A. S. Byatt’s church in Sixties London

[The latest post in my series on clergy and churches in twentieth century English fiction. Here, in the third of four posts, I look at the third novel in the ‘Frederica Quartet’ by A.S. Byatt].

If we know nothing else about the religious life of the early Sixties, we know it to have been a time of experiment. It is possible to overstress the uniqueness of the time, to misremember nostalgically, or (on the other hand) to trace all our current ills back to it. But though the roots of the intellectual turmoil went deep into the past, there was clearly a sense that many things in doctrine, morality and church life that had been thought immutable were in flux all at once; a general sense of unsettlement. One reaction to this imagined crisis was to experiment: with new forms of ministry outside the traditional parish; with new secular ideas; with new ways of communicating. A.S. Byatt’s 1996 novel Babel Tower, which begins in London in the autumn of 1964, dwells on all of these.

In the crypt of the church of St Simeon, not far from King’s Cross, there is an experiment in new ministry. Like so many of London’s churches, St Simeon’s was damaged by German bombing during the Blitz. Some of these churches were rebuilt, others demolished, a few left in ruins as memorials. Some, though intact, were no longer needed as the populations they used to serve had left the city, and became homes for alternative ministries. The originally vast space of St Simeon’s was rebuilt on a rather smaller scale within its original walls. Its surviving Victorian glass is not so much reconstructed as remixed, ‘abstract, yet suggestive’, with storks and doves, giraffes and leopards, in ‘rivers of grass-green and blood-red, and hummocks of burned amber’; planks of the Ark; Christ’s hand breaking bread at Emmaus (chapter 1). The simple gaudy piety of the old glass is transformed, a bricolage now of the blackened shards deposited in the aisles; the symbolism is hard to avoid. (It is one of several ruined churches in English fiction, some of which I wrote about before.)

Image: Flickr (https://www.flickr.com/photos/nreijmersdal/), CC BY 2.0

No longer a parish church, St Simeon’s is home to the Listeners, the model for which is clearly the Samaritans, set up in the crypt of St Stephen’s Walbrook (in the City of London) in 1953. In a plywood booth the Listeners take phone calls from the desperate and the vexatious. One of them is Daniel Orton, no longer a parish priest in Yorkshire after suffering a breakdown following the death of his wife (in Still Life, the second of the quartet). Daniel (who shall have his own post in this series) simply listens, and coaxes his callers to talk; there is suggestion, but little direction. In the ruins of the old, a newer, humbler church listens and does not pontificate.

One of the other Listeners – their director, in fact – is Adelbert Holly, canon of St Paul’s, writer on theology and psychology, counsellor and ‘sexual therapist’, described by his publisher as ‘a daring and a subtle theologian’. His first book, Within God Without God has made his publisher a good deal of money, arguing in its ‘riddling and witty way’ that Christians must abandon their idea of God as the ‘Old Man Up There’. Instead, God may be found in every cell of the body, ‘the inherent Intelligence in the first protozoa clinging together in the primal broth.’ Canon Holly has much in common with the bishop of Woolwich and his Honest to God (1963) and has appeared on the television supporting it, and him. Daniel is not sure what separates such ideas from pantheism, and wonders whether the ‘Canon would shrivel if he were obliged to follow his own reasoning, his own metaphors, outside the walls, so to speak, of the Church, the singing, the ritual, the imposed duties.’ (chapter 1)

But Holly’s panentheism (which is perhaps what it is closest to, or perhaps the thought of Teilhard de Chardin) is not abstract, but very immediate to him, bodily and sensual, a matter of sex and of death. He is a founder member of a group called Psychoanalysts in Christ, and author of another, even more controversial book, Our Passions Christ’s Passion. One of the Listeners suggests that the ‘modern Church’ gives the impression that the subject of sex is what bothers it most. (The Church of England did indeed spend a good deal of time in the Sixties thinking, and disagreeing, about sex, heterosexual and homosexual. It was also a period of Christian flirtation with psychology, and the two movements were connected, although historians have not yet explored the connection all that much) ‘The Church has always been about sex, dear’ Holly replies, gleefully: ‘that’s what the problem is.’ In denying the sexual impulse and trying to eradicate it, people become obsessed with it, he thinks. ‘That’s why current moves to be more accepting and celebratory about our sexuality are so exciting’.

But is religion not really about God, and the prospect of death, he is asked? Yes indeed, Holly continues: ‘the germ cell is immortal but the sexually divided individual is doomed, it is sex that brought death into the world.’ And suffering too – to inflict and to bear it – is at the heart of Holly’s gospel, of a cruel God who tortured His Son and of a suffering Christ, battered body and blood spilt, pain and degradation. It is on these lines that Holly speaks for the defence in the obscenity trial that forms the centrepiece of the novel. But the subtlety that his publisher values is a liability in the court room. ‘You have lost me, Canon, I fear’, says the judge; ‘I can understand your individual sentences, but your general drift I find hard to follow.’ Holly’s flights into obscurity try the patience of both judge and jury (chapter 20).

For all the attention that has been paid to the religious ideas of the 1960s, historians have neglected the means by which those ideas spread – the history of religious publishing. And there was certainly a market for economical editions of religious writing in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Letters and Papers from Prison, through which most English readers first encountered the martyred Dietrich Bonhoeffer, appeared in the Fontanta paperback series in 1959, and went through an impression a year for some years; John Robinson’s Honest to God was in the similar series from the SCM Press. In chapter 4, we see the office of Rupert Parrott, Canon Holly’s editor, and his books are on display, with Op Art covers, spirals, in black and white or blood-red and orange; they are ‘elegant, and evidence of energy’. (And self-consciously modern, as I’ve observed elsewhere). The firm of Bowers and Eden is run by an ‘old-style socialist’ who thinks religion nonsensical, unworthy of attention. But Parrott – and Honest to God – has persuaded him that there is a market in the ferment: ‘much more extreme stuff than [Honest to God], much sexier, literally, sex and religion’, the new youