‘The swinging Dean peps up the Psalms’: Walter Hussey and Leonard Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms

[An edited extract from my recent book on Walter Hussey, Anglican patron of the arts.]

Walter Hussey is chiefly known for an extraordinary sequence of commissions of contemporary art and music, firstly for St Matthew’s church Northampton from 1943 and, between 1955 and 1977, for Chichester Cathedral of which he was Dean. Henry Moore, Graham Sutherland, W.H. Auden, Benjamin Britten, Lennox Berkeley, Gerald Finzi, Michael Tippett all produced work for Northampton in the space of four astonishing years; in Chichester, there was John Piper, Sutherland again, Marc Chagall, William Walton, and Lennox Berkeley again, to name only a few.

What motivated Hussey to do this? Although he had few practical examples to follow in the 1940s, he was not without intellectual backing. ‘The general notion among pious folk in the nineteenth century’ wrote the Anglican priest Percy Dearmer in 1924 ‘was that art was rather wrong, while the poets and artists of Europe generally considered that religion was rather stupid.’ However, now, he thought, ‘ we are discovering that in [the arts] we touch the eternal world – that art is in fact religious. The object of art is not to give pleasure, as our fathers assumed, but to express the highest spiritual realities. Art is not only delightful: it is necessary.’

Hussey in his study in the early 1970s. Image copyright Sussex Life, all rights reserved.

Hussey’s career is a case-study in the practical working-out of these assumptions of the catholic wing of the Church of England about the nature of the arts and their relationship with the church.

Hussey himself argued that a piece of religious art had two purposes: Firstly, ‘it should convey to those who see it some aspect of the Christian truth.’: the artist ‘may, by forcing us to share his vision, lead us to the spiritual reality that lies behind the sounds and sights that we perceive with our senses.’ As well as conveying truth, for Hussey the work itself was an offering, as was the effort of the artist in making it. The work of art ‘should adorn God’s House with as worthy an offering of man’s creative spirit as can be managed’. Whatever pleasures the artist gained from their work, ‘whether he is entirely conscious of it or not, [he does it] because it is an act of worship which he must make.’

What did the patron owe the artist? ‘He must try to understand the artist’s point of view, always expressing his thought honestly, but at the same time willing to learn and to trust the artist.’ For there to be that trust, was it necessary that the artist be a Christian believer? The logical conclusion of Hussey’s view of the work of art itself – that the making of art was intrinsically religious – suggested not. What was required from the artist was not belief, but ‘real sympathy with the work [and] an ability and willingness to understand from the inside.’

Why Bernstein?
Hussey’s patronage was marked by a mixture of daring – a simple inability to know his place as a provincial parish priest – and a certain naivety as to the ways in which artists and composers were accustomed to working. The Chichester Psalms are a fine example, since it was (on the face of it) rather improbable that a figure such as Bernstein could be persuaded to write for Chichester, particularly for the size of fee available. US-based and infrequently in the UK, with little record in religious music, and a rich man by virtue of the success of West Side Story, Bernstein was an unlikely choice.

New in the early 1960s was the annual Southern Cathedrals Festival. In many ways similar to the more famous Three Choirs Festival, the event had been revived in 1960 by Hussey and the cathedral organist John Birch, in partnership with their counterparts at Salisbury and Winchester. The Three Choirs festival had a long history of commissioning new pieces of music, by Elgar, Vaughan Williams and many others. In this light, Hussey and Birch were in 1963 looking for a name to approach.

Bernstein’s musical West Side Story had first been performed in the UK in 1958, and proved so popular that it ran at Her Majesty’s Theatre in London until the summer of 1961. One of Birch’s teaching colleagues at the Royal College of Music sat in the orchestra pit for several successive performances during a later tour, so taken was he with Bernstein’s music. Not only did the work have popular appeal. For Birch it seemed ‘suddenly that here was the last opera that Puccini hadn’t written – it seemed a natural progression straight through.’

In the UK, only recently emerged from post-war austerity, Bernstein the wealthy and flamboyant conductor from New York had star quality. Hussey had the opportunity to see something of the star in his home environment. A year or two earlier Hussey had attended a New York Philharmonic rehearsal and was briefly introduced to the maestro at the podium. Nothing followed from this initial meeting until late 1963 when Hussey and Birch fell to thinking about the 1965 festival. Birch thought a piece ‘in a slightly popular style’ (Hussey’s words) would be appropriate, but their accounts differ as to who first thought of Bernstein.

Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic during a rehearsal for TV, 1958. Image by Bert Biall, via Wikimedia Commons, CC-BY-SA 2.5

Birch recalled that Hussey thought Bernstein too busy and that he would never accept. In this Hussey was realistic. Bernstein was firmly established as one of America’s foremost conductors, both with the enormous success of West Side Story, and in his more ‘serious’ compositions. However, so occupied was he with conducting that he had completed only one composition since 1957, and had no established body of religious music behind him of which Hussey was likely to be aware. He was also a Jew.

