A movie for all kinds of saints and sinners

By Pierre Whalon

One thing I have developed over the years in ministry is an active distaste for “pious sentiments.” By this I do not mean to disparage piety, which is devotion to God and is essential to any religious person’s life. No, I mean the cheap kitsch that one finds in mall stores — and in some so-called Christian movies.

I don’t think I am alone in this aversion, and I hope that moviegoers will not disdain the film “All Saints” for fear of syrupy religiosity. John Corbett plays a real Episcopal priest, the Rev. Michael Spurlock, who is a new priest sent to close a real dying parish, All Saints, in Smyrna, Tenn.

This grabbed me, because as a newly minted deacon, I was sent by my bishop to close a parish. Like Fr. Spurlock, a New Yorker (as well as his wife Aimee) who moved to rural Tennessee, I went through culture shock and bumped up against the reality of what a church faced with closing looks like. The film captured that, as well as the initial distrust that he (and I) encountered. My parish, at least, is still open.

Moreover, I knew that much of the story was true. Of course, the screenplay creates dramatic tension by highlighting the priest’s inexperience, as well as the inner conflicts one goes through beginning ordained ministry (50 percent quit in the first five years, they say). His issues spill over into his marriage, his relationship with his son, one parishioner in particular and of course, his bishop. This pastor is certainly not perfect.

He meets He Yin, a Burmese refugee who leads a community of his people, the Karen, all of whom have received political asylum — and are Anglicans. That is, as He Yin reminds Spurlock, they are Episcopalians, the American branch of the worldwide Anglican Communion. They begin to attend church, which causes a stir. Meanwhile, the fiscal noose begins to tighten, as appraisers for a property deal show up.

The church sits on 30 acres of prime farmland (the film is shot on location). During a thunderstorm, Spurlock cries out to God and receives a vision: Farm the land with the refugees. This scene seemed to channel “The Shawshank Redemption,” as the rain drenches the priest like a baptism. Nevertheless, Aimee reminds him that he isn’t a signs-and-wonders kind of guy, and neither is she. But he is convinced that he’s right.

Here is where I was most uncomfortable. Was this vision-thing some magical thinking, where it all comes true: They farm the land, pay off the mortgage and save the church?

That is not quite how the story goes. As Spurlock struggles to make his vision a reality, he is changed, more by failure and his own mistakes. He becomes a real parish priest, who tends a community, and a better husband and father.

It is the relationship with He Yin, played by Nathan Lee, that provides the central drama. Both Corbett and Lee are superb in relaying the changes both men undergo as their friendship finally emerges across a profound cultural divide. The supporting cast, especially Barry Corbin as a bitter veteran, Cara Buono as Aimee and Myles Moore as their son Atticus, are also excellent. One small role, Atticus’ friend Po, is played by He Yin’s son, John Lee. Real parishioners, including the Karen immigrants, also are part of the cast.

As an Episcopal bishop, I found the character of Bishop Eldon Thompson unbelievable, despite Gregory Alan Williams’ best effort. The role is a foil, of course; I get that. But compared to the realism of the parish’s life, it could have been better written, especially since the Diocese of Tennessee has a fine bishop, John Bauerschmidt, and he and the diocese have a positive role in the real story.

I also did not like the recurring references to Fr. Spurlock’s “career.” Anyone who gets into the ordained ministry for a “career,” with advancement to more prestigious and remunerative positions up to the “brass ring” of the office of bishop, is profoundly mistaken. This is true in any church, not just ours.

But this is a movie you don’t want to miss. Variety’s enthusiastic review calls Corbett’s work “a career-highlight performance.” Rotten Tomatoes gives it an “89 percent fresh.”

Let me lift my own little voice: Go see “All Saints.” You’ll be blessed, no matter what your religion.   n

Pierre Whalon is bishop-in-charge of the Episcopal Churches in Europe.