until 23 September – free
This is a major exhibition and of direct interest to ND readers – the textual transmission of the sacred texts of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Since book pages, even when beautifully transcribed and illuminated, are not the most striking of exhibits, there is much extraneous decoration and didacticism: ignore what irritates and enjoy the serendipitous, such the exquisite English chalice of c. 1200, or the thirteenth century Sabbath spice box.
The purpose of the exhibition is to show the common, shared elements of the three book-based faiths. There is little doubt it overdoes this element, even trivializing the nature of scriptural scholarship in order to achieve this, but the purpose is utterly worthy and very twenty-first century, so do not rise to the bait. And enjoy the foreign-ness of these texts; Arabic, Hebrew, Greek and Latin, few visitors will understand any of them. With the content unknown, the form can be more fully appreciated.
It seemed abundantly clear that the parallels between the Jewish and Christian traditions of calligraphy are strong, with influences both ways. However, if we had been presented with just these two, it would have revealed all too clearly that the times when the two religious cultures converged most in Europe (and when the parallels were strongest) were only in the times of tolerance, cut short by periods of persecution. The addition of Islam, during the centuries when it was the most powerful of the three, helps the balance, but diffuses the unity.
We all know the medieval European tradition of illuminated manuscripts; this has perhaps distracted us from the seriousness of the scribal transmission. The level of scrupulous scholarship in some of the displayed texts was humbling. Would that our own generation were as careful with the very words of holy Scripture. A whole exhibition could have been made simply to reveal this simple truth.
My favourite exhibit is a book of the Psalms, in parallel texts of Greek, Latin and Arabic, for liturgical use in the Kingdom of Sicily of the twelfth century, a striking example of multi-cultural-ism within a single religious tradition. The prize, however, for the finest calligraphy must surely go to the Jews of fifteen century Portugal – breathtaking.
Of course there is more one could wish for, but this is a fine sample from three traditions, imaginatively presented, and offering what is probably the broadest collection of sacred manuscripts you are ever likely to see. The accompanying catalogue, Sacred – books of the three faiths: Judaism, Christianity, Islam is priced at £14-95 in paperback.
BACCHUS ET ARIANE; SYMPHONY NO. 3
Royal Scottish National Orchestra Stephane Deneve Naxos 8.570245, £5-99
At last – a bargain price recording of two outstanding works by the most scandalously neglected major French composer of the twentieth century. The sound quality is magnificent, and the RSNO under Stephane Deneve displays exactly the qualities which this music needs – energy, precision and warmth.
The problem which Albert Roussel (1869-1937) has always faced is that he is impossible to pigeonhole. He was an adherent of no musical school, and did not found one. He laboured tirelessly to achieve his personal style, and in his mature work he created a sound world which is like that of no other composer. Francis Poulenc, whose musical aesthetic was very different from Rousseis, accurately described the harmonic sense of the older man as halfway between harmony and counterpoint. The listener coming fresh to Rous-sel’s music may need to grow accustomed to his style, but the rewards outweigh any necessary effort.
Roussel was a late starter. Like Rimsky-Korsakov, he began adult life in the navy. At twenty-nine he embarked on serious musical study with Vincent dTndy (another composer whose best work deserves an airing which it rarely receives in this country), who imparted to him a rock solid grounding in theory and technique. His early compositions show the Impressionistic influence of Debussy, but he quickly realized that for him this was a dead end. There followed a period in which he felt his way toward the mature idiom which marks the music written in the last twelve years of his life. Here the lucidity characteristic of so much French music is merged with an earlier Classical style, and also with the successfully absorbed influence of Stravinsky, to produce the unmistakeable Roussel characteristics. He was prepared to make effective use of modernisms such as Bito-nality (writing in two different keys at once), but all is firmly rooted in tradition. The works recorded here were written in quick succession. The Third Symphony, commissioned by the Boston Symphony Orchestra, was a triumph for the composer on its first performance in 1930. That same year he commenced writing the ballet Bacchus et Ariane, premiered in 1931. As maybe expected, they have in common many features associated with themature Roussel. They are propelled along by driving rhythmic energy (compare the pounding motif which begins the symphony with the springing chords which start the ballet), which is balanced by tranquil episodes of hauntingly individual harmony. Roussel’s writing for the orchestra is utterly his own – glittering, but also sensuous and richly coloured, providing a share of good things for all the players. (It is instructive to compare the Bacchanal which ends Bacchus et Ariane with that which completes Ravels earlier ballet, Daphnis and Chloe. Ravels is a dance with a truly erotic feeling, portrayed in orchestral writing of almost superhuman skill. Roussels Bacchanal is no less vibrant, but has an earthier quality, and his scoring for the orchestra has a more incisive, clear-cut quality.) If you are coming to Roussels music for the first time, try the captivating third movement of the Symphony and then the complete work. Of the two suites which make up the ballet, begin with the second, which opens with a beguiling depiction of Ariadne asleep. The first part of the ballet is more demanding on the listener.
