Wistful yearnings for a bygone age
Hutchinson, 723pp, hbk
0 09 179421 8 £25.00
Kindly Light; Wise Virgin; Love Unknown; Incline our Hearts; A Bottle in the Smoke. As the titles of some of his novels reveal, Andrew Wilson has been making a living as the reluctant atheist on the fringes of the Church of England for a long time. For those, like me, who enjoyed his essay on Victorian doubt God’s Funeral, here is a longer but no less opinionated view of the Victorian era as a whole.
Wilson claims to have a special affinity with the Victorians, and more than once reminds the reader that his (my!) generation was the last to know gas-light and steam trains and coal fires. But to say that is not to go far enough. We live in a world of Victorian things. London, Paris, Brussels and Berlin are Victorian cities. We live in a world of Victorian ideas. Our political problems – Ireland, racism, the end of Empire – are problems with Victorian roots. And the withdrawing roar of the Sea of Faith has lengthened into our own time. We all live adjacent to Dover Beach.
This is, in one sense, a nostalgic book. Wilson longs for the life of the Victorian parson – if only he could take to his desert island rectory the benefits of modern dentistry! ‘If I had to choose my ideal span of life, I should choose to have been born in the 1830s, the son of a parson with the genetic inheritance of strong teeth.’ He has a real feel for the world of Kilvert and Barnes – but for Wainwright and Lowder as well.
But it is also a sprightly book. Wilson knows he has Lytton Strachey to contend with! His wickedness about the doubtful ancestry of both Victoria and Albert is delicious and is intended to be. ‘If suspicions about both Victoria and Albert are well-grounded, this means that many of the crowned heads of Europe are descended jointly from an unscrupulous Irish soldier and a German Jew. Given this, it is surprising that these families manifested so few of the talents stereotypically attributed to the Irish and the Jews: such as wit and good looks.’
Not surprisingly, then, he deals gently and well with a Jew whose wit amply compensated for his appearance. Disraeli is the hero of this volume; and ‘Beaconsfieldism’ (Gladstone’s own coinage) is triumphant. Disraeli’s novels (surely a field of Victorian fiction due for renewed critical attention, especially the vivacious ‘Lothair’) as well as his politics, come in for high praise. (Wilson perceptively points out the connection with Firbank and Waugh.)
The GOM, on the other hand, is portrayed as a pompous and opportunistic orator whose decidedly unsprightly religion is a subject more for ridicule than admiration. (It is a far, far better thing in the eyes of Wilson to have initiated a tradition of literary high camp than to have converted a legion of prostitutes by earnest conversation. I suppose he has a point.)
The other political hero of this book is Parnell, whose fall from grace is portrayed (rightly) as a tragedy from which Ireland has yet to recover. Wilson thinks he was badly treated – and certainly it does seem unfair in a century whose politics began with the raffish Lord M and spilled over into the priapic Lloyd George, that Dilke and Parnell should have be singled out for obloquy.
This is not a literary history, by any means, but the story is often illuminated by literary references. The use of Water Babies is memorable, as is the brief analysis of The Way We Live Now. It is strange to be so good on the Trollope novel (still an underestimated work) and to deal so cursorily with Little Dorrit, in some ways its Dickensian twin. But apart from Pickwick Papers Wilson makes little use of Dickens.
Of philosophers and political scientists who make an appearance in these pages, Bentham is an ogre, FD Maurice is a hero, and Marx and Engels have walk-on parts.
At the heart of the book is a brooding presence: a stupid little woman, incapable of seeing the real talents of a husband she later affected to adore; petulant; intolerant of her children to the point of mental cruelty; irrationally devoted to servants who for the most part duped her; avariciously hoarding public money whilst refusing public engagements.
The Queen managed only one thing superbly: by her absence from public life she gave unwitting birth to constitutional monarchy. While Leopold was ruling (and ruining) the Congo, she was at Balmoral with Mr Brown.
This long book – Wilson complains that it got out of hand – is not Strachey, nor is it GM Young. But it is a compulsive read. And for Wilson watchers, like myself, a positive treat. He now prefers The Oxen to God’s Funeral (p422). Perhaps one day he will talk himself back into the belief for which he is so nostalgic.
WHO ARE THE CELTIC SAINTS?
Canterbury, 300pp, pbk
1 85311 493 6, £16.99
No sooner had I commended the good St Wilfrid (Romanizing bishop and ultramontane scourge of the Celts) in last month’s book reviews, than this volume falls on to the doormat, with its vigorous promotion of the other side of the dispute. I very nearly changed my mind, for Professor Jones is passionate and persuasive, and writes with an easy, almost hypnotic style.