Apparently prevailed upon by Birch to try, against the odds, Hussey wrote to Bernstein in December 1963, outlining the nature of the event and the composition of the three choirs. The festival was ‘concerned to a great extent with the wealth of music written for such choirs over the centuries’, he wrote, ‘but I am most anxious that this should not be regarded as a tradition which has finished, and that we should be very much concerned with music written today.’ The suggestion for a text was the second Psalm, either unaccompanied or with orchestra or organ. There would be a fee, ‘to the best of our resources’.

The making of the Psalms
Bernstein replied almost immediately, in January 1964. Honoured by the invitation, he was interested in Psalm 2, although he wanted to remain free to set something else. Hussey wrote again in August with further details of the choirs, and of the available orchestra. Before this point in time, Bernstein had had little exposure to the English cathedral tradition, or to liturgical music in general. Despite this, Hussey was keen to stress that Bernstein should not feel hemmed in by the tradition. As well as maintaining the traditional repertoire, the Festival ‘must also provide new works in new idioms to keep the tradition really alive. I hope you will feel quite free to write as you wish and will in no way feel inhibited. I think many of us would be very delighted if there was a hint of West Side Story about the music.’ In a later letter he added that ‘The work would not be performed during any sort of religious service and I firmly believe that any work which is sincere can suitably be given in a cathedral and to the glory of God.’

By December, Hussey had heard nothing more directly from Bernstein since February, and was beginning to become anxious. Could Bernstein let him have at least a title and a description, he wrote? ‘I have a horrid fear that you will be regarding me as an arch nuisance’ he added, ‘but I am most eager that we should have the work ….. in time to learn and rehearse it properly before the Festival.’ February 1965 came and still no news; now the publicity could wait no longer, and Birch was pressing Hussey ‘constantly’ for the necessary information, so Hussey wrote once again.

This time Bernstein replied promptly, having found a solution. It is not clear whether Hussey ever knew it, but the Chichester Psalms were a means for Bernstein to salvage something from a sabbatical year from the New York Philharmonic that had gone wrong. Bernstein’s project for his sabbatical had been a musical version of Thornton Wilder’s play The Skin of Our Teeth, which was abandoned late in 1964. On 25 February Bernstein wrote to say that he had been on the verge of disappointing Hussey when ‘suddenly a conception occurred to me that I find exciting’: a suite of psalms, all in their original language: ‘I can think of these Psalms only in the original Hebrew’. Bernstein was able to describe the music for these ‘Psalms of Youth’ as ‘all very forthright, songful, rhythmic, youthful’, at least in part because much of it had already been written for The Skin of Our Teeth. All the basic melodic material was in fact derived from the musical, with Bernstein able to find Psalm texts to substitute for the musical’s libretto. By some remarkable coincidence Bernstein had also been able to reuse a chorus cut from West Side Story: a fight scene with the lyrics ‘Mix – make a mess of ’em! Make the sons of bitches pay’ became ‘Why do the nations so furiously rage together’ in the second movement. Hussey’s ‘touch of West Side Story’ was much more than he could have expected.

Having established with Hussey that there would be no ‘ecclesiastical’ objections to the use of Hebrew, Bernstein began work in earnest, and by early May the piece was finished, and the choral parts on their way. ‘I am pleased with the work’ Bernstein wrote, ‘and hope you will be, too; it is quite popular in feeling (even a hint, as you suggested, of West Side Story), and it has an old-fashioned sweetness along with its more violent moments.’ The ‘Psalms of Youth’ title had now been dropped – the piece was much too difficult, Bernstein thought, to be badged as a piece for young performers. Would Hussey object, he asked, if the piece was in given its first performance in New York a few weeks earlier than at Chichester? After some consultation with Birch, Hussey relented: he was pleased with the new name and (understanding something of the pressures under which a composer worked) wanted to keep Bernstein happy, particularly as the matter of the fee was yet to be settled.

First performance
The British premiere was given by the combined choirs of Chichester, Salisbury and Winchester cathedrals on July 31st 1965. ‘I cannot begin to tell you how grateful I am’ wrote Hussey: ‘We were all thrilled with them. I was specially excited that they came into being as a statement of praise that is oecumenical. I shall be terribly proud for them to go around the world bearing the name of Chichester.’ Roger Wilson, bishop of Chichester, found the Psalms a revelation; unsurprisingly so, as Bernstein’s psalms were far from the tradition of daily Anglican chanting of the Psalms. Wilson found them ‘joyous & ecstatic & calm & poetic’, a vision of David dancing before the Ark.

Bernstein also thought the performance had gone well, although not without alarm. The orchestra had only begun to rehearse on the day of the performance, perhaps due in part to the fact that their parts were still being copied, in New York, on 30 June. ‘The choirs were a delight!’ Bernstein wrote to his secretary. ‘They had everything down pat, but the orchestra was swimming in the open sea. They simply didn’t know it. But somehow the glorious acoustics of Chichester Cathedral cushion everything so that even mistakes sound pretty.’ Bernstein was heard to mutter at the end of the rehearsal ‘all we can do now is pray.’

It would also seem that Hussey remained in possession of Bernstein’s fee. The offer of payment had been made in the first approach to Bernstein, but an amount seems not to have been settled upon. Hussey enquired about the matter of Robert Lantz, one of Bernstein’s aides, who replied leaving the matter of the fee entirely to Hussey. It would seem that Bernstein did not press the issue, and Hussey let it rest. Unlike some of the professional composers and artists with whom Hussey had worked, Bernstein was a wealthy man – West Side Story at one point earned two thousand dollars each week in royalties – and so it may simply have been that the kind of fee Chichester could have offered was not worth any dispute. Any fee that Chichester could have offered would in any case be far outmatched by later income for performing rights and from publication of the score and parts.

Authenticity, popularity and vulgarity in English church music
The commissioning of the Chichester Psalms is something of an anomaly in Hussey’s record. The sequence of Northampton commissions had all been from British composers, or non-British composers based in the UK, as were most of those for Chichester. They had all been relatively small in scale – anthems, for the limited forces of choir and organ, and designed for performance during a service of worship. All were very clearly within the idiom of ‘serious’ music, albeit in the subgenre that church music tended to be. To explain the choice of Bernstein, we must first look at two changes in Hussey’s working context.

Hussey’s last commission for Northampton had been in 1954. In the decade since, English church music had been plunged into a period of intense controversy and self-examination after the publication in 1956 of the Folk Mass by Geoffrey Beaumont. An experiment in performing the music of the mass with an instrumental band in a light music style, the Folk Mass heralded an explosion of experiments in church music in popular styles.

Reactions to these experiments varied. Some rejected such music as insufficient quality to be given as an offering in worship, or as foreign, and un-english in provenance. A second strand of reaction was to welcome this as a necessary retranslation of the church’s message into a contemporary language. Others still, whilst disliking the indifferent quality of much of the music, could accept it in the hope that it might help in reviving the church’s apparently faltering mission. The reactions to the Chichester Psalms were of all three types, and centred around three key issues: the relationship between serious and popular in music, the importance of personal and cultural authenticity, and the relationship of professional and amateur.

For the correspondent of the Sunday Telegraph, ‘here was music at once direct, virile and attractive, music whose serious underlying purpose found its natural expression in a popular imagery which could have belonged to no other age than ours.’ Some were rather less convinced. Stanley Sadie in the Musical Times thought parts of the Psalms ‘facile’, ‘just a little cheap’ and ‘very sentimental’. Wilfred Mellers, reviewing Bernstein’s own 1966 recording for CBS felt that ‘the music convinces least when it claims most; the “noble” passages are not so much West Side Story as South Pacific, too corny for cornets.’

The composer Anthony Payne made perhaps the most significant point, when reviewing two later London performances in programmes including Dave Brubeck and Duke Ellington. The Psalms suffered by comparison set alongside such pieces because both Brubeck and Ellington ‘were writing at first hand in a popular style which Bernstein seems only capable of wearing like a cloak, and the gain in artistic sincerity was considerable.’ The critic Arthur Jacobs, writing for the Jewish Chronicle, objected to the piece having the ‘slick professionalism of Bernstein without much else’. For Sadie, Bernstein’s music seemed ‘perilously lacking in identity’. For these critics, in attempting to bridge two musical worlds, Bernstein had produced music authentic to neither.

The vocal score of Chichester Psalms, with dedication from Bernstein to Hussey. WSRO MS 356, all rights reserved.

By and large, however, the Psalms avoided the kind of savaging that much of the experimentation with pop and jazz in church music in the previous few years had received. The probable reasons are several. Firstly, as it was a piece designed for extra-liturgical use, it could be more successfully avoided than a setting of the Mass such as Beaumont’s.
Crucially the Psalms were well-crafted music, made by a recognised composer. Much of the criticism of church pop centred not so much on the introduction of popular style per se, but more on the fact that it was inferior music of its kind – that it was of insufficient quality.

Hussey told the Daily Mail that he had been looking for a piece that was ‘in the popular idiom without being vulgar’. The importance of this controlling, restraining influence of musical qualification was a regular note in the critical reception of figures such as Malcolm Williamson, one of the key figures in serious experimentation with popular church music. Here, wrote one critic of Williamson, was ‘an intensely intelligent and sensitive musical mind grappling […] with the problems of providing music for the Church … in a language which uses the techniques of “popular” musical experience without compromising the composer’s own high standards of taste and craftsmanship.’

Bernstein had succeeded in just this: the Psalms were ‘popular but not vulgar’, and it is in Hussey’s flirtation with popular style that we see the limits of much of the experimentation of the 1960s. Hussey could cope with the Psalms having something of West Side Story about them, as long as they were both composed and performed by serious musicians. It was a remarkable coincidence: on one side, a patron looking for something right at the edge of what was possible for the Church to accept, and on the other, possibly the only composer who could have provided it.

