I didn’t subscribe to Netflix until the beginning of this year. When I finally did, I knew what I would be choosing for my first TV-show binge-watch: the BBC series Call the Midwife.
I had read the first of Jennifer Worth’s memoirs, on which the series is based, at my sister’s house in London in 2011, and as a longtime birth geek (who delivered my own son at home) I was looking forward to seeing the subject of birth tackled with more directness and accuracy than is typical on television.
What I didn’t anticipate was how powerful I would find the show as an expression of faith. Of course, I knew that the midwifery practice was based out of a convent, and that everything the nun-midwives do is inspired by their vocation of love and service. But I’m so used to TV and movies depicting religious commitment as, at best trite and sentimental, and at worst as misguided and damaging, that it was hugely refreshing to see the realistic, respectful way in which the sisters’ Anglican faith is portrayed. It is a source of resilience, courage, and deep sympathy with the people they serve, and it is an integral part of the formation of the young nurse-midwives who work with them, and on whom the series focuses.
Without (much) sentimentalizing or preaching, Call the Midwife shows a community of women whose work is the primary focus of their lives, and who understand that work to be a God-given vocation. It is hard for us today to understand how radical that would have been in the 1950s, and it is a highly unusual thing to see on TV even now. Near the end of season 1, Jenny matter-of-factly tells Jimmy that her work is most important thing for her right now, which is one of the several reasons she cannot contemplate getting involved with him romantically. And one of the most moving storylines in the first two seasons is the ongoing evolution of Chummy, from a terminally shy, clumsy, failed debutante to a self-confident and first-class midwife.
The nuns set a powerful example as professional women, whose confidence in their skills and authority comes from an unshakeable conviction that they are doing God’s work. And the young nurses, regardless of the details of their own faith lives, follow that example and grow in authority and commitment to the people of Poplar.
The Sisters of St. Raymond Nonnatus (based on the real-life nuns of the Community of St. John the Divine) are exposed to every aspect of human life on a daily basis – the heroism of slum women, the suffering of those brought up in workhouses, the back-breaking labor of the dock workers; destitution, filth, vermin, disease, disability, teen pregnancy, racism, abortion, incest, prostitution, madness; as well as the affection of families, the joy and laughter of children, and the thousand and one everyday acts of love and self-sacrifice that constitute life in the slums. This has given them a broad perspective and sympathy that means that they are the opposite of puritanical or judgmental. In fact, Sister Julienne often shocks Jenny by her matter-of-fact acceptance of realities that Jenny’s middle-class upbringing has left her totally unprepared for. The sisters emulate Christ in their acceptance and tolerance of every kind of human foible, preaching the gospel by example, rather than browbeating their patients into accepting their version of morality.
The centrality of faith in the series is symbolized by the fact that in almost every episode, the nuns are shown at prayer in the chapel, their ethereal singing led by the soprano voice of actress Laura Main, who plays Sister Bernadette. The unalterable routine of the Daily Office provides a reliable glimpse of the sacred in the midst of the backbreaking, draining work of midwifery and nursing, and the young midwives are often shown sitting quietly in the chapel chairs, meditating or weeping over the latest crisis in their lives or those of their patients, and finding solace in the peaceful beauty of Anglican liturgy.
Of course, the series isn’t perfect. I do find myself wishing sometimes for a bit more energetic and articulate wrestling with the intersection of faith and life, rather than the generally brief and trite sound bites of a TV script. In season 2, episode 4, when the Roberts baby is born with spina bifida and the mother wonders aloud whether God is judging her for something, there is a huge missed opportunity for Jenny to say something about how God doesn’t punish babies for their parents’ sins. And throughout the plotlines about Chummy’s and Peter’s departure for Sierra Leone and Sister Bernadette’s eventual departure from the Order, I was hungry for some more in-depth discussion of the nature of discernment (especially in Sister Bernadette’s case; she and Sister Julienne, having gone together through the years of Sister Bernadette’s novitiate and postulancy, would certainly have discussed her ongoing journey in much less simplistic terms than they are shown as doing).
Overall, though, I found that my predominating thought as I watched the first two seasons was, “Why on earth doesn’t my denomination (the Episcopal Church) find a way to be the “presenting sponsor” (or some such) when this series airs in the US??! This is the best publicity we’ve gotten in two generations!!”
In the first episode, Sister Julienne asks the newly arrived Jenny “Do you have a faith, Nurse Lee?” and Jenny replies, “Not really. I’m Church of England.” It’s a laugh line, but it accurately represents the real Jennifer’s state of mind upon arriving at Nonnatus House (which she had not even realized was a convent; she thought it was a small private hospital). By the end of the books, Jenny, having lived with the nuns’ example for years and obeyed Sister Monica Joan’s imperious command to “read the Gospels!”, has come to a real and living faith, which sustains her through the rest of her life as a nurse, wife, mother, musician, and human being. My most profound prayer for the millions of people who watch the show, in the US, UK and beyond, is that some of them may be inspired by it to go in search of the God who is always calling them by name.
Some of the details in this article were supplied by Heidi Thomas’ book The Life and Times of “Call the Midwife” (Harper, 2012).