What held me back was her final chapter, ‘Notes on Sources’. She dismisses Eddi’s life of Wilfrid as ‘a very partial account’, which is perfectly true, but I could not stop myself muttering, ‘What! And yours isn’t?’ But the real give-away is this glorious statement:
[Therefore] almost everything written about the Celtic saints before the early 1970s is now likely to be dated, mediated through the conventional understanding of earlier generations, which we now know to have been mistaken in important respects.
That is all very well but I was a Christian hippy back in the Sixties. Are you saying that our idealization of the Celtic saints was all based on a misunderstanding? And that only the new version of ‘Celtic spirituality’ is the real thing?
The professor is no fool and recognizes that the crucial issue at and around the Synod of Whitby was one of power, and that Wilfrid and his allies had the better grasp of the need of authority, control and order. But that is not unlike saying the Reformation was a Good Thing but a beastly shame, or that Cromwell and his Roundheads were ‘right but repulsive’, when what we hanker for are the gallant losers, who were ‘wrong but wromantic’.
We are presented with a picture of an Island Church, a native Christian tradition of peculiar genius, forever doomed to be misunderstood and persecuted by the more powerful Europeans. It is all so unfair, when
Celtic Christianity was firmly based on the Nicene Creed. It seems to have been unaffected by any of the unorthodox beliefs which troubled the Continental Church.
Is there, I wonder, a mythic Ecclesia Anglicana waiting to be discovered by the new historians, one capable of inspiring the present generation of leaders, who will valiantly oppose the norms of Rome and its allies, to reforge a British version of the Christian Faith.
I am going a bit beyond the text. Professor Jones does not outline a comprehensive thesis. That is why her mythologizing is so effective: it is a collection of passing references and telling truths, for nowhere is it subjected to full critical analysis. The book is after all largely a collection of ‘lives’ of the Celtic saints, not a properly developed history of a Church that frankly never existed. But which we can only wish might have done?
You may gather that I think this book is completely wrong, but do not let that put you off. It is well written and highly enjoyable, deeply romantic and beguiling, and I too can wish that it had been so, that this lost Church could somehow be unearthed, and that these saintly men could once more walk the lonely shores of these windswept isles. RW
FINDING GRACE AT THE CENTER
Basil Pennington et al
SPCK, 106pp, pbk
0 281 05535 1, £8.99
This book is a clear and simple manual to the art of contemplative prayer. Do not be put off by the fact that this is a 25th anniversary re-issue, but instead be encouraged by it. This is a book that has stood the test of time and proved its worth, and surprisingly has not been published in this country before.
Two Benedictines and a Jesuit from the United States wrote this simple introduction in the late 70s to what they call ‘centering prayer’, prayer that is not about confession or praise or thanks, not about asking for things or commending others in need, nor even meditation and reflection upon the grace of God and his salvation, prayer in other words that is without content except for the direct relationship with God; the still, silent centre of all prayer.
The context in which this book teaches is no longer contemporary, but it is not so distant that we do not recognize of what it speaks. This has the curious advantage of clarifying the essential heart of their teaching. Perhaps the most obvious influence on them, from that time of afro haircuts and flared trousers, is Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and the whole Transcendental Meditation movement. It is because the references do not fit smoothly into our own context, because the parallels and analogies are slightly off-line, that we are able to see them for what they are; we are less dependent upon the authors’ precise sympathies.
The central model they use is that English masterpiece of the late fourteenth century, The Cloud of Unknowing, and the teaching is entirely orthodox throughout. Its principal concern, though, is to show how this simple (though demanding) technique of contemplative prayer is and should be accessible to ‘ordinary’ mature Christians. ‘St Teresa of Avila and St John of the Cross teach this explicitly.’ It must be not be relegated to the spiritual masters alone: it is a form of prayer open to many.
Neither should it be considered an optional extra, a form of prayer for those who like that sort of thing. It is essential for any Christian who has developed a genuine life of prayer. It is necessary, as the content of one’s prayer becomes richer and more rewarding, constantly to bring oneself back to God himself. And because of its essentially negative, contentless quality, it is valuable to have a clear discipline and routine; which is what this little manual seeks to impart.