What a wealth of music by Roussel waits to be discovered afresh – including his ballet, The Spider’s Banquet, his Hindu inspired opera-ballet, Padmavati, his setting of Psalm 80 (where he used an English text, hoping to provide a new work for the British choral societies he greatly admired), as well as his three other symphonies and his chamber music. And I am entering a personal plea that Naxos and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra will now give us a recording of the outstanding masterpiece of his last years, the glorious three-movement orchestral Suite in F, a work which is the friendliest possible introduction to Roussel at the pinnacle of his powers.
By all accounts, Roussel’s music is an accurate portrait of its composer – sophisticated and witty, yet also generous and reflective. When he achieved success, he did all he could to assist younger musicians. In a profession which can be pretty bitchy, he achieved the distinction of making no enemies and of earning the respect and affection of his peers. His music is the work of a great lover of life – and it shows.
Barry A. Orford
THE NOBLE REVOLT
The Overthrow of Charles I John Adamson
Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 576pp, hbk 978 029784262 0, £25
John Adamson is a Fellow in History at Peterhouse, Cambridge. He has written a weighty and heavy book, both literally (519 pages of text, 196 pages of notes and tables) and metaphorically in the scope and nature of his argument. The thrust of the work is signalled clearly in the title. Dr Adamson sees the decline and fall of King Charles I as a result of an aristocratic revolt and he deploys a wealth of evidence to sustain his case. His study is narrowly focused on the period between the beginning of war with Scotland (May 1640) to the Kings flight from his capital to raise his standard in Nottingham (January 1642) and it is replete with detail, almost the day by day, hour by hour twists and turns of political fortunes. It is sometimes dizzying but rarely dull.
When I read for my degree in history, a period so long ago that it is now on the syllabus of schools today, what exercised us about the causes of the English Civil War was the question of the rise (or not) of the gentry. If this now seems an arcane debate, it seemed little different then. A stodgy sociological sort of argument at least generated some elegant and bilious prose from Hugh Trevor-Roper, a magisterial demolition job from J.H. Hexter and some fine writing from R.H. Tawney.
When, some few years later, I taught seventeenth-century English Political History, the caravan had moved on and we were in the midst of the revisionism most associated with the name of Conrad Russell, to whom Dr Adamson pays a warm tribute but from whose analysis he demurs. It was an exciting time and stimulating argument. I can remember reading the introduction to one revisionist book and altering substantially the lesson I was to teach the following day. Arguments and counter-arguments came thick and fast and what emerged was the sense that the English Civil War was a war of religion not unlike similar continental conflicts. Only last year, the historian David Cressey said that the Civil War was a conflict between episcopacy and presbyterianism. It is this conclusion with which I still have sympathy and it will need something seismic to shift me.