Further reading
A fuller version of this essay is in chapter 7 of Peter Webster, Church and Patronage in 20th Century Britain: Walter Hussey and the Arts (2017)
Humphrey Burton, Leonard Bernstein (1994).
Paul Laird, The Chichester Psalms of Leonard Bernstein (2010)
Nigel Simeone (ed.), The Leonard Bernstein Letters (2013)

Michael Ramsey at Lambeth 1968

This is the full text of Michael Ramsey’s sermon at the opening of the 1968 Lambeth Conference, preached in Canterbury Cathedral on July 25th 1968. It is edited from the script in Lambeth Palace Library, and was first published in my own 2015 book on Ramsey.

[Ramsey Papers vol.317, ff.177-85]

Hebrews xii, 27-29. “This phrase ‘yet once more’ indicates the removal of what is shaken….. in order that what cannot be shaken may remain. Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom which cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire.”

Today we have all come to Canterbury with hearts full of thankfulness for a place, a man and a history. This place means very much to us as we think of St. Augustine and his monks coming here from Thanet with the Cross borne before them, preaching the Gospel to king and people, and inaugurating a history which includes not only the English Church in its continuity through the centuries but a family of Churches of many countries and races which still see in Canterbury a symbol and a bond. Today we thank God for all this, and for the witness within Christendom of a tradition of ordered liberty and scriptural Christianity which the name Anglican has been used to describe. Thanks be to God for his great goodness.

No part of the early history is more interesting than the questions which St. Augustine sent to Pope Gregory about some of his perplexities and the answers which the Pope gave to him. One of the matters which bothered St. Augustine was the variety of customs in different churches, and Pope Gregory told him that if he found anything in the Gallican or the Roman or in any other Church acceptable to Almighty God he should adopt it in England, because – and here comes the great principle – “things are not to be loved for the sake of places, but places for the sake of good things”. “Non pro locis res, sed pro bonis rebus loca amanda sunt”.

How suggestive, how far reaching, is this principle, how applicable to other issues and to other times. “Non pro locis res, sed pro bonis rebus loca”. The local, the limited, the particular is to be cherished by Christian people not for any nostalgic attachment to it for its own sake, but always for the real thing which it represents and conveys, the thing which is catholic, essential, lasting. So our love for Canterbury melts into our love for Christ whose shrine Canterbury is; our love for what is Anglican is a little piece of our love for one Holy, Catholic, Apostolic Church; the love of any of us for our own heritage in country, culture, religious experience or theological insight, all subserves the supreme thing – the reality of God who draws men and women and children into union with himself in the fellowship of his Son. Not things for the sake of places, but places for the sake of good things: let that be a guiding principle, and the good things which concern us are what the apostolic writer calls the things which are not shaken.

Today the words of the Epistle to the Hebrews come home to us, in cadences which seem to roll like thunder. Follow the thought of this tremendous passage. The voice of God shook the earth when the divine law was given on Mount Sinai, a divine law which, reinterpreted by our Lord, still stands and must be proclaimed. Then, in the new covenant, the voice of God shakes heaven as well as earth, since the Incarnation at Bethlehem and the resurrection from the tomb belong to both earth and heaven. Today the earth is being shaken, many things are cracking, melting, disappearing; and it is for us who are Christians to distinguish the things which are shaken and to receive gratefully a kingdom which is not shaken, the kingdom of our crucified Lord. Within this kingdom, the writer goes on, we offer to God the worship he can accept – but as we do so we are never in cosy security, we have awe in our hearts, for we are near to our God, and our God is blazing fire.

Today the earth is being shaken, and there can be few or none who do not feel the shaking: the rapid onrush of the age of technology with the new secularity which comes with it, the terrible contrast between the world of affluence and the world of hunger, the explosions of racial conflict, the amassing of destructive weapons, the persistence of war and killing. And Man, they say, has come of age. Indeed he has, in the height of the powers the Creator gave him, in the fulfilment of the Psalmist’s words “thou has put all things under his feet” but without, alas, Man learning to say with the Psalmist “O Lord, our Governor, how excellent is thy name”. That is the nature of Man’s triumph, and Man’s utter frustration.

Amidst a shaken earth we who are Christians receive a kingdom which cannot be shaken, and are called so to enjoy it that others are led to find it and receive it with us. How is God today calling us to do this? God calls us to faith, to ministry, to unity.

Faith. The faith to which we are called will always be folly and scandal to the world, it cannot be in the usual sense of the word popular; it is a supernatural faith and it cannot adapt itself to every passing fashion of human thought. But it will be a faith alert to distinguish what is shaken and is meant to go, and what is not shaken and is meant to remain. When men today tell us that they revere Jesus but find God or theism without meaning it sometimes is that the image of God that we as Christians in our practice present it is the image of a God of religious concerns but not of compassion for all human life, and it is just not recognisable as the God and Father of Jesus Christ. So too when men reject theism it sometimes means that they cannot accept in this shaken world any easy, facile assumption that the universe has a plan, a centre, a purpose.

It is for us Christians to be sure that our faith is no facile assumption but a costly conviction that in Christ crucified and risen, in suffering and victorious love and in no other way, there is a plan, a centre, a purpose. In dying to love, in losing life so as to find it – there is the place where divine sovereignty is found and theism has meaning and vindication. The Bishops who will lead our thinking about faith at this Lambeth Conference will help us to see that faith means standing near to the Cross in the heart of the contemporary world, and not only standing but acting. Our faith will be tested in our actions, not least in our actions concerning peace, concerning race, concerning poverty. Faith is a costly certainty, but no easy security as our God is blazing fire.

Ministry. The ministry to which we are called is described in our text. It is “to offer to God acceptable worship”. We know that the only worship which God accepts is the expression of lives which reflect God’s own righteousness and compassion. Yet amidst all the energies of serving humanity which so rightly concern Christian people let there be a deep revival of the priestly spirit, the spirit of loving God for God’s own sake who made us for himself. The Bishops who will lead our thinking about ministry will help us to recapture this priestly spirit while they show the way to new forms of practical service in every community where Christian people are. That service must not only inspire individuals, it must go on to affect states and nations in their policies, rich and poor, developed and undeveloped, one towards another.

Unity. Here Christendom is feeling the first tremors of a shaking which would have seemed incredible a few years back. What has been shaken? Much of the old complacency, much of the old contentment with our divided condition, much of the sheer ignorance of one another in theology and practice, and above all much of the self-consciousness which gave absurdity to the dealings of Christians with Christians. But the shaking has gone deeper still. Christendom has begun to learn that unity comes not by combining this Church with that Church much as they are now, but by the radical altering of Churches in reformation and renewal. It is here that the Vatican Council has had influence far beyond the boundaries of the Roman Catholic Church. We all are stirred to ask God to show us what are things rightly shaken and the things not shaken which must remain.

As Anglicans we ask ourselves: “Quo tendimus?” This Lambeth Conference faces big questions about our relations with one another as a world-wide Anglican family and about our role within a Christendom which is being called to unity in the truth. Can we do better than take to heart and apply to our tasks the counsel which Pope Gregory gave to St. Augustine “non pro locis res, sed loca pro bonis rebus”. We shall love our own Anglican family not as something ultimate but because in it and through it we and others have our place in the one Church of Christ. The former is a lovely special loyalty: the latter is the Church against which our Lord predicted that the gates of death would not prevail.

Now, as the work of unity advances there will come into existence United Churches not describably Anglican but in communion with us and sharing with us what we hold to be the unshaken essence of Catholicity. What then of the future boundaries of our Anglican Communion? We shall face that question without fear, without anxiety, because of our faith in the things which are not shaken. Perhaps the Anglican role in Christendom may come to be less like a separate encampment and more like a colour in the spectrum of a rainbow, a colour bright and unselfconscious.

“See that you do not refuse him who speaks.” The writer to the Hebrews has his urgent message for us, telling us of the removal of what is shaken in order that what is not shaken may remain. Therefore let us be grateful in receiving a kingdom which cannot be shaken. It is the kingdom of Christ crucified, our king who was crowned with thorns. And his Cross is the secret of our faith, the heart of our ministry and the source of our unity as we live not to ourselves but to one another and to him. Each of us at this time will want to say from his heart: –

Thanks be to thee, O Lord Jesus Christ
For all the benefits thou hast won for me,
For all the pains and insults thou hast borne for me.
O most merciful redeemer, friend and brother,
May I know thee more clearly,
Love thee more dearly,
And follow thee more nearly.

The archbishop and the playwright

From time to time a quotation appears online, attributed to C.S. Lewis though in fact a bad paraphrase of him, that sums up the central tension between the churches and the arts in the last century: “The world does not need more Christian literature. What it needs is more Christians writing good literature”. This is a shortened version of an essay on one such case, which appeared a little while ago in Barber, Taylor and Sewell (eds), From the Reformation to the Permissive Society (Church of England Record Society). Read the full text here (PDF).

In the summer of 1943, William Temple, archbishop of Canterbury, wrote to the novelist and playwright Dorothy L. Sayers, with an offer of the honorary Lambeth doctorate of divinity. Sayers was to turn down the offer, but the exchange is revealing of the tensions in the relationship between the arts (and artists) and the Church of England.

1937 saw the production of Sayers’ first attempt at religious drama, The Zeal of Thy House. The play was successful, and marked a new phase. Despite her later protestation that she had never intended to become embroiled in apologetics, or to ‘bear witness for Christ’, Sayers’ correspondence gradually became swollen with invitations from clergy and laity to write or speak on religious matters.

Temple’s offer of the Lambeth D.D. was in recognition of two works in particular: the series of radio plays The Man Born to be King, and the earlier book The Mind of the Maker. Published in 1941, The Mind of the Maker is Sayers’ most enduring work of theology proper. Temple described it as ‘a really original approach to the doctrine of the Trinity, of great theological and apologetic value.’ It contains an extended analogy between the work of the Trinity and human creativity, and the highest possible doctrine of the status of work. Sayers also made some very trenchant claims for the independence of the artist and the importance of works of art in and of themselves; views which were in part behind her decision to refuse the Lambeth degree.

If The Mind of the Maker was quietly successful, The Man Born to be King was a sensation, as the plays were broadcast by the BBC at monthly intervals in 1941 and 1942. As James Welch, Director of Religious Broadcasting, put it ‘these plays have done more for the preaching of the Gospel to the unconverted than any other single effort of the churches or religious broadcasting since the last war’.

Sayers’s first reaction to Temple’s offer was non-committal. Whilst honoured, and recognizing that the degree was not a ‘certificate of sanctity’, she doubted whether she was enough of a ‘convincing Christian’, and not simply ‘in love with an intellectual pattern.’ As she told Temple’s own ‘Malvern Conference’ in 1941, her feelings on treating any question relating to the church were of embarrassment, since ‘I am never quite sure how to identify it or whether, in anything but a technical sense, I feel myself to belong to it.’ As she put it to Temple, part of her was perhaps trying to preserve a ‘bolt-hole’; an insurance against an irrevocable public step of personal commitment.

Sayers also made the point that as a mere ‘common novelist and playwright’, she could not guarantee in the future to abstain from writing ‘secular, frivolous or unbecoming’ work, full of the language of the ‘rude soldiery’ or descriptive of the less respectable passions; ‘I shouldn’t like your first woman D.D. to create scandal, or give reviewers cause to blaspheme.’ It seems probable, however, that behind the apparent levity was a fear, of which Temple could not have known, of the possible disclosure of details of Sayers’ private life. Sayers’ biographer James Brabazon has suggested that the one doctrine of the church with which Sayers was in emotional engagement was that of sin, and in her case, the consciousness of her marriage to a divorced man. Even more delicate was the matter, known only to her and a handful of others, of her illegitimate son, John Anthony, born in 1924 and being raised by Sayers’ cousin.

Temple was not however deterred, and after a request for more time, Sayers refused, making two main points which shed much light on the position of both the Christian apologist and the Christian artist in relation to the institution of the church in this period.

The first concerns the dangers of too close an association between the apologist and the Church. Almost from the beginning of Sayers involvement as an apologist, her letters show a persistent sense that both the amount and the profile of such involvement ought carefully to be controlled, lest its effectiveness be blunted. By December 1942, however, it had become clear to her that, despite her best efforts, she had already come to be viewed as ‘one of the old gang, whose voice can be heard from every missionary platform’; it was therefore time to withdraw somewhat. The status of outsider was necessary in the ‘present peculiar state of public opinion’, in order to avoid becoming, in the phrase of the Daily Herald, ‘“the pet of the bishops”’.

Sayers’s second point in this final letter – her fear of ‘a sort of interior inhibition in the handling of secular work’, here phrased very gently, was part of a much more robust view of the independence of the artist, and of the record of the church’s patronage of the arts up to that point. The Mind of the Maker contained a gentle insistence on the artist’s duty to protect, as it were, the interests of their creature. Writing about editorial intervention in The Man born to be King, she wrote:

… the writer’s duty to God is his duty to the work, and… he may not submit to any dictate of authority which he does not sincerely believe to be for the good of the work. He may not do it for money, or for reputation, or for edification… or for any consideration whatever. … The writer is about his Father’s business, and it does not matter who is inconvenienced or how much he has to hate his father and mother. To be false to his work is to be false to the truth: “All the truth of the craftsman is in his craft.”

Such a high view of the duty of the artist to God and to his or her work makes particular sense when considered alongside Sayers’ view of the current relationship between the church and the arts. The church was widely associated, in her view, with ‘artistic frivolity and intellectual dishonesty.’ It had seemed unable to grasp that ‘the divine Beauty is sovereign within His own dominion; and that if a statue is ill-carved or a play ill-written, the artist’s corruption is deeper than if the statue were obscene and the play blasphemous.’ What was necessary was ‘a decent humility before the artist’, and an absolute insistence that a work of art must be good in itself, before it could possibly be good religious art. Sayers, in common with several of her contemporaries in the arts, suspected the church of an inadequate understanding of the absolute necessity of beauty.

But what, exactly, did Temple think he was trying to honour? Welch’s initial suggestion was clearly that it was as the author of The Man Born to be King, a ‘work of Christian evangelism’ that Sayers might be offered the degree. Temple agreed that the plays were ‘one of the most powerful instruments in evangelism which the Church has had put into its hands for a long time past’; the ‘most effective piece of evangelistic work, in my judgment, done in our generation,’ Oliver Quick, regius professor of divinity at Oxford, had though that C.S. Lewis might also be offered a degree: ‘They are the two people who seem really able to put across to ordinary people a reasonably orthodox form of Christianity.’ Conspicuously absent was any broader sense of the plays being honoured as plays.

It was, however, precisely this (apparently) instrumental view of the arts that so exercised Sayers. The commissioning practice of ‘asking writers to produce stories and plays to illustrate certain doctrine or church activities’ showed how little such ‘pious officials’ understood of the mind of the artist. In these productions doctrine was not allowed to emerge spontaneously from the inherent dynamic of a story; instead, action and characters were inevitably distorted for the sake of the doctrine that was to be expounded, with disastrous consequences. As Sayers told the Malvern conference, the Church was thus guilty of fostering corruption ‘by condoning and approving a thing artistically vicious provided that it conforms to moral sentiment.’