It has stood the test of twenty-five years well. If we are to do God’s will, we must pray and pray seriously. This book deserves to be widely used. AS
USING COMMON WORSHIP: MARRIAGE
CHP, 134pp, pbk
0 7151 2004 2, £8.95
What is the worst thing about Common Worship? I thought at first it was the fact that one could have celebrated twelve masses a day every single day since the Last Supper and still not have exhausted the options now permitted by the CofE (this statistic I gleaned from the Church Times), while at the same time certain other options used for centuries (albeit in a different language) by the Western Church are proscribed.
It then seemed to me that its greatest fault was the inclusive language Psalter for use with the Daily Prayer volume, which without comment or explanation, has (with the exception of Psalm 8 for which an extra version is provided) obliterated the christological reading of the psalms, a Christian tradition so ancient it helped to form the New Testament itself. Inclusive language is undoubtedly a good thing, but not to the point where it can undermine perhaps the oldest tradition of prayer and hermeneutic the Church possesses.
To my intense misery I have now discovered a third possibility, a fault that may perhaps be greater still. The Marriage Service. It looks innocuous enough. Hence my surprise.
Part of the marriage preparation with a young couple is teaching them what it means that they are the ministers of the sacrament, not the Church and not their parents, and definitely not the photographer. I have always, therefore, encouraged them to consider what they want to bring to the service, what prayers and readings they wish to choose. Too often the response is ‘We’ll leave that to you,’ but sometimes the two genuinely wish to enter into the form of their own service, understand it and contribute to it.
One such couple (blessings upon them) bought a copy of Common Worship, and studied it at length. They then sent a draft copy of their proposed service. ‘How on earth could they have come up with such a dog’s dinner of chaotic nonsense?’ I thought as I skimmed through it. I then went through CW and discovered to my mounting horror that every single option they had chosen had come from the official text.
For the rest of the day I wandered around like a demented soul, overcome by shame and embarrassment. What monster have we let loose upon the ordinary Christian faithful? I could not say to them, ‘Do not worry. CW is recent aberration from a different planet. Ignore it.’ I cannot set myself up above the liturgy of the church I serve; I cannot undermine their faith in the ceremony they will perform. I must swallow my anger, say my prayers, and gently restore some dignity and order to this mess.
In the end, careful preparation and good choreography can smooth over bad liturgy; and all was well. I should not perhaps have taken myself so seriously, for I was not the minister. But the general truth still lies heavy upon me. An ordinary Christian couple can no longer pick up the CofE prayer book and read in it that church’s understanding of the one sacrament that (for the moment at least) means the most to them. They need a minister to guide them through it.
What a devastating indictment! That our desire to be all things to all people has meant that we (the professionals) must act as mediators, not between God and man, but between God’s sacraments and man, the very things that were given to mediate his grace directly. I truly believe that CW is clericalizing the laity. So many options are there, that only members of the parish worship group can properly grasp the Mass, only liturgically trained couples can properly understand their own wedding. The fact that it was not intended does not alter this sad truth.
If we need a guide, then what about this one? After Mr Richard’s dressing down last month (Letters) for his review of another in this series, I shall keep the comments brief. Does this ‘practical guide’ help? No.
There is an interesting introductory essay by our Bishop Andrew. What a master of presentation! He explains how and why the CW service has its idiosyncratic order. It makes sense, in terms of the compilers’ appreciation of ‘separation, liminality and incorporation’. Whether it does without that sophisticated background knowledge is questionable. I was grateful for his explanation (it is truly skilful) but it only makes me more certain that this service will not see out the decade, for all that it contains much good new material. NT
THE NEW SCM DICTIONARY OF LITURGY AND WORSHIP
Edited by Paul Bradshaw
SCM, 500pp, hbk, 0 334 02883 3, £35
This has been an excellent series of dictionaries, starting in 1967 with Christian Ethics, with new editions or new subjects being added over the years. I have had them on my shelves through college and in the parish. I do not always agree, but it is good to have them there for reference. The one that has worked least well has been Liturgy. This is now the third completely new edition since 1972.
Liturgy is like that at the moment. It is changing so fast, one simply has to keep up. A dictionary such as this has to be principally liberal in stance. That-which-has-always-been is a different type of book. The format is the same as before: the common practice of enlarging the print has been avoided (well done!), but the nice titling on the spine has been dropped for a cheapo substitute (shame).
The basic form and interests remain as before, but all the articles have been written afresh. The photographs of the earlier editions have been dropped. There is a great deal of clear and helpful information. Inevitably there is also a great deal of opinion – read the section on ‘Ordination of Women’ to check whether you can cope with the underlying ethos of the book.
