In the 1963 black and white film “Heavens Above”, Peter Sellers plays a naive but caring prison chaplain, Rev’d. John Smallwood, who is accidentally appointed as vicar to the small and prosperous English country town of Orbiston Parva, in place of an upper-class cleric with the same name, favoured by the Despard family, who practically run the town.
Smallwood begins his ministry, but his strong belief in charity and forgiveness puts him at odds with the locals, who all regard themselves as good Christian people. He creates social ructions by appointing a black dustman as his churchwarden, taking in a traveller family, and persuading local landowner Lady Despard to start a food bank which provides food for the church to distribute free to the needy people of the town.
Very soon the locals turn against him and when he tries to explain his actions to the residents he is besieged in the church hall and only just rescued by the police.
To save the situation, the Bishop appoints the 'original' Smallwood to the parish and “promotes” the 'troublemaker' to the Scottish island of 'Ultima Thule'. He is made 'Bishop of Outer Space' to the British space operations based there. When the pilot of the first rocket gets cold feet, Smallwood takes his place. He is last heard broadcasting a sermon over the rocket's radio and singing the hymn, “Jesu Lover of My Soul, let me to thy bosom fly”!
In a recent joint statement, the church leaders of Britain and Northern Ireland reminded us that, “Wherever we are, whenever we pray, when we speak and think of Christ, there he is in the midst of us.” Today Christ is in the midst of us on the front line, as we diversity our business, in shops as we queue two meters apart, in homes where we discover new tolerances in living more closely together, in the support we receive though a phone call, a bag of shopping or a WhatsApp message, in times of sickness and bereavement.
A little watched, virtually forgotten black and white comedy reminds us of a God who loved the world so much that he sent his only Son, to be in the midst of us, to show us what God is like and to help us to show that same compassion to others.
The song “Filled With Compassion” was recorded live at the Salvation Army’s Regent Hall, Oxford Street, in London on 2nd & 3rd December 1994:
The reflections here are written by members of our congregation.