After I retired from the academic fray and read more for enjoyment and personal rather than professional profit, other studies seemed more like variations on an agreed theme. Some provided a European dimension; others saw it as a rebellion of the three kingdoms of England, Scotland and Ireland. Interpretations may have differed but most historians were agreed on two things: that the Civil War was not inevitable; its causes were to be found in the detail, in the flawed actions of human beings, in the changes and chances of a transient polity: and that the Marxist analysis was clapped-out, irrelevant and false to the nature of historical reality. The contingency of human actions, the uncertainty of their outcome, is recurrent in Dr Adamson’s account here. His dramatis personae populate an almanac of the great men and the important families of early Stuart England. It proves to be a dynamic caste, not a moribund, fading elite but engaged in the religious and political conflict of the times. A disaffected coterie of puritan aristocrats (not all the nobility were cavaliers) coalesced around the Earl of Warwick (who emerges here as something of a ‘king un-maker’). Dissatisfaction with the Kings personal rule seems uppermost in their opposition and they moved to occupy offices and places where they sought to undercut the kings absolutist tendencies.
Dr Adamson is strongly persuasive in his account of how politics actually works; how the personal relationships, alliances and animosities colour choices; how the word in an ear may be worth more than a barn-storming speech. Here, so vividly portrayed, is the reality of power in action, the rapidly shifting sands of realpolitik. He does not accord religion the primacy it has so recently held in Civil War studies. Perhaps he undervalues how much religious allegiance shapes political opinion and discourse at the time: how it can sharpen political perception, or provide a moral framework and purpose to an ostensibly secular or mundane issue of political behaviour.
There are some marvellous set-pieces, not least the material on the Earl of Stafford, Thomas Wentworth, an insolent giant among pygmies but brought down by the ruthless machinations of fellow members of his aristocratic caste and the contemptible weakness of the King, redeemed only on the scaffold. Had Charles not given in, had Wentworth not submitted to his fate with such loyalty and honour, the outcome for Charles and for the country could have been so different.
During the period which Dr Adamson so splendidly inhabits and details, no one foresaw the outcome as the execution of the King, nor necessarily armed conflict; the unthinkable was not thinkable until it happened and that outcome was far from inevitable. Charles’ martyrdom was not written in the stars but was played out in the turmoil of escalating fears and anxieties. Ironically, an aristocratic revolt threw up Oliver Cromwell, rather more middling than aristocratic. His emergence moves onto a different plane. But that is to take us beyond the scope of this study. This book is so good and so enjoyable, beautifully and pungently written, that it is to be hoped that Dr Adamson will produce another volume taking his story further along the road.
IN SEARCH OF THE LOST
The death and life of seven peacemakers of the Melanesian Brotherhood Richard Carter Canterbury, 120pp, pbk 978 185311780 0, £12-99
In 2003 seven brethren of the largest order of consecrated/ religious brethren in the Anglican communion were murdered. The country in which the order has taken root is the Solomon Islands; it has suffered since 1999 from ethnic conflict and the consequences of poor resources and meagre politics. In this book their then chaplain Fr Richard Carter (now at St Martin in the Fields in London) offers us an introduction to the brotherhood and the Solomon Islands, and his diary of the events before and after the murders, committed at the behest of the leader of one of the two militant groups, Harold Keke (‘a psychopath’), in a time of mayhem, in a fragile country (‘a failed state’, in the view of some Austral-
ians) in which these unfortunate lovers of Christ were not the only ones to be tortured and killed.
The account of the martyrdom is placed between an introduction to the story of Melanesia when the missionaries came (including the murder of Patteson and his companions) and the origins of the Melanesian brotherhood, through the work of Ini Kopuria (ob. 1945). Fr Richard interweaves his own call to the brotherhood and his reasons are reflected in his diary of events, which is the heart of this work. For the diary alone, this work needs to be read.
The account of the role of the brotherhood in preventing the conflict (between incomers and settlers from Malaita and those on Guadalcanal) descending into outright civil war is the prelude to the conflict which went on after the peace deal of 2000, a deal inadequately resourced and policed.
Ini Kopuria (commemorated in the Common Worship calendar on 6 June) had the genius to recognize deep structures of aspiration and separation in the customs of the Melanesians and relate them to the vowed life, and the result was that great rarity, a truly indigenous, missionary order, in one of the poorest countries going.