As a reference work it is well worth getting, even if you will not agree with many of the conclusions. As a book to browse, it is quirky but interesting. Why are we told all about worship in Sri Lanka, but not so many other countries? The one I enjoyed most is the long article ‘Canada, Worship in the United Church of’. If you wish to see where liberal protestant liturgy will take us, read it and shiver:
Each generation of United Church worship resources reflects and contributes to the dialectic of order and liberty that is its liturgical ethos. Liturgical freedom continues to be prized; regional, theological and stylistic diversity persist; ecumenism, liberalism and activism converge.
And so it goes on, and on. AS
THE HOMERIC HYMNS
Translated by Michael Crudden
OUP, 190pp, pbk
0 19 280240 2, £7.99
What an odd book to review, for this publication anyway. This is a collection of hymns or poems, or fragments of poems, addressed to the gods by Greek poets of the seventh and eighth centuries bc, poets working in the same tradition as Homer. The problem with religious poetry of our own day, from religions other than Christianity, is that it throws us into the middle of an unsettling debate about comparative religion. Just as some people like inter-faith worship and theology, so many more people do not. It is threatening and disturbing and we do not feel that we have the intellectual wherewithal to cope with its relativizing suggestions.
So we ignore it. We would rather not enjoy the colour of a Hindu myth or a Native American tale for fear that it might undermine the biblical narratives and thus our Christian faith. It is a fear that the simple act of reading and enjoying other religious poetry will turn us unconsciously into liberal humanists for whom ‘all religions are essentially the same’. Which is what is so attractive about these poems, from a distant and unthreatening past. They do not share the grandeur of the Iliad or the Odyssey, but if you enjoyed the recent translation of those two texts by Robert Fagles, you will find the same clear phrasing in these shorter poems.
There are fashions in translating, and each generation has its ear attuned to different cadences. The older, more formal translations may flow more easily in English, but they make the Greek authors read like Victorians. The recent, freer renderings can often seem awkward at first, but they have an immediacy in some of their phrasing that can be enthralling. There are thirty-three in all, but really only four of sufficient length. I especially enjoyed the one to Aphrodite, recounting how her power to make gods fall in love with mortals was turned on herself as she becomes infatuated with a Trojan prince. These uneven tellings of the legends of the Olympian gods have great depth and a fine beauty. SR
THE PROGRESS OF FREDERICK ROTHWELL
Dragon Slayer Press, 30pp, A4 booklet
0 9542644 0 1, £5.95
Possessed of a good soprano voice, the young Frederick Rothwell was accepted as a chorister at the Temple Church in London in 1876; so began a lifetime’s commitment to church music that saw him rise to become one of the great organ builders of the high Victorian era, with work in St George’s Chapel, Windsor, and across the United Kingdom.
Taken from material in the Organists’ Review, it is a pity it has not been reworked into a ‘proper’ book, for it is a genuine and complete work of love and scholarship: it merits being a solid hardback book, for it is research that will surely last for many decades to come. If you have a Rothwell organ in your church, or are interested in this extraordinary period of triumphant achievement, from the 1880s to the First World War, you would do well to add this text and its photographs to your collection. NA
HIGH FASHION IN THE CHURCH
Maney, 176pp, pbk
1 902653 60 2, £36
Ascoli Piceno is, by Italian standards, a fairly ordinary town, in the eastern foothills of the Pennines on the edge of the Marche, but coming from this northern country it seems the very epitome of civilized, Mediterranean city living, with its cathedral and piazza, its churches, elegant shops, medieval streets and rich local cuisine. And its museum and art gallery, in which the star exhibit, highlighted in all the guides, is a thirteenth-century cope given to the Pope of the day (a native of the town) and made in England.
That particular vestment finds only a passing reference in this book. We are given no other details than the fact the city fathers ‘found it worth while to strip the pearls from its English medieval cope to raise money to meet a war subsidy levied on the town.’ How sad that one of the treasures of pre-Reformation England, safe from the Tudors, should fall victim to the depredations of a later age, for the quality of such examples as survive of Opus Anglicanum is breath-taking. The product of professional workshops, mostly in the south-east, it reached its peak in the fourteenth century, before declining and being overtaken by continental workshops by the beginning of the sixteenth.
