The Devil’s music: a review

[A review published in July in Reviews in History.]

The Devil’s Music. How Christians inspired, condemned, and embraced rock ‘n’ roll
Randall J. Stephens
Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press, 2018, ISBN: 9780674980846

When viewed in a long perspective, the modern history of popular music has very often been one in which new styles are adopted by the young in spite of (and indeed because of) the incomprehension and disapproval of their elders, only to enter the mainstream as those young people age. At the same time, Christians, when confronted with the arts of the societies in which they find themselves, have variously ignored, embraced, adapted and tried to replace or eradicate those arts both in worship and in public. It is in these two ongoing stories (in their American variant) that Randall J. Stephens makes a timely and important intervention. It will be required reading for students of modern American cultural history, but specialists in the religious history of other countries will also find much of value in it, as will the growing number of theologians and musicians concerned with the relationship between the churches and the arts. No serious academic library will want to be without it, and since it is generously produced and sensibly priced, it should find a wide readership outside the academy amongst Christians and ageing rock fans alike.

Stephens’ argument is relatively easily summarised, although the introduction to the book does not do so adequately. Chapter one shows the close linking between the early development of rock and roll and the music of the Pentecostal churches, such that (although some Christian critics did not care to admit it), the stylistic differences between music inside and outside some churches were small, even if the lyrics were very different indeed. Striking here is the relationship between the Pentecostal televangelist Jimmy Lee Swaggart and Jerry Lee Lewis, his cousin, but similar debts of influence were owed by James Brown, Little Richard, Johnny Cash and indeed Elvis himself. Stephens’ exploration of the agonies of conscience that some suffered as a result of the disapproval of their own churches is vivid and convincing.

Chapter two describes a short but intense period of concern, not to say panic, over the dangers of rock and roll in the years before 1958, followed by a period of relative calm as several of the stars either died or were kept out of trouble in the armed forces. Stephens evokes the cluster of interrelated concerns in play: of the impact of ‘savage’ music (the possession of a subjugated culture) on white America; a more general anxiety about the young in an increasingly affluent and consumerist context, and their apparent slipping out of the control of their elders; there are overtones too of the fear of Communist infiltration. This is all deftly done, but it would have been useful to examine more closely the degree to which these concerns were distinctively religious (or, the prerogative of religious people), as opposed to those of a particular race, class and generation. After this period of calm, chapter three then shows the remarkable storm of dispute with which the Beatles were met after John Lennon’s famous comment to the London Evening Standard in 1966 that the Beatles were ‘more popular than Jesus now’. Though Stephens is not quite right in saying that the comments made little impression among British Christians, the protests were of a quite different order in the USA: radio stations ceased playing their records, death threats were made, and effigies of the band burned in Dixie.

Chapter four and five, taken together, deal with the central paradox of the story: from the late 1960s onwards, how did part of the evangelical constituency come to see that these forms of popular music were not passing phenomena and as such were to be reckoned with, and perhaps used, rather than simply rejected? Stephens is vivid on the interconnection between the new ‘Jesus rock’ and an ongoing Christian negotiation with the wider counter-culture of the period, as Billy Graham, previously an opponent, grasped the need for a different approach to the extent that for a time he wore his hair long. For proponents of Christian rock then and since, it was possible to adopt an artistic form while changing its content; medium and message were separable. At this point Stephens’ book intersects with other recent work on the subject, notably that of David W. Stowe, and it appears at almost the same time as a new biography of the Christian musician Larry Norman, by Gregory Alan Thornbury.

Chapter five documents the backlash amongst other Christians, which Stephens calls the ‘fundamentalist reaction’. For these preachers and moralists, the proponents of Christian rock were variously too effeminate, too emotional, their stage acts too sexualised, and too closely associated with the charismatic movement. More often, though, the issue at stake was one of genre: rock, because of the associations it carried, could never be turned to a positive use and had to be shunned. Nonetheless, as Stephens’ story ends in the years after the millennium, Christian rock had become ubiquitous in American churches of an evangelical kind, with the remaining redoubts against it becoming fewer, and crossover artists had achieved mainstream recording and touring success.

All of this is wholly convincing as a characterisation of the period and as a chronology. This reviewer would wish, however, to make some criticisms on grounds of method and analysis, not so much to contradict the argument as to draw out and make explicit some things that are latent in it but which Stephens does not spell out.

Stephens’ method is documentary rather than narrowly analytical, which has both advantages and disadvantages. Having unearthed a vast, teeming field of Christian voices arguing about rock and roll, Stephens’ evocation of this cacophony is brilliant; his ear for the cadences of the preacher and the moralist is acute, and his ventriloquising of their concerns rings true throughout. Just occasionally the style becomes overripe, however; preachers ‘thunder’ and ‘howl’ in ‘raging fires’ of controversy but rarely just speak; guitars blast and drums thump but rarely do musicians just play or sing. In short bursts, the heightened register that Stephens adopts is vivid and evocative; over the length of a whole book it becomes somewhat wearing. It is also the case that quite often the argumentative thread is lost amongst the clamour of voices, and there is a tendency to repetition, as the same themes recur again and again; we hear about the length of Billy Graham’s hair at least four times.

Some of the impression of repetition could have been avoided had Stephens included a more precise analytical framework in which to work, into which his narrative could have fitted well. The first such structure that is missing is a musicological one. The music here is ‘driving’, ‘revved-up’, ‘blasting’ or (in the case of the Christian metal band Stryper) ‘schlocky’, but to really apprehend what is at stake this reader at least needed a clearer sense of genre, instrumentation, performance practice, melodic and harmonic structure and so on. To borrow a quotation often attributed to Elvis Costello amongst others, writing about music is like dancing about architecture: exceptionally difficult to do well, but here the reader needed more nonetheless. As it is, readers without Stephens’ prodigious knowledge of this music are left with a great deal of work to do.

Stryper in concert, 1986, promoting their album To Hell with the Devil
Image via Wikimedia Commons: By Rafael Faria, CC-BY-SA-3.0

The second area in which the book would have benefitted from a clearer analytical framework is in the definition of different strands of Christian opinion. There are here pentecostal voices, Southern Baptists, Roman Catholics: denominational divisions that are reasonably robust as analytical categories. But Stephens never quite defines the differences between those who are ‘evangelical’, ‘fundamentalist’ and merely ‘conservative’. The term ‘fundamentalist’ is particularly difficult to define, and Stephens only meets the task head on in chapter six. ‘Fundamentalism’ has often been defined in strictly doctrinal terms, particularly concerning the authority of the Bible; the virgin birth, nature and eventual return of Christ; and the doctrine of the atonement. Defined in this way, several of those within the Christian rock movement appeared very ‘fundamentalist’ in their views of the Bible and on the issues that tended to trouble those with a conservative view of Biblical authority, such as gender, sexuality, and creationism. Stephens instead defines fundamentalism in terms of a determination to separate the faithful from the culture around them. This is clearly what is happening amongst some Christians during the period, but even if such cultural separatism was a marker of those Christians who were ‘fundamentalist’ in doctrine, it is not at all clear that they were the only Christians who took such a view of culture. On its own, cultural separatism seems insufficient as a definition of the term.

And it is the theologies of culture in play here, the guiding principles that underlie the rhetoric, that are often submerged in Stephens’ account and that most needed to be named and analysed. From time to time they briefly break the surface only for the reader to be swept downstream in the chronological and rhetorical flow. Christians have historically taken the arts seriously for two main reasons. The incarnational sense that all human creative endeavour was a sharing in the creative work of God was the key element in the Catholic recovery of the modern arts in the 20th century. Stephens notes in several places the pervasive sense amongst secular critics that Christian rock was more often than not mediocre, a poorly executed example of an art form. This ( at least in the British context) was also the objection raised by Christian critics of ‘church pop’ in the 1950s and 1960s; if there were Christian voices in the USA making the same point, it would have added to the narrative to hear more of them.