The culture of the islands is very different from that of the west; it has certainly not been much respected at times. I remember a lecture at the College of the Resurrection in its Catholic days, on the importance of inspecting culture; the Melanesian brother who was with us, beamed and announced, When the first came, they did not respect our culture and so… we ate them!’ The Melanesian brethren have evangelized much of their own country and continue this work; they do not tend to take vows for life and yet despite the trials of the Japanese occupation, they were reformed and have flourished; they have been active in PNG, Vanuatu, in Fiji and in New Zealand, the Torres Straits and also this country (there is a wonderful account of the visit to England in 2005).
The testimony of this remarkable order is made almost tangible by the reports of this book. There is a brief account of the brothers, none the worse for the inevitable idealization of the memorial notice, and the criticisms made of the attempts of the bretheren to treat with Keke (they were getting ideas above themselves, they were foolish and irresponsible) are handled with sensitivity and some passion (and I think effectively).
There seems throughout Fr Richard’s tale a pattern of inspiration and self-sacrifice, toghether with great suffering – in Patteson, in Ini Kopuria, and then in the Brotherhood and their seven Tost’ brethren: Nathaniel Sado, Robin Lindsay (from PNG), Francis Tori, Alfred Hill, Ini Parats-batu, Patteson Gatu and Tony Sirhi) and the uncertain patterns of return and learning through such suffering. In the face of violence, fear and brutality, they ‘knew that there is a better way… Oh how much the worldwide Anglican Church could learn from their witness! And when such real-life issues are so much at stake in our world, is not this what the Gospel should be like?'[p. 159]
Hagiography is not popular and is associated with falsity and not being true to life. This is, however, the real witness to holy lives, to expressions of a life configured to the Eucharist in the midst of the sin, and its remedy, love and courage, faith in the Gospel. The story poses many sharp questions to westerners, too inclined to make the simplicity of the faith into a series of problems. As for those other religious martyrs of our times, Christian de Cherge and his companions killed in Algeria (d. 1996), to love and to follow Christ is not a complicated matter, howsoever riven and reduced by hate the life of the human family may be.
The purpose of this community is, as for Roger of Taize ‘to create possibilities in the human family to widen, a phrase to which Fr Richard often returns. The family has been widended and the cloud of witnesses shines brighter: may the gracious acceptance of their witness be for Christ’s protection of the Christians in Melanesia and may they pray for us!
Thomas Seville cr
DISCOVERING PRAYER WITH THE CHURCH
Tufton Books, 424pp, hbk 0 85191 056 4, £22
This is a big book with a simple aim. It is the fruit of a heroic amount of work. The attention to detail never wavers and the quality of the text never falls below the highest possible standards of style and content. It is the work of a man possessed (or rather, inspired). The aim is to provide within one cover everything required to pray a simple office every day of the year. It starts from the assumption that most people find this hard to do. There is, in its design, a good understanding of what prevents people from praying in this way. Firstly, its instructions are simple. Secondly, there is a judicious use of language to overcome sticking points in what is now a veritable minefield. Thirdly, there is flexibility borne of realistic expectations.
The bulk of the book provides a page for each day of the year. This page has a psalm, a Scripture reading and a prayer. Fr Pitchford suggests that beginners should use only the psalm and the prayer for at least three months before adding any further elements.
To this can be added a further two pages. One page (at the front of the book) could be a seasonal invitatory; the second page (at the back of the book) an appropriate canticle. In either a one-, two- or three-page office, there is an invitation to intercessory prayer that can be based on a thirty-day calendar which is also provided. That’s it. I know it works because I used it during Easter!
Undergirding it all is the ecumenical principle. It uses material drawn from Roman Catholic and Anglican sources; for example, the psalms are from the Grail Psalter but the Bible texts are from the RSV. The calendar includes both Roman and Anglican observations.
