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).

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