However, this incarnational understanding of the arts has historically been a minor theme at best in evangelical thought, with many being prepared to embrace bad taste in the service of the gospel. Evangelicals have been more interested in how the arts can be made to communicate a message, and (correspondingly) most exercised by the particular dangers posed if the arts were made to carry the wrong kind of message. The phenomenon of Jesus rock, far from being an anomaly, is part of a long tradition of evangelical efforts to adopt an artistic style for use in worship and/or evangelism while rendering it safe by supplying appropriate words, performed by those whose personal lives met the required moral standard. The insistence that a certain style of music – a certain arrangement of sounds in time, produced by a certain combination of instruments – could never be sanctified; that an element in God’s creation could never be redeemed for His use, is only one of the several theological options available to evangelical Christians, and has been the option least often chosen in evangelical history at large. All this is implied in Stephens’ account but only comes into focus in chapter six; it would perhaps have added to the impact had it been placed front and centre, earlier in the book.

To reiterate, none of these criticisms is fundamental to Stephens’ argument, and to adopt a more analytical structure and style may have lessened the significant media attention which the book is attracting at the time of writing, which it deserves. That said, although The Devil’s Music is a timely and important book, it leaves the reader with some work to do.

[See also Randall Stephens’ response.]

Interpreting Christian history: a review

[My review of Euan Cameron’s fine Interpreting Christian History: the challenge of the churches’ past, first published in Reviews in History in 2005. Still in print, I would still recommend the book for anyone interested in what history might mean for the churches.]

Euan Cameron, former Professor of Early Modern History at the University of Newcastle, now Henry Luce III Professor of Reformation Church History at Union Theological Seminary in New York, has written a fascinating and, in many ways, remarkable study. It contains much that may be of interest to professional religious historians, to historians of ideas, to students and teachers of theology, and to the general reader. In addition, its approach neatly demonstrates the dilemmas facing historians of Christianity who are themselves religiously committed, and the contrasting audiences for writing on Christian history.

Cameron’s central enterprise, as outlined in the Preface and developed in the Introduction, is one that is of pivotal importance to many historians of religion in general, and of Christianity in particular, yet entirely beside the point to others. The usefulness of studying Christian history for many, if not most, Christians lies in the degree to which it aids the process of identifying which elements of the inheritance of one or other of the denominations constitute part of the ‘core’ of the faith, and which may safely be reformed, re-ordered, or discarded. This set of priorities may well be familiar to church historians working in some denominational theological colleges, and also conceivably (although less likely) in university departments of theology or divinity.

Cameron rightly identifies the damage done by an uncritical use of the past to settle issues in the contemporary church, and the problematic nature of the notion of a timeless, ‘pure’ core content that can be traced developing under the guidance of the Holy Spirit throughout the millennia of the Church’s history. As the archbishop of Canterbury recently put it, ‘When people set out to prove that nothing has changed, you can normally be sure that something quite serious has’ (1). In many ways, this view of the history of doctrine as the progression and ‘emergence’ of key ideas, detached and floating free of context and free from the minds required to think them, sounds very much like the style of writing of the history of political ideas that Quentin Skinner so effectively destroyed over thirty-five years ago.

The second, and diametrically opposed, approach is that prevailing in most secular history departments. This sets aside entirely all consideration of the ‘truth’ or otherwise of religious statements and practices, and seeks to understand those statements and practices purely in terms of their functions in the society in which they are embedded and from which they grow. To pose questions of ‘truth’ attracts the taint of the most partisan historical writing of the past, most often, but not exclusively, concerning the Reformations.

