Lamenting The Loss of the Sacred in Broadchurch

Lamenting The Loss of the Sacred in Broadchurch February 5, 2018

There is an ancient spiritual discipline that we have lost in the modern church called lament. Lament happens when bad things occur and we choose to sit in our grief and express our sorrow to God. Lament is all over the Bible. Over half of the Psalms have some element of lament. We have a whole book in the Old Testament called Lamentations, and the prophetic books are full of prophets lamenting evil and the inability of God’s people to be faithful to God.

As I watched the final episode of the 3 season BBC show Broadchurch (airing in the US on Netflix), I realized that what I had been watching for 24 episodes was an extended lament on the loss of Christianity and objective morality in England and the West.

The series begins with the death of an 11 year old boy named Danny Latimer. Detectives Ellie Miller (Olivia Coleman) and Alec Hardy (David Tennant) investigate the death, which turns out to be murder. Season 2 is the story of the murderer’s trial. Season 3, while including most of the characters from the first two seasons, details a new crime, the rape of Trish Winterman (Julie Hesmondhalgh).

One of the first impressions of Broadchurch is its geography. We see a seaside town with lush, steep cliffs overlooking a beautiful beach. As with most towns in England, there is an elegant Anglican church with the requisite graveyard where most everyone comes to be baptized, married, and buried. The village pastor, Rev. Paul Coates (Arthur Darvill), is a constant presence in the show, and as the series progresses, particularly in season 3, Rev. Paul becomes increasingly frustrated at how people occasionally come to him for advice, but don’t come for worship or discipleship. It’s striking how the show views Rev. Paul as a good man and feels sorry for him more than anything, whereas had this show taken place in the 60’s or 70’s, it’s likely that the pastor would have been one of the bad guys.

The idyllic setting of the show clashes with what’s actually going on in peoples’ lives. We experience much of the action through DS Miller’s eyes, and she especially is shocked to find out the prevalence of pornography and sexual abuse, as well as the fact that seemingly every husband is having an affair. We watch Miller and Hardy become increasingly angry at all the liars, adulterers, and abusers they have to interview. Their outrage reaches a pitch in Season 3 when they’re interviewing a man who has admitted to serial rape and he says, “It’s just sex. They’d all had sex before, why does one more time make a difference?”

The absence of the sacred is also underscored in the Latimer family’s storyline. When Danny dies, Mark (Andrew Buchan) and Beth (Jodie Whittaker) are understandably devastated. However, two years later, they still have only taken minimal steps out of their grief with Mark continually being on the verge of giving up completely. While we certainly don’t expect them to recover from such a tragedy quickly, and indeed their lament is a proper response, it is interesting that there is no real prospect of forgiveness or idea of how God can minister to them. Their default grief is essentially secular despite being members of the local parish- let’s muddle through for the sake of our kids who are still with us.

Regardless of how a real-life couple would handle the death of their child, what is telling for us is how much time is spent on the grief of this couple, even during the season (Season 3) that is not about their son. The show seems to be reminding us that the loss of a Christian sexual ethic and family mooring has consequences far deeper than we want to acknowledge.

A key scene happens in the last episode of the series. Rev. Paul has prepared a last sermon before he leaves town for what he hopes will be a more interested parish (where he can write a sermon for more than “7 people”). But, at this service, everyone comes and they’re all encouraged by the turnout and the chance to worship together, or at least be together. It’s one of only three scenes (along with a confrontation in Season 2 and a rally in support of abuse victims in Season 3) where the community is shown as truly coming together.

It’s as if the writers of the show (whom I know nothing about, so I’m merely extrapolating from what’s on screen) are saying: if only we could come together over this shared faith that we seem to have lost, we’d be a lot better off. When we trade in the sacred traditions of worship, faithfulness, and chastity, we often are not prepared for the kind of grief that will inevitably accompany the tragedies that ensue. Kudos to a group of writers who are willing to acknowledge and lament the situation our modern culture is in.

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