Sep 10, 2008

Heavens Above

This is a British film from 1963. Peter Sellers plays an Anglican vicar who, unlike his clerical superiors, and other clergy, actually believes in Christianity.

The picture of Anglican clergy in Jane Austen, and other writers is not very flattering to the Anglicans. Most of Austen’s clergymen are second or third sons with no discernible vocations who are forced into orders as a means of providing them with a steady source of income. The clergymen in Heaven’s Above, with the notable exception of Peter Sellers’ character, fall into that tradition.

When one of Rev. Smallwood’s (Sellers) parishioners reads the verse about selling all that she has and giving it to the poor, she doesn’t sell it and donate it to an established charity or NGO, she gives it outright to the poor in the form of food, clothing, and so on. This is done through the establishment of a non-denominational giveaway program. This has the effect of establishing an institution that operates in competition to the established stores. Since the free distribution of food or other goods results in an infinite demand for those goods, the other stores suffer from their inability to supply. So naturally they resent the measure. Those in line at the free store, driven by greed, compete to get the most of the free goods.

A family that has been squatting on private property is taken in by the vicar. In the end they rip off the church, and leave with rugs and furnishings from the church.

Rev. Smallwood’s tenure at the parish proves to be a disaster, and he is kicked upstairs as Bishop of Outer Space. He completes the change upstairs by getting into a rocket that is to be launched into orbit, and the last we hear of the good bishop is his voice singing a hymn as he orbits.

The film is particularly good at showing, though I doubt if the film makers thought about this way, the self-regulating effects of markets. Those markets where goods are sold for a price clear the less able buyers out of the market, and achieve an orderly distribution of goods. The market where there is no price brings out the worst in people. It even invites a bit of religious discrimination. In one scene a man is tossed out of line by others because he does not claim to be a CoE member.

An interesting, amusing movie that has a Christian theme, but which also shows that simple charity, when not properly channeled, can have disastrous consequences. It also takes the clergy to task, quite properly, for their own lack of religious seriousness. A lack that has seen England’s church attendance decline to 10%.