December 7, 2021


Finding a community of faith in The Bishop's Wife (TITUS TECHERA • DECEMBER 3, 2021, Acton)

David Niven, the famous British actor, is the bishop who prays for guidance and receives an angel. He shouldn't be speaking with an English accent in New York, frankly, but in the '40s this was tolerated, and we should also extend the same tolerance. Niven's mannerisms emphasize embarrassment and stiffness, which make his role work so well that you will have no doubt as to the great difference between faith and reputation even in the life of spiritual authorities. He has reached a crisis brought on by his success: A young bishop, deeply devoted to the faith, he has taken on the project of building a cathedral to the greater glory of God, but this involves him in the pride of rich people and the endless organization of details that seem to have no connection to faith and with which he cannot cope. Instead of everyone coming together in faith, it seems like the project is bringing out the worst in people, or at least making them heedless, as though everyone wanted something from God but no one gives a thought to making any sacrifices. This is quite a burden, yet he's close enough to success that he cannot detach and see the problem clearly, so he prays for guidance.

Niven is shocked by the miraculous answer to his prayer and dares not disbelieve in the appearance of tthe angel nor avail himself of his faith, which makes for psychological conflict--and gently reveals our own predicament. This is the drama of a good man tempted to ignore the innocent in order to win over the respectable and win his place among them, a problem far harder to deal with in our own time. Moreover, Niven manages to go through the drama almost entirely without harshness, keeping this a family movie. The angel embodies the exhortation to be as prudent as snakes but harmless as doves, so the bishop finds it impossible to trust him: If he is innocent, he's no help in a wicked world; but if he's worldly wise, how can he be good? The angel brings into sharp relief the self-doubt and even self-contempt of the man of faith.

The beautiful Loretta Young is the titular wife--they're Episcopalian so they've got something of Catholic authority and hierarchy, but also the emphasis on family and community of independent Protestants. She has to play the public part of a bishop's wife, all formality and grace, but she cannot help missing their older, smaller parish, before they were important, because they lived a more genuinely loving life as a family and part of a community. Now they've got a mansion, a St. Bernard, and a lovely little girl, but it's making the bishop hard and breaking the wife's heart. She also reveals the bishop's moral drama, because she's always loved him but is unable to help him anymore. He estranges himself from life, because not even marriage seems worth the effort if he cannot prove his faith by bringing his community together.

Christmas is always in danger in Christmas movies--we'd have no reason to make such movies otherwise. But what specifically is in danger about Christmas here? In this case, we have a remarkable concentration of problems in one household: A man's faith, his family, community, and church government are all tied together. All this is made both better and worse by the presence of an angel. This is as it should be because it preserves human freedom. Choices must still be made.

So we have a fairy tale about miracles! You don't see that in theaters anymore. The dramatic construction is itself interesting. The angel does not allow the bishop to divulge his presence, as he's undercover. Why should miracles be invisible? Well, this is merely poetry, trying to show why we're unprepared for miracles. The angel says the bishop is known to be a good man. Nevertheless, the angel is ready to be met with disbelief, and is not disappointed. We want our lives to be ours; miracles take them away from us. We know miracles require that we change, but we don't quite know how, and fear the consequences, so often our pride gets in the way.

So we need fairy tales to remind us that change is still possible, and The Bishop's Wife is just such a funny, lovely Christmas fairy tale.

the deliciously subversive element here is the sexual tension between Angel and Wife.

Posted by at December 7, 2021 6:13 PM