Fleabag and the Hot Priest in an era of clerical abuse

June 17th, 2019

The second season of the British comedy Fleabag hit Amazon Prime in the United States last month and almost immediately created a stir. With only six twenty-five-minute episodes, it is easily bingeable in an evening. The series follows actor and writer Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s character “Fleabag,” a single British woman dealing with her grief and complicated familial relationships in a variety of ways. Most notably for those of us in religious circles, season two features an ultimately-doomed romantic plotline with a Roman Catholic priest, unnamed in the show, but dubbed “Hot Priest.”

The varied reactions to the plotline among critics and on my social media feed were also present in myself. Those who are religious were less enthusiastic, and my colleagues in the clergy are probably the least approving. As a clergywoman who loves a good story, I was smitten with the chemistry between the actors and the enticing nature of forbidden romance but horrified on a professional-level by Hot Priest’s lack of boundaries and abuse of authority.

While I am neither Roman Catholic nor a man, I felt some kinship towards Hot Priest as a young clergyperson and a “cool priest” who has a fondness for the occasional swear word, gin and tonics, and fancy vestments. In his character, I recognized some of the stumbling blocks and temptations of this calling. First of all, he is palpably lonely. He makes a few light-hearted jokes about the brokenness and dysfunction of his own family and appears to be serving a parish where he is the sole clergyperson. At one point, he tells Fleabag with some resignation that he’s always home if she ever wants to stop by and talk. The presence of an overbearing church matriarch is a theme that many clergy know well, and this one is both needy and defensive of Hot Priest.

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The loneliness that is endemic to the clerical vocation can be extremely dangerous even when one loves one’s work, as Hot Priest’s character arc demonstrates. Without giving away too much, part of what made his decisions so painful was that he was not acting maliciously but out of his own brokenness. As Hot Priest does, the temptation to ease one’s own pain and loneliness in an over-use of alcohol or inappropriate relationships is unfortunately familiar to many clergy, and I recognized Hot Priest’s tendencies in myself. If I were lacking a support system that includes colleagues, professionals and relationships outside the church, it did not require a vivid imagination to see myself on that same path.

Although Fleabag is not technically Hot Priest’s parishioner, she becomes involved with him through a pastoral relationship with her godmother and soon-to-be stepmother and develops a spiritual relationship with him in addition to their romantic one. Regardless of his vow of celibacy, the muddling of the sexual and the spiritual is a clear sign that pastoral boundaries are being flouted. Just as it is malpractice for a therapist to develop a romantic relationship with a patient due to both a power imbalance and the possibility of doing psychological and spiritual harm, the same is true for a minister. Theologically, adhering to strong boundaries keeps us ministers from the sin of pride, particularly the idea that we alone (and not God) can be someone’s savior.

Nevertheless, there will always be something attractive and titillating about someone or something that is completely off-limits. Otherwise the writer might’ve made Hot Priest an Anglican! But in watching even a fictionalized encounter between a clergyperson and someone looking for spiritual guidance, every boundary training alarm in my body went off. Particularly as we become more cognizant of the ways in which authority has been misused and those boundaries have been neglected both in passively harmful and malicious ways, these kinds of stories should be less sexy and more shocking.

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