his son is the target of bullies.
Until a housekeeper turns his life around.
You may be thinking, “A housekeeper turns his life around? Kind of like Mary Poppins and Mr. Banks?” Well, yeah, sort of. Except the housekeeper, Grace Hawkins (Maggie Smith) isn’t magical, and she’s a murderess recently escaped from a mental health facility. We soon see that she wasn’t “cured.”
Grace helps the Reverend in some very positive ways. She encourages him to put humor in his sermons, directing him to an MSN search of religious jokes websites, particularly, “Giggling with God.” (I want to point out that putting “humor” in sermons is not always a good thing. I grew up in a church pastored by a very good, humble man, Bill Miller, who preached the Word in truth and sincerity. To liven up his sermons, he added jokes, usually opening with a Reader’s Digest gem I had read in the restroom the previous month. Even as a grade schooler, I found the humor lame.
Grace’s advice helps the vicar to do more than tell jokes, though. He learns to truly incorporate humor into his sermons, shining a different light on Biblical truth. In this way, he becomes a better pastor.
Song of Solomon, which he’d thought of as “a declaration of a devout man’s love for God.” She (rightly) points out that it’s about a man’s love for a woman, expressed in erotic poetry.
Walter reads this passage of Scripture, silently and aloud. And it changes his relationship with his wife. He once again begins to give full attention to his wife, Gloria, showing love, affection, and passion. She returns his affection and ends her affair with her golf instructor (Patrick Swayze) before it is consummated.
Another problem with the Reverend Goodfellow and his ministry is that he gives too much attention to things that are of no consequence. Mrs. Parker (Liz Smith) is the chairman of the Flower Arranging Committee, and she’s constantly demanding attention. Pretty decorations in the front of the church are swell, but they’re a minor concern compared to say, feeding the hungry, addressing injustice, reaching the lost… You know, stuff Jesus cared about. (He made it quite clear in Matthew 6: 28 that God takes care of the flowers.)
God Works in Mysterious Ways” in a rather tacky fashion. Still, God does seem to use Grace to change the vicar’s life and ministry in good ways. In fact, his ministry is changed in such a positive way that though I’d rate his ministry with 2 Steeples at the beginning of the film, by the end of the film, it’s reached a 3 Steeple rating.