This is a large and lavish book, with nearly 200 black and white and over 100 colour illustrations, covering church vestments from the ninth to the nineteenth century, their workmanship and artistic intent. The author is a specialist in embroidery, now retired from the Victoria and Albert Museum, and with a broad knowledge of her subject (even if she should have illustrated the Ascoli cope). Her main achievement is to show how the embroidered pictures in particular derive from other art forms of the period, usually paintings of course or illuminated manuscripts in the medieval period, the East Anglian School for the English work.
It does leave the modern period looking a little thin in terms of inspiration, but we have so many other pictures before us. Take this as another opportunity to indulge in some nostalgia for a vanished age. It looks like an excellent Christmas present for the well-dressed Anglo-Catholic Father. SR
BRF, 106pp, pbk
1 84101 256 4, £5.99
What do the Scriptures have to say to those who live in cities? Surely nothing specifically, for the Bible speaks to everyone without distinction. Nevertheless it may be that CofE members are unconsciously influenced by older models and visions of the form of the Christian life, ones that hark back to a rural setting, when the parish was the village, when everyone knew everyone else, when the seasons set the rhythm of life, and so on. ‘So this book is for city Christians.’ And why not?
This is a modest and unpretentious Bible study guide, with twenty stories or texts about cities from the Old Testament and another twenty from the New, set out in the biblical order, with no forced connections between them. And one interesting chapter on the two cities that are not mentioned in the Bible – Sepphoris and Alexandria.
As always, there is more in the Scriptures that speaks directly to us than we usually suppose; and we often need someone to remind us. This should be a helpful little book for small groups of young Christians gathering together to come to terms with what it means to live in a large conurbation. AS
KNOW THE BIBLE
Hodder & Stoughton, 470pp, pbk
0 340 78728 7, £9.99
This is a curious Bible reading guide. It is original and interesting, but is it practical? ‘Read the entire Bible over two years in manageable daily readings.’ That would be excellent. If you have never read the Holy Bible, all of it, for yourself, then shame upon you: this is the word of God, and the very least you can do as a Christian is to read every single word of it, at least once. If then you decide that ‘some of it is no longer relevant to modern living’, or some other such wheedling excuse, you will have had the decency to test it out. If nothing else, your punishment will be less severe than for those who dismiss the Scriptures before they have even read them.
Reading all of the Bible is a necessary thing to do. So do it. This guide offers numbered days, so you start whenever you wish. However, you will have to hope you are not stuck with the boring bits when you are otherwise distracted, on holiday for example. ‘Leviticus may seem to be a wearisome book,’ Eaton admits; so as not to keep your nose to the grindstone too long, he offers long sections each day, which itself is rather wearisome. In the end there is no way around it: you must simply sit down and read.
The accompanying notes are largely in the form of background information and a series of questions intended to open up the text. He is acutely aware of the problem of contemporary sophistication:
In recent years even the Bible-believing Christian has tended to turn away from Scripture. What has happened is that a vast gap has arisen between the scholars and practically-minded Christians out and about in God’s world. The scholars do not help the ordinary Christian very much and the ordinary Christian is not very scholarly!
How far his approach bridges the gap is a personal matter; you will simply have to try it; but it is a genuinely interesting attempt, and it is more demanding than it looks. He is asking for serious study and reflection. AS
THE GOSPELS UNPLUGGED
BRF, 142pp, A4 pbk
1 84101 243 2, £12.99
Definitely not to be used by trendy vicars, but if you are young and a teacher, you may be able to carry it off. This is a collection of over fifty poems and stories for use with late primary, early secondary school age children, with photocopyable material, for teaching, drama or worship. For example, the story of the Prodigal Son is told in the form of text messages; the Lost Sheep comes out as a rap poem. Got the picture? Wicked. NA
‘Advance praise.’ We shall probably be seeing this title more and more frequently on the back covers of new books. It is a worrying trend, in so far as it is coming to be a substitute for reviewing. An endorsement by a known and respected churchman or scholar is a useful indication of the character or worth of a book you happen across in a bookshop, but a review is a much more independent test. True, it may not be fair and it may not be right (look to the CW review above if you want evidence of that), but it is an independent test.
Current marketing trends show a greater and greater sense of a book as a product, which creates a process in which reviews arrive too late to be useful. The shorter the shelf-life, the quicker the turnover, the less a review is needed. More and more publishers are refusing requests for review copies, because it simply is not part of their strategy. Readers and writers have always felt there should be a relationship with publishers; there is strong pressure away from that towards products. Not nice.
[IGNORE THE FINAL MOAN – IT’S ONLY A FILLER IF NEEDED]