Sayers’ view of the church was probably too negative. Both Temple and Quick held much more developed views on the relationship between theology, the church and the arts than the tone of their letters would suggest; George Bell, bishop of Chichester (who Sayers knew) was more than ready to defend the autonomy of the artist against others within the church when required. However, even if Sayers were aware of this, the accumulated record of the wider church in its actual patronage (as opposed to theological writing) meant that the balance was still negative. Temple’s desire was sincere, and his approach the only way in which, under the pressures of war-time, he could conceive to use the limited institutional tools at his disposal. The whole exchange remains an highly revealing episode in the relationship between the Church and the arts.

Read the full text of this article here (PDF).

Review: Walter Hussey and the arts

Some highlights from a very generous review of my book on Walter Hussey from the writer and composer Robert Hugill.

Hussey in his study in Chichester. Image copyright Sussex Life, all rights reserved.

Hussey was ‘an important figure in 20th-century art and music’ and responsible for commissioning such figures as Benjamin Britten, Edmund Rubbra, Leonard Bernstein, Lennox Berkeley, Henry Moore, Graham Sutherland, John Piper, and Marc Chagall. My book provides ‘some remarkable illumination as to how this striking body of work came about’. It ‘does a great job in following the history of Hussey’s activity and putting it in the right context’, and not only for the big names: ‘part of the fascination in the narrative is the list of less iconic works which Hussey also commissioned’.

It is a ‘a fascinating and illuminating read… a highly readable, well researched and engagingly written examination of exactly how these works and many others came into being’. Readers should ‘persuade your local library to get a copy’.

Rediscovering Howard Root: a review

Theological Radicalism and Tradition: ‘The Limits of Radicalism’ with Appendices. By Howard E. Root.
Edited by Christopher R. Brewer. Pp. xii + 165. Illustrated. Abingdon: Routledge, 2018.

[An extended version of a review for the Journal of Theological Studies.]

The prominence of Howard E. Root (1926-2007) during his career is not matched by his obscurity in subsequent years. Born in the USA, he moved to the UK in 1949 after a time teaching in Egypt, and studied and taught theology and philosophy at the universities of Cambridge and Oxford before taking the chair of theology at the University of Southampton in 1966. As Christopher R. Brewer shows in his helpful introduction to this welcome volume, Root was thought to have great potential from early on in Oxford, and this repute soon spread around the Church of England. Root was appointed one of the Anglican observers at the Second Vatican Council when not yet 40, and he was subsequently called upon to serve the church of which he was a priest on successive commissions, not least that on marriage and divorce which reported in 1971, and the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission. But Root published relatively little, even for a time before the hyperactive publishing culture of the modern university, and as a result he figures hardly at all in the current literature on the period.

If his writing has been noted at all, it was for his essay that opened the 1962 volume of ‘essays concerning human understanding’ edited by Alec Vidler with the title Soundings. Root’s essay, entitled ‘Beginning all over again’, surveyed the current state and future prospects for natural theology, and was robustly dealt with in E.L.Mascall’s book-length response to Soundings, published as Up and Down in Adria (1963). While Brewer suggests (rightly) that Mascall somewhat missed the point that Root was making, his accusation that Root was proposing a wholesale abandonment of Christian tradition has to a certain extent stuck, and Soundings as a whole has been read as the catalyst to much of the ‘radical’ theology of the next decade. But, as Brewer points out, ‘Mascall did not, and should not, have the last word on Root.’ (p.14) This edition of Root’s hitherto unpublished Bampton Lectures for 1972 should go a long way to recovering the range and intentions of Root’s thought. It will be read with interest both by theologians and by historians of theology and of the religious climate of the sixties and seventies; no serious library for theology or religious history should be without it.

The eight lectures of ‘The Limits of Radicalism’, though brief in compass, are rich and suggestive, with scarcely a dull sentence. The subject is nothing less than the proper purpose of theology as a discipline, and the degree to which it, and natural theology in particular, could hope to survive in the peculiar intellectual conditions of the time. Though no theologian himself, this reviewer would imagine that Root will now find new conversation partners amongst contemporary theologians. Brewer shows in particular the synergies and continuities between Root and the work of David Brown, under whose supervision Brewer completed his graduate study at St Andrews University. Brown is, Brewer suggests, ‘in more ways than one… Root’s theological heir’ (p.20). But it is the significance of Root’s lectures in their historical context that I wish to explore in particular here.

Root was invited to give the Bampton lectures in early 1970, during what in retrospect can be seen as a hiatus between phases in the theological confrontation between radical and conservative. The initial excitement caused by Soundings and then Honest to God (1963), and Harvey Cox’s The Secular City (1965) had to an extent died down, and the controversies over the report Christian Believing and the work of John Hick (The Myth of God Incarnate, 1977), Maurice Wiles and Dennis Nineham were yet to come. And so there was some space for a stocktaking, such as in Michael Ramsey’s God, Christ and the World (1969), of which Root’s lectures were arguably a part. At the remove of a few short years, Root’s criticisms of the radical project of the preceding decade were acute. Born of a failure of nerve – a loss of confidence in the tools for theological study – the movement to ‘translate’ the message into new terms had risked the disintegration of the discipline into a set of sub-departments of history, literary criticism and other disciplines. But this left theology with nothing distinctive to do, no peculiar concerns to call its own, and for Root it was metaphysics that had been left out; in the final analysis, theology without metaphysics was largely redundant (Lectures 1 and 2).

Root was particularly alive to the significance of terminology – to the power of particular discourses, as we might now say – and there are subtle and stimulating asides, such as on the curious process by which ‘radical’ – in its etymology a restorative, backward-looking term – had become exclusively focussed on the future (Lecture 3). Similarly telling is a brief note on the idea of the need for the church to offload its ‘baggage’, a widely used and largely unexamined metaphor in the period. Root was also a prolific maker of fertile images, most particularly in his discussion of the nature of tradition (Lecture 4), which may be the part of the lectures that has the most enduring significance. It was not necessary for the church to choose between two mutually incompatible notions of tradition: on the one hand, a petrified set of texts, doctrines and symbols that could only be preserved and passed on unchanged, and on the other, tradition as a deadweight from under which the church needed to pull itself (the attitude which Mascall thought he detected in Root in 1962).

For Root, tradition is in a continuous process of being received, as Christians select those elements that are of most pressing usefulness, and in the process modify and renew them in readiness for a transmission in turn to the next generation. But this process of transmission was not linear; to look for genealogies of tradition was to misconceive its nature. Root proposes the image of multiple constellations of theological effort, an image ‘that preserves a sense of order, but at the same time not only permits diversity, but finds diversity an element in its order’ (p.67). While there may be disagreement over particular points of doctrine (individual stars in the constellation), the constellations are so interconnected such as to constitute an identifiable whole, a recognisably Christian theological universe. The suppleness of this notion of tradition was rare indeed in the theology of 1972; one wonders what Mascall would have made of it. One also wonders how the subsequent development of Anglican theology might have been different had this ‘third way’ been available.

A second major theme is connected to that of tradition: the responsibility of the Christian theologian to that tradition and to the church that receives it. The controversy over John A.T. Robinson’s Honest to God had brought into sharp relief the tension between freedom of enquiry and the responsibility of the theologian to his or her church, as had the leaving of the Roman Catholic church in 1966 by Charles Davis; an episode that Root addresses directly. Root’s notion of tradition led him to conclude that Davis, by renouncing any claim that his church might make on his work, could no longer meaningfully be called a Christian theologian, though a theologian he remained. Root adopted an analogy from the arts, from the process by which a work of art comes into being. As a painter is commissioned to fill a certain space with a work on a certain subject, so the theologian is commissioned by his church, with the constraints that that entails; the choice of materials, and the use he makes of those materials remains his prerogative, as does the opportunity to convey something of his own individual, unique sense of the message itself. At a time when the Church of England was reorganising (and reducing) its provision of theological education, and the nature of the discipline was changing in the universities, Root’s comments were timely. The church could have only limited use for the ‘freelance men’ in the universities who responded to no commission in particular.

Finally, Root’s set of lectures is remarkable for the use he makes of the arts, both as a source of the analogy explored above, and as a remedy for the ‘imaginative impoverishment’ of theology that he had identified in Soundings. The Church of England had begun in the previous two decades begun to rediscover a tradition of artistic patronage, led in large part by Walter Hussey, but this was not yet accompanied by the kind of theological engagement with the arts that characterises the work of David Brown and others in more recent years. Root, a great lover of music, makes great use of artistic metaphor as a means of understanding theology, drawing on T.S. Eliot, W.H. Auden and Pierre Boulez. But he also wants to prompt theologians to look to the arts as generators of new images that reflect the experience of life in the early 1970s. Not all these images would be immediately useful to all – they were, after all, only individual stars in one of Root’s constellations – but over time these images would cluster together, be found in theological dialogue with each other, and either become part of the tradition, or (although Root does not spell the point out) be found to be useless and fall away. In this, in the context of the theology of the time, Root was advanced indeed, and foreshadows much of the more recent work on theology with and through the arts.

Readers of this volume will have reason to be grateful to Brewer for his scrupulous annotations to the text, few of which Root himself had supplied. Some of them are perhaps over-long, such as the long lists of reviews of volumes to which Root had contributed (p.29), but this reader (at least) would rather this inclusive policy than its opposite. The appendices – other essays from Root that were either obscurely published or not at all – do much to complement the main text, though the selection of correspondence relating to the non-publication of the lectures adds little and could have made way for something more substantial in what is a slim and expensive volume. These cavils aside, Christopher Brewer is to be commended for this valuable edition, which will go a long way towards the recovery of Root for which it is intended.

[There is as yet no biography of Root, but there were a handful of obituaries after his death in 2007: in the Daily Telegraph and the Church Times.]