What Emma Chambers Meant to Me

Kendra Thompson

A few Saturdays ago, as I was dreaming up clever children’s sermon ideas with several tabs open on my computer—Google Images, The Text This Week, and that ever-constant companion, Facebook—I learned that Emma Chambers had died. A friend of mine, also a young clergywoman, posted a gif from the BBC series The Vicar of Dibley, in which Chambers had co-starred, to share the news.

It’s a funny thing, postmodern grief. Because so many of us live in front of our screens all the time, at any moment we might be interrupted by the death of a friend, a former colleague, or a celebrity. Stories about Emma Chambers did not flood my feeds, as happened when David Bowie died, but I still felt a sadness, a tinge of loss. Why was that?

I discovered The Vicar of Dibley when I was just starting out in ministry. I was yet to be ordained—perhaps still on the fence about it. For me, and others like me, there weren’t a lot of road maps for how to be a clergywoman. Even the robes and vestments we wore in worship seemed to be cut for a different shape. Most of what I experienced in my first few years of ministry could not be held up to any list of norms, nor were they documented in any kind of guidebook. They just were what they were, and I hoped I was on the right path.

But somewhere between seminary graduation and ordination, as I was wondering if I should continue in this vocation or just become a beatnik barista, I found The Vicar of Dibley. The show, which centers on a female minister serving a conservative, small-town church, had originally aired in 1994, which interestingly was the year the Church of England ordained its first female priest. Dawn French starred as the vicar, Geraldine Granger, while Chambers played Alice Tinker, her verger (assistant) and all-around “lovable idiot.

Sometimes an experience isn’t real until you see it reflected in another person. That’s what The Vicar was for me, and likely for many other female clergy. The show’s humor—as when Geraldine and Alice exchange an off-color joke over a cup of tea after Sunday worship—helped, of course. The Vicar took what I experienced in my church life, exaggerated it, and made it funny.

For me, and others like me, there weren’t a lot of road maps for how to be a clergywoman.

In the first episode of The Vicar of Dibley, the small parish is excited to meet their new priest. They have no idea that she’s a woman. When Geraldine shows up for the reception in her honor, her parishioners don’t understand why she’s there. “You were expecting a bloke,” she sympathizes. “Beard, Bible, bad breath … and instead you got a babe with a bob-cut and a magnificent bosom.” Watching this gave levity to my own experience trying to do ministry in the gendered packaging God gave me.

When you’re a young woman doing what's historically been an older man’s job, sometimes people don’t know what to do with you. I’ve been called “whipper-snapper” and “girl.” I’ve been told I “get a huggy” during the passing of the peace because I’m “cute.” These experiences in church life haven’t always been funny to me. Good clergy friends and opportunities to vent have been necessary at times. Watching Geraldine and, to an extent, Alice deal with similar situations on The Vicar of Dibley was a comic reminder that I was not alone.

Because of my close association with the show, grieving Emma Chambers feels like grieving Alice. Since her passing, colleagues have talked about her in ways that recall the character she played. John Grant, her agent, described how “she brought laughter and joy to many.” Richard Curtis, a screenwriter on the series as well as director of Love Actually, described her as “tender, sweet, funny, unusual, loving.” Dawn French tweeted a picture of Chambers smothering her on the couch on the set of The Vicar. “I was regularly humped like this by the unique & beautiful spark that was Emma Chambers,” she wrote. “I never minded. I loved her. A lot.”

As it turns out, I’ve settled into being a clergywoman. I like coffee, but I’ll probably stick to serving people, not lattes. And as I grieve Emma Chambers, I’ll fondly remember the part she played in getting me to this place.

Topics: TV