You’re all Booked!
THERE ARE MANY MYSTERIES about the contemporary Church of England. Why, for example, for the last twenty-five years, has the number of suffragan bishops and archdeacons been inversely proportional to the decline in communicant figures? And, more interestingly, why has a church with an ever-diminishing influence in the nation at large been the subject or setting of so many novels?
At the top end of the market is Andrew (`A.N.’) Wilson, a former student of St. Stephen’s House, who, in the waspish words of Robert Runcie, has established a new career as the Voltaire of The Evening Standard. (The `A.N.’, by-the-by, is so that the reader will make the necessary associations with T.S., D.H., H.G., G.K., etcetera, and should not be taken too seriously.) Wilson’s Unguarded Hours, (alas temporarily out of print) is required reading for its shrewd observation, its stunning first sentence (`Had the Dean’s daughter worn a bra that afternoon, Norman Shotover might never have found out about the Church of England; still less about how to fly’); and for the delicious remembrance of a member of the House, armed with an early edition, bursting in on the then Vice Principal (a Welshman known as ‘Dorothy’), irate that Dr. Hope’s newly established austerity had been invaded by so purple a passage.
Despite her surname, and Wilson’s sometimes hurried prose, Joanna Trollope is not his match. The Rector’s Wife and The Choir have both been given the accolade of a television mini-series; but they are weak on plot and characterisation. Trollope’s Rector is dull and dour, and has an ambition, of all things, to become an Archdeacon. We are neither surprised nor even concerned when his flighty write is revealed in flagrante delicto with the brother of the Archdeacon in .situ – except, perhaps, to wonder that Joanna has never learned that Archdeacons are to the church at large what mothers-in-law are to northern comedians, and that even their brothers are rendered less romantic by the association. The final outcome – female independence in a new environment – is all too predictable. Let us hope it does not spawn too many vicarage Shirley Valentines.
Both these stories are characterised by a depressing degree of class-consciousness. It seems somehow to undermine their credibility. I once watched an episode of The Rector’s Wife on a wet evening in Avignon. Dubbed into French, the village’s concern about the job in the supermarket seemed not only petty but irrelevant.
If Trollope is down-market on Wilson, however, she is several shelves above Howatch.
Susan Howatch, who was once rash enough to reveal more about herself than she should in Professor Anthony Clare’s psychiatrist’s chair, has poured out her personal problems in a stream of novels which somehow manage to be simultaneously populist and pretentious. Howatch has a prodigious output. The Starbridge novels alone run to three thousand pages. Their titles give one the clue to their rather formulaic content: Glittering Images, Glamorous Powers, Ultimate Prizes, Scandalous Risks, Absolute Truths, and Mystical Paths. The names are all a variation on Frederick Raphael, and the plots are all a variation on each other. In these novels the sins of the fathers will be visited upon the children to the third and fourth generation of those who psychologise them, and a brooding ecclesiastical giant will provide learned epigraphs to every unfolding incident. Hensley Henson, William Inge, Charles Raven, John Robinson, and Michael Ramsey are all allowed to proffer their pennyworth; and poor Christopher Bryant is made responsible for more than his fair share.
The novels have been. a tremendous success. From their proceeds has merged a professorship at Cambridge, and Howatch herself has gone on to edit and introduce to the wider public created by her writing, a selection of Anglican spiritual classics. Austin Farrer riding to success on the back of Scandalous Risks: now there’s a thought!
Inspired, perhaps, by Dame P.D. James and her love of titles taken from Dr Cranmer, on the shelf below Susan Howatch come a number of writers of clerical detective stories. The book ends in this department are Kate Charles and D.M. Greenwood.
Like good bookends they are looking in opposite directions. Kate Charles is the Affirming Catholic detective writer. Hers is a world of well equipped sacristies and fey young curates with live-in boy friends. Even the dedications can come replete with double entendre : `For Jacqui, who has demonstrated the value of women’s ministry to so many’. The other trait of Charles’s clergymen is liturgical archaeology. Hers are the men who wear pink on Laetare and Gaudete, or follow Dr. Dearmer along the e9trancing bye-ways of British Museum religion. It is comfortable, undemanding high churchianity, somewhere between Pimlico and Primrose Hill.
Greenwood is made of sterner stuff. Her heroine, Theodora Braithwaite (from a long line of Braithwaites who have served the Church of England for generations out of memory) is a female deacon with an aversion to being priested. An academic in an inner city parish, she puts aside Rahner on concelebration or Mowinckel on the psalms to ride her sturdy bicycle through the litter strewn streets in search of pastoral adventure or forensic titillation. Her relationship with Geoffrey, the lanky celebrate redhead with whom she shares a parish and a run down rectory, is genial and sexually uncomplicated. In between deliciously observed passages of urban desolation Greenwood’s acid pen attacks all forms of liberal cant and trendiness with something more sinister than vigour.
Will there ever, one wonders, be an earnest evangelical detective (`Lord we just want to offer this mystery up to you?’); one whose neat solutions to intractable problems come with their own neat biblical tracts? Until that happy day (when, in caring prose, some former principal of the London College of Divinity can be induced to delineate for us the Wallace Benn of crime), what the C. of E. needs to give its bookshelves ideological completeness is a roman a clef by someone who resigned under the Women Priests Measure. I think I have both the plot and the author.
Ten or fifteen years hence, two aged Romish reactionaries (William Oddie and Anne Widdecombe, in very thin disguise?) assassinate the dapper but fickle Archbishop of Canterbury (David Stancliffe?) together with the reigning monarch and his fifth wife, secure the succession of a direct descendant of Henry, Cardinal York and live happily ever after. And the author? Brian Brindley, of course, if Damian Thompson will ever let him off the treadmill of reviewing for the Catholic Herald.
Geoffrey Kirk is Vicar of St. Stephen’s Lewisham, in the diocese of Southwark