Having delineated this seemingly irreconcilable opposition, Cameron seeks to identify a Third Way, for which this volume is both a manifesto and a series of exploratory essays. Nailing his own colours firmly to the mast, he correctly identifies the fact that for most Christians the adoption of a thorough-going relativism — the abandonment of any core in historic Christianity — would surely be difficult to accept. Thus to capitulate would truly be to build one’s house on sand. For Cameron, there does exist an ‘essential Christianity’, reflecting the immutable nature of God. However, all visible Christianities are always and everywhere a composite of this eternal core, and the inevitable situation of the Church and its members in particular places, cultures, and languages. Cameron then looks to assert that, whilst it would be impossible ever to sort out definitively the core from the time-bound and conditioned, it is nevertheless possible for historians, by a process of ‘triangulation’ of different periods and churches, to infer useful things from the churches’ past.

After a brief overview of Christian history in chapter 1, designed mainly for the non-specialist reader, in chapter 2 (‘Constantly shifting emphases in Christian history’), Cameron looks to draw out some examples of periods in the churches’ history in which a particular and repeating pattern of development can be detected. For Cameron, Christians have often collectively seized upon a particular practice or doctrine as particularly expressive of a need or useful as a tool. These particular elements of the faith, often blameless and indeed admirable as means of Christian perfection, have often become ends in themselves. Such practices have often then been elaborated upon and developed in such a way as to conflict with, and distract from, other, arguably more important, principles, thus leading to an unbalanced and distorted whole. These shifts of the centre towards one extreme or another are often accompanied by a lesser, but nonetheless clear, counter-movement, such as the emergence of Lollardy in the context of late-medieval sacramentalism. Sometimes, but not always, these imbalances have led to the outgrowing structures collapsing under their own weight, and a re-balancing of the church occurring — a prime example being that of the Reformations.

Without claiming that the ‘core’ elements thus obscured and then recovered are necessarily easy to discern, Cameron convincingly lays out examples of such a pattern in the medieval church, taking in examinations of asceticism and martyrdom in the medieval period, and Protestant emphases on catechesis and the integrity of the visible church community since the Reformation. Cameron is not concerned to establish any grand narrative of why this pattern should be, although he provides much material for the theological pursuit of such a question as he proceeds. His aim, and one which is achieved, is to demonstrate the pertinence of such a pattern, and the use of a wide enough historical lens to discern it, for the enterprise of writing Christian history.

Chapter 3 examines the status and development of church history as a distinct and self-conscious activity from Eusebius to the late-twentieth century. Whilst making no claims of exhaustiveness, this section is an admirably concise and, on the whole, convincing narrative of changing priorities, and fills a gap in the literature. In order to show that his approach is not purely a late-twentieth century exercise in relativism, Cameron demonstrates that historians of the churches have for five centuries been dealing with just such an awareness of the flawed and time-bound nature of the historic church. The writing of church history is to a great degree predicated upon the ecclesiological point from which one begins.

Particularly interesting is Cameron’s account of the development of the relationship of sixteenth century theologians, both Protestant and Catholic, with the Catholic past. The crucial shift in Reformation church history was the jettisoning of any emphasis on the integrity of the hierarchy as a mark of the True Church, and the relocation of that essence in the presence of a saving remnant, however small. Christian thinkers were for the first time faced with the task of identifying how and why the institutional church could have become so corrupt as to cease to be a True Church. This necessitated a new relationship with the historic church. Cameron also draws out the incongruous co-existence of this increasingly critical approach to sources with the continued attribution of influence to divine or Satanic agency, and the reading of church history through the prism of the Apocalypse. As his narrative proceeds into the modern period, Cameron rightly identifies the crucial nineteenth-century withdrawal of professional historians from explicit theological reflection on the implications of their work; a task that was picked up almost at the same point by theologians, and latterly by sociologists of religion.

In chapter 4, the work reaches its theological core, and as such is the point at which many, if not most, historians of religion may choose to stop reading. To do so, however, would be a shame. Cameron samples some of the attempts of historically-informed theologians to solve the central epistemological problem outlined in the Introduction: is it possible to develop an historico-theological method with which to begin to discern the core elements of Christian doctrine and practice from the history of the flawed, human, error-prone institutions that are the churches? Whether or not the reader accepts the validity of, or sees any point to, such an undertaking, there is much suggestive material for historians of ideas along the way. Fascinating conjunctures are presented between Hegelian thought and the currents within German liberal Protestant theology of the nineteenth century. The reaction of Karl Barth, in the context of the turmoil of world war, against the profound optimism concerning human nature of many of his predecessors also suggests many fruitful avenues of new research.

