‘AFTER PETER COOK had drunk himself to death in 1995, Alan Bennett gave the address at his memorial service at Hampstead Parish Church, describing him as ‘a figure from the Parables, a publican, a sinner, but never a Pharisee’. So in a way, the story of satire in the 1960s ends, as it began, with Bennett giving a sermon: this time a real one’.
Thus my old college friend Humphrey Carpenter ends his new book ‘That Was The Satire That Was’. [Victor Gollancz, £20, ISBN 0575 065885]
Who can forget that sermon in Beyond the Fringe – the honed-down epitome of countless ‘sermons’ Bennett had preached in half-drunken gatherings in Junior Common Rooms in virtually every college of the University? Everyone who heard it was convinced that they had once attended a performance, at some back street confirmation, by the very bishop on whom it had been based. (Just as I was convinced, on first seeing ‘A Private Function’, that both Bennett and Maggie Smith must have had personal acquaintance with my Aunt Emma).
But are sermons the stuff of which satire can now be made?
Wags in the 80s looked back on the 60s and concluded that the ‘sermon’ must have been based on one Eric Kemp [Tutor and Chaplain of Exeter Coll., Oxon. 45-69]. But that was after Kemp had gone to Chichester [’74], and it was hotly denied by Bennett.
No. The point was that the people who crowded the Fortune Theatre in 1961 had been fairly regularly exposed to sermons – they knew the genre. John Greaves, later a senior officer in the Metropolitan Police, and I were the unpardonably raucous sixteen year-olds on the back seats on the second night.
Carpenter’s conclusion – and the vivid remembrance of Bennett’s ‘sermon’ (I can still quote most of it by heart!) – set me thinking. I knew the genre, certainly; but from whom and by whom? Who were the preachers who had stirred or inspired me?
Well, Austin Farrer, obviously. I sat through most of ‘Said or Sung’ and all but a few bits of Leslie Houlden’s omnibus selection. Why have so many of Austin’s pupils turned heretic, I feel constrained to ask – Goulder and Houlden chief among them? There is an article there!
Then, a little unexpectedly, I retrieved from my memory a deeply significant Holy Week at St Wilfrid’s, Harrogate (may it never fall to Affirming Catholicism!) superbly preached by Fenton Morley – then, I think, Vicar of Leeds.
And, nearer reality and now: Michael Marshall and Lindsay Urwin. Neither, I have to say, is ‘my taste’; and on days when I have wholly forsaken my commitment to be challenged by different and lively presentations of the eternal gospel, I run a mile from both of them. But they are fun and powerful and true.
But, you will say, I have lived a sheltered life. I have heard the best. And, on the whole I think I have – though I should have mentioned Richard Chartres.
Sermons have played an important part in my life, and still do. For years I listened to two a week. Now I write the same. And I am still fascinated by the struggle to get them right – the right combination of information, exhortation and personal encounter.
I like to think of Bennett in the Yorkshire churches of his youth (the dioceses of Bradford and Ripon, I suppose) listening with a discerning ear, catching the habits of mind and idiosyncratic intonations of some elderly bishop of Knaresborough (was de Candole a likelier candidate than Kemp, I wonder?) and turning it into the satire that was to entertain the clientele of 18 Greek Street. And then, in earnest, putting his hand to the genre himself – elegantly managing, for a friend, to epitomise what every sermon ideally should contain: a sense of ‘glory under your feet’ [Michael Marshall], of ‘beauty in unexpected places’ [(G.K. Chesterton].
Once a sermonizer always a sermonizer; or so it seems.
I have long been an admirer of A.N. Wilson – from his satirical journalism (surely the best thing since Michael Frayn’s unmissable column in The Guardian) to the thoughtful books about religion which define a position (on the wistful edge of unbelief) in which many intelligent people now find themselves, with the onset of middle age.
Imagine then, my delight, at the funeral of my old friend Jennifer Patterson (one fat, vivacious lady!), to hear a ‘sermon’ from him.
The Mass at the Brompton Oratory was solemn, Latin, and conducted in a manner slightly Lefevriste. The music comprised vocal gems from Western culture and the ceremony was performed with military precision by young men (one could not resist the speculation that they were all ex-Anglicans) who had apparently, from their hair-cuts, spent some time in the Waffen-SS.
Then came Wilson. He was by turns amusing, flirtatious and moving. And he talked about the things of God with a sure touch – as though he believed them with the unshakeable conviction of Jennifer herself.
I would not, on that showing, be at all surprised if Wilson does not end up, after all the fireworks, a convinced uncomplicated Catholic. A few more sermons like that, and he will have talked himself into it. And Bennett? He has already turned himself, tweeds and all, into the ultimate Anglican talking-head – the Liberal Vicar with Perpetual Reservations.
The worry, as congregations dwindle, is about the next generation, for whom sermons will be the food neither of satire nor salvation – because they will never have heard one.
Could Ian Hislop be the last of the Mohicans?
Geoffrey Kirk is Vicar of St Stephen’s, Lewisham in the diocese of Southwark.