Fr Pitchford deserves unbridled thanks for providing such a useful prayer book. Time will tell if it meets his avowed aim to introduce more people to the ongoing prayer of the universal Church. This aim will only be met if it is put into the hands of people who would use it. It deserves to be widely known by priests and ministers of all traditions, and it should be readily available on parish bookstalls and in libraries. It is a big book and it is quite expensive, but at less than fifty pence a week or seven pence a day, it is small price to pay for such an eminently useful and often beautiful book of prayer.
SIGNS OF PEACE
The interfaith letters of Thomas Merton William Apel Orbis, 202pp, pbk 978 157075681 8, £10-99
Thomas Merton [1915-68] is said to have had a God-given gift of seeing essentials. The story of this remarkable monk is one of three conversions – to Catholicism, to Humanity and to the need for Interfaith understanding. In this book William Apel illuminates the latest and most controversial of Merton’s conversions through his correspondence with Muslim, Jewish, Hindu and Buddhist friends in the last decade of his life.
The early Merton blazes the truth of Christianity in a somewhat exclusive form. The middle Merton is humanitarian, lit up by the excitement of discovering what it means to belong to a race in which God became incarnate. Hence the famous saying of Merton that the closer the contemplative is to God the closer he is to other men and women. The late Merton has a generosity towards other faith traditions that anticipates the dialogues now springing up forty years after his death.
In the book title Signs of Peace Apel highlights Merton’s description of a sacramental ministry he felt called to as one of those deeply rooted in a monastic tradition who dared to be a pioneer in outlining what spiritual unity can be discerned across religions. His grasp of the hidden ground of love (title of one of his many books) seems to be the motivation, or rather his being grasped by the same transcendent inspiration. Transcendence remained for Merton as a bone of contention in his dialogue with Zen Buddhists much as he appears to have imbibed Zen’s vision for an intrinsic unity of humanity.
It is this perceived syncretism that is a stumbling block for many in the later writings of Merton here assembled. Apel helpfully draws out Merton’s conviction that the true meeting place for interfaith encounters is in the depth of religious experience and not in religious doctrine. Merton’s humility before other faith traditions is certainly grounded in a commitment to truth. He is so sure of his Christian ground, lacking the need to defend his own position and tradition, that he risks misinterpretation as a syncretist.
Apel comes to his rescue in a section on how Merton’s disdain for proselytizing is a disdain for those religious enthusiasts who selfishly want to make others over into themselves. In one passage Merton praises a Christian teacher who, even if the church were empty, says he would preach the sermon to the four walls because he had to. To herald truth is pivotal and stands on
higher moral ground than aiming at conversion to ones own allegiance.
This is a troubling book for Christian mission. It is so positively because of its spur to deep dialogue respecting humanity in which evangelists often fall short. It is so negatively because of its implied challenge to Christian basics in the revealed sinfulness of humanity and the need for redemptive action in Christ. These fundamentals seem to be challenged by Merton’s later thinking which has an unbiblical optimism about inter-faith dialogue uncovering a spiritual unity attainable without repentance, belief in what Christ has done or a welcoming of the Holy Spirit.
John F Twisleton
A COMPOSER AND HIS TIMES
Boydell Press, 616pp,hbk 978 184383209 6, £29-95
When reviewing recently a recording of Arnold Bax’s violin sonatas, I remarked that a new edition of Lewis Foreman’s biography of the composer would shortly be available. Now it is here. It is large, it is expensive, and it is worth every penny to have a book of such quality both in the writing and in its production.
When Foreman’s biography of Bax first appeared in 1983, it was recognized at once as the definitive work on a composer who was beginning to emerge from the neglect into which he had sunk following his death. Twenty-four years later, not only is Bax’s music readily available in recordings, thanks to the efforts of conductors such as Bryden Thomson, David Lloyd-Jones and Vernon Handley, but Foreman is able to update his book, making use of material not previously available to researchers – of which more in a moment.
In my previous review, I remarked that although Bax achieved the eminence of Knighthood and the post of Master of the King’s Music, rarely has the cloak of official respectability hung from such unlikely shoulders. Behind the diffident public appearance lay a most unconventional man, a man of powerful passions, ‘a brazen Romantic’ as he described himself. He came from a wealthy middle-class family and appeared the average Englishman (even to a liking for cricket); but an early encounter with the poetry of W.B. Yeats acted like an explosion in him to liberate a wholly different part of his complex personality.