For this reviewer, with interests in British history, the absence of British, and in particular Anglican, theologians from this endeavour is striking, and indicates much about the Church of England’s own and perhaps rather particular view of its own past. What is perhaps of the greatest general interest in this section is the picture it gives of a sister discipline to history grappling with many of the same issues relating to language and epistemology, globalization and social change that have exploded to the surface in recent years.

In summary, Cameron has produced a work that, whilst unlikely to surprise period specialists in matters of detail, may profitably be read as an examination of a crucially important part of church history, and as a peculiarly fascinating meditation on Christian history, theology and the relationship between them.

[See also Cameron’s response to the review.]

The disappearing church in English fiction

[A feature piece commissioned by the Church Times, and first published in the edition of 27 July 2018. It is republished here by kind permission of the Editor.]

BY DEFINITION, writers of fiction must take the raw materials of life as they observe it, and modify, disguise, distort, invert and amplify those materials as they create new stories. But when interviewed, most authors try to resist any simple reading of this or that character as based on a real person.

Buildings, too, take on new lives in the stories we read. Outside the particular genre of science fiction, the buildings we are invited to see, and into which we can step, must necessarily be a fusion of aspects of real buildings in particular places. They would be unintelligible if not.

Sometimes the author sets their story in a real building, such as the ruins of St Giles-without-Cripplegate in The World my Wilderness by Rose Macaulay (1950). The author Penelope Fitzgerald has recalled being with Macaulay as she clambered over the rubble of the City of London in the years after the war; St Giles was not rebuilt until a few years later.

The blitzed church of St Dunstan in the East, now a public garden.
Image: Peter Webster

More often, however, the fictional church is more carefully disguised, and so there is another game that readers can play: the hunt for the models for places and buildings, as well as characters. The church of Fenchurch St Paul, the centre of the village community in The Nine Tailors by Dorothy L. Sayers (1934) incorporates particular features from more than one church from her Fenland childhood. Sayers credited the architect W.J. Redhead with having “designed” it for her, and with providing a line drawing of the imagined exterior.

George Orwell alarmed his publisher with his habit of disguising living people in his fiction only very thinly. His biographer D.J. Taylor has identified the model for the decrepit Miss Mayfill in A Clergyman’s Daughter (1935) from Orwell’s time spent teaching in west London. St Athelstan’s, Knype Hill, in which the titular daughter Dorothy labours in unpaid and unrecognised service of her father, is not based on any one building, but is most likely a composite of the Suffolk churches Orwell knew from time spent with his parents in Southwold.

Churches, real or otherwise, and Anglican churches in particular, play several different roles in English fiction, which I would like to explore here in some of the novels from the 70 years or so from 1914.

CHRISTIANS have for a very long time produced edifying stories for their own pleasure and instruction. Valuable and entertaining though these often are, these novels tell us most about the ways in which Christians understand and address themselves and each other. As an historian, I want instead to explore those novels that made a claim for general attention among readers at large, whether Christian or not. What might they tell us about the changing position of the Church in the national imagination in a secularising age?

Some churches we enter but never see; the author asks the reader to supply whatever details they need to follow the action. The Aerodrome, Rex Warner’s much-neglected allegory of authoritarian government (1941) is set in the Village, a pure archetype of rural England, and this abstraction is vital as Warner works out his plot. Though the pivotal scene in which the Village is annexed by the Aerodrome is set in the parish church, we are told only that it contains pews, and choir stalls.

John Wyndham’s village of Midwich, afflicted by a strange and horrifying inversion of nature (The Midwich Cuckoos, 1957), is another archetype, and of its church we learn only that it is “mostly perp. and dec., but with a Norman west doorway and font”, in the manner of a Pevsner guide. Others we see from outside but never enter, as they form part of a landscape. One of the parish churches in Winifred Holtby’s South Riding (1936) is “a legacy of twelfth-century devotion, its delicate grey stone melting into the pale quivering summer sky of nineteen thirty three”. Surrounded by fields of corn ripe for harvest and the buildings of the town, the tableau is complete: “corn, brick and stone, food, housing, worship composed themselves into a gentle landscape of English rural life.” Though the English countryside was hardly so unchanging as this suggests, the parish church often did duty as a symbol of stability and continuity.

One of the effects of the Second World War was to supply the English imagination with a new symbol: the ruin, and not the picturesque ruin of Fountains Abbey, but of homes,factories, churches, blackened and strewn with the debris of their former lives. More than one novelist made symbolic play with ruined churches, as the Church first struggled to secure the sites and make them safe, and then to decide whether to rebuild them, demolish those which were redundant, or leave some as memorials of the war and as spaces for the public. One of Barbara Pym’s Excellent Women (1952) attends a lunchtime Eucharist in a bombed Belgravia church, of which only one aisle can still be used. In austerity London the congregation carries on nonetheless, singing to a harmonium while surrounded by small neat heaps of wall tablets and cherub heads; a lady serves coffee from a Primus stove.

Some ruins are made to carry much greater symbolic weight. Iris Murdoch’s 1966 novel The Time of the Angels features the fictional Wren church of St Eustace Watergate in the London Docklands. With only its tower left standing after the war, St Eustace and its rectory are the only surviving buildings in the midst of a vast building site. But there is no building on this building site, stymied by the withdrawal of planning permission. St Eustace is both symbol and backdrop against which Murdoch develops her theme of the loss of faith and the directionless search for something with which to replace it. Isolated on the peninsula of the Isle of Dogs, St Eustace is shrouded by the London fog that makes day night; all is becalmed, frozen in the half-light of the fog and carpeted in snow. Stranded amidst the debris of an old order, it is an empty shell which looms in the gloom, the only thing yet to be cleared before rebuilding may begin.

EVEN when a church is still intact, there is in the fiction of the mid-century a persistent whiff of decay and decline. Few indeed are the novels set in the new churches in the New Housing Areas built after 1945, or in warm and well-lit buildings with every chair full. Through the mist on Knype Hill the spire of St Athelstan’s “loomed dimly, like a leaden sphinx, its single bell tolling funereally boom! boom! boom!”. Inside, Orwell’s church is “very cold, with a scent of candle-wax and ancient dust”; the pews stretch barely halfway down the nave, leaving “great wastes of bare stone floor”. The money that should have been spent on repairing the belfry floor has been squandered on a new organ, and now the bells, which there is no money to rehang, threaten to crash down through the splintering floor onto the handful of worshippers below.

Llandinorwic church in Deiniolen. Image by Hefin Owen via Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0.

Even so, both Orwell’s and Barbara Pym’s churches are inhabited by real people, to whom the buildings are places in which significant things still happen. Amid the dust and cold, Orwell’s Dorothy catches a glimpse through the open door of the sunlight and trees outside, illuminated by the sun, as if by a flash of a “jewel of unimaginable splendour”; a moment that restores to her the power to pray. Miss Mildred Lathbury attends the church of St Mary in an area of London which Pym very precisely identifies as a “shabby part of London, so very much the ‘wrong’ side of Victoria station, so definitely not Belgravia”. Mildred thinks the church “prickly, Victorian-gothic, hideous inside, I suppose, but very dear to me”.

St Mary’s has none of the marks left by centuries of devotion: “it seemed so bright and new and there were no canopied tombs of great families, no weeping cherubs, no urns, no worn inscriptions on the floor”, only brass tablets to past vicars and ugly glass in the east window. But it is to St Mary’s that she comes in search of consolation; it is this building that she helps dress for Whitsun, finding peace amid the incense and flowers. Whatever doubts these characters may harbour, however insistent their creeping sense of irrelevance to the society around them, their faith remains.