From the moment he read Yeats, he said, the Celt in him stood revealed – despite the fact that there was no obvious strain of the Celtic in the Bax family. Things Celtic, and especially things Irish, set loose his emotions and his imagination. Irish themes inspired much of his music. He visited Ireland frequently, learned Irish, and wrote creditable poetry, stories and plays published under the name of Dermot O’Byrne. He mingled with great figures in the remarkable Irish literary world of the early twentieth century. The names of Yeats, JE (George Russell), Maude Gonne and others rub shoulders with his during those years.
One Celtic characteristic was very much a feature of Bax’s personality – that of the man compelled to be a wanderer. There was a restlessness in him which made him disinclined to put down roots in any one place, either geographically or emotionally. It was characteristic that in his later years, although possessing a comfortable private income and easily able to afford a home of his own, he chose to live in a room above the bar of an inn at Storrington. The nearest he came to a conventional lifestyle was in his marriage in 1911, but his temperament made the enduring success of that venture almost impossible. Only three years later he met the young pianist Harriet Cohen, for whom he eventually left his wife and two children. She played a part in his life ever after, even when the first passion of their affair had cooled.
For this new edition of his book Mr Foreman has had access to Harriet Cohen’s papers, containing many letters of Bax to her from which he quotes discriminatingly. Their uninhibited sensuality is an indication of the quality of their relationship. Despite this, in 1926 he met another young woman, Mary Cleaves, who was to become the most stable partner of his life. Yet in neither case did he consider marriage, even after his estranged wife’s death. Cohen was unaware of Cleaves’ existence until 1948.
It was an extraordinary situation, well summed-up by Lewis Foreman, who says that in his relationships with women Bax needed ‘someone who would be willing to assume the function of an emotional sheet-anchor without overtly attempting to influence his life or music, or make extravagant demands on him, once the initial passion had passed.’ The consequence was that while to his friends Bax remained a delightful companion, generous and witty, his life was lived increasingly in separate compartments which did not communicate. The excellent photographs in this book reveal the toll taken on him by his emotional complications and creative drive. The young man of almost Byronic good looks was prematurely aged by his late fifties.
This is the background to Bax’s highly individual music. Mr Foreman places the compositions carefully in the story of Bax’s life, discussing and evaluating them discerningly and with many musical examples, yet in a way which will be illuminating to the reader who is not a technically equipped musician.
How fitting that it was in Ireland that Bax died without warning in 1953 and is buried there. Or was it without warning? Four days previously he heard his own music for the last time in a performance of his tone poem The Garden ofFand, whose opening, he said, evoked ‘the atmosphere of an enchanted Atlantic completely calm beneath the spell of the Other World.’ Only hours before his death, he stood on the Irish coast lost in contemplation of a glorious sunset over the Atlantic. Those of us with Celtic blood will have no difficulty in seeing more than a coincidence in those things.
Barry A. Orford
QUANTUM PHYSICS & THEOLOGY
SPCK, 112pp,pbk 978 028105767 2, £9-99
Some things in life cannot be tied down rationally. God is one such thing, and so is much of quantum physics. In a digestible hundred pages, John Polkinghorne ponders similarities in the truth-seeking of theologians and quantum physicists. Contrary to popular perception, the revelation of truth in physics relies on the subjective imagination of the scientist as well as the objective truth awaiting discovery. Similarly, theological pursuit of truth, especially in Christianity, relies on stubborn historical research as well as philosophical speculation.
Most useful in this book are summary presentations of the truth of the resurrection, the divinity of Christ and the Trinity, made by a clear mind, well formed in Christian faith over many years.
There are analogies such as the elements of surprise in both fields. Superconductivity in metals at low temperatures breaks Ohms law of electrical resistance as surely as Christ’s resurrection breaks the universal law of mortality. The moral in truth-seeking is a healthy distrust of the popular axiom that what usually happens is what always happens.
Polkinghorne is good at presenting the boundaries of scientific and theological explanation. Apophatic theology, which witnesses God’s otherness, qualifies one pursuit of truth as surely as Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle limits the other.
On Christian basics Polkinghorne is clear and sure: ‘Only an understanding of Jesus that sees in him not only full humanity, but also the fullness of the divine life itself, offers a prospect of meeting adequately the demands made by the New Testament witness to him.’
In his summary of evidence for Christ’s resurrection, he notes the enigmatic rather than triumphalist tone of the Easter accounts, how in any made-up tale the difficulty about recognizing Jesus would not have emerged, and also the remarkable role of women as witnesses that would not have served credibility in a constructed tale.
Polkinghorne’s defence of Christ’s divinity beyond the evidencing of the resurrection draws on synoptic gospel texts, including the words of institution at the Eucharist, which he says ‘are either extraordinarily self-centred, or they are the truth of the matter.’ He also marshals Bishop John Robinson’s observation that the gospels ascribe to Jesus no consciousness of sin or guilt.
The book concludes by linking quantum physics’ search for integration through so-called super string theory to Trinitarian theology, leaving the reader wiser about physics, theology and the process of engaging human imagination with experienced reality.
John F Twisleton
A GRAIN OF MUSTARD SEED
The Watch House, 10 Giltspur Street, London EC1A 9DE 272pp, hbk
978 095471573 1, £15
Priests who write novels tend, in the first instance, to write about churchy things, and, more particularly, about priests. R.H. Benson did it, Ronald Knox did not, Cardinals Wiseman and Newman both did it (and who could resist the deathless prose of the latter’s Callista, including such gems as ‘By Astarte! He’s one of those sly Gnostics!’?), and Peter Mullen has done it, too. Write what you know, they say. Fr Mullen is a City Rector, and Chaplain to many venerable bodies; his protagonist, Fr Merrick, is a City Rector and Chaplain to a livery company. Fr Merrick has strong views about today’s Church, and keen readers of this quality publication will recall that Fr Mullen is far from being backwards about coming forwards.
This matters not a jot, however. Most of us pay no heed to how much or how little of the lineaments of an author’s life can be traced in his fiction; what matters is that the story is compelling. WE. Johns had served in the Royal Flying Corps, but Dorothy L. Sayers (as far as is known) never murdered anyone. The result (and I must add now that have never had the fortune to meet Fr Mullen, though I have admired his tailcoat via the internet) is a pugnacious, opinionated, passionate, angry priest who drinks and smokes too much.
Fr Tom Merrick is to be part of a documentary on The Church and Society, and the nubile Camilla Brocklebank is the researcher detailed to follow him about. Single, frustrated Tom (a man with, as the song goes, ‘all my life to live’ and ‘all my love to give’) soon falls for his gorgeous, pouting Boswell. Matters are complicated for Fr Merrick by his friendship and pastoral relationship with a young girl who is terminally ill: his commitment to her spiritual well-being is absolute. He administers Extreme Unction, and it is at this point that the story is elevated from the observation of a diverting set of London characters (and a few stereotypes, especially those who work in ‘The Meeja’). This is the moment at which the narrative becomes dependent upon Merrick’s Catholic priesthood.
Previously, there have been some nice jokes, and Merrick’s temper, brooding, and love of music and literature seems at times to combine Inspector Morse with RD. James’ Adam Dalgliesh (especially given the latter creation’s churchy background). Anyone could make those sorts of observations, one thinks. The discussion of theology, which weaves in and out of the story like the twisting clouds of cigarette smoke, could be done as well as it is by quite a few writers. Yet from now, it would take a priest-character to say, do and think these things, and, one suspects, it would take a priest-novelist to write them. It is a compliment, not a contradiction, to note both that this fine book was, surprisingly enough, written by a priest, and that only a priest could have written this fine book.
Empty Tabernacles reviewed in the last issue costs £12 and is obtainable from 24 Cloudesley Square, London N1 0HN.