The presence of people was the last thing lost from the churches of 20th-century English fiction, as the crisis of the 1960s settled into a new pattern of decline and marginalisation. This retreat was by no means complete, as readers of Susan Howatch or James Runcie will know. The popularity of Father Brown continues. However, as the century wore on there was a gradual withdrawal of both character and narrator from the active life of these buildings, and eventually a retreat from their doors to view them only from the outside.

The narrator of Daniel Martin by John Fowles (1977) recalls his childhood before the war but as if from behind the veil of his own loss of faith: “My contemporaries were all brought up in some degree of the nineteenth century, since the twentieth did not begin until 1945. That is why we are on the rack, forced into one of the longest and most abrupt cultural stretches in the history of mankind. Already what I was before the Second World War seems far more than four decades away; much more like the same number of centuries.” The two churches in which his father ministered are now aesthetic objects, which he now views with the eyes of the connoisseur: “One church was magnificent stone prose, but the other a folk poem”; neither of them remains a place of worship.

PERHAPS the novel in which a church plays the greatest part is A Month in the Country by J.L.Carr, first published in 1980. Though the novel is set in Yorkshire, the church is unidentified (and indeed unnamed), and in a Foreword, Carr revealed that its model was in fact in Northamptonshire, with “its churchyard in Norfolk, its vicarage London”. The narrator, Birkin, is hired to spend a month uncovering a medieval mural painting, and camps out in the belfry. By the novel’s conclusion he has, through a sustained act of patience — indeed of devotion, of a sort — uncovered and restored the painting.

In the process, he achieves a kind of imaginative communion with the original artist across the distance of centuries, and confronts his own loss of faith in comparison with that of the community for which the mural was made. (This kind of retrospective imagining of the mind of the church-builders of an earlier age was not unique to Carr; two contrasting examples are William Golding’s The Spire, and (on the stage) Dorothy L. Sayers’ The Zeal of Thy house.) Yet for Carr the parishioners of Oxgodby are largely invisible as a worshipping community. Birkin is woken by the tolling of the bell that calls them to church, and he catches a glimpse of them as he peers down from the belfry. But Carr’s church is barely a place of present worship; as for John Fowles, it is solely a repository of meaning and the memory of those long dead.

The last and latest of my subjects here is City of the Mind by Penelope Lively (1991), in which the the gradual withdrawal of the novelist from the church building is complete. The novel is a meditation on the buildings of London, invested and reinvested with meaning by the successive generations of people who encounter them. It features several churches, all of them real buildings and named as such.

One character sees Wren’s St Bride’s Fleet Street on fire in December 1940, its spire “lit from within like a lantern”. In the Spitalfields of the late 1980s, all demolition and redevelopment, the spire of Hawksmoor’s Christ Church fights for the skyline with cranes and new office blocks. Round the corner is the former Huguenot church on Fournier Street, an immigrant church itself already overwhelmed by waves of later immigration: subsequently a Methodist church, next a synagogue, now a mosque.The churchyard of St Anne’s Soho is being redeveloped as a paved shopping precinct.

There is particular play with St Paul’s Cathedral, a church of the mind in a city of the mind; when Lively’s Elizabethan explorer encounters the massive ice floes of the North-West Passage, it is in the shape of St Paul’s that he sees them, a “cathedral in the ice” as “time and space collide” in the imagination. The novel’s main protagonist, Matthew Halland, stands mesmerized in a Charing Cross Road bookshop by the famous photograph, taken by Herbert Mason on the same night that St Bride’s was gutted by fire, of the dome of St Paul’s framed by black smoke but intact.

Lively’s characters encounter these and other London buildings, and project onto them whatever significance they will. What these churches never are, however, is alive: places in which real breathing Londoners meet and worship. In Lively’s London, the churches are bearers of meanings, objects for the imagination, but without present or future. This is a thoroughly secular city of the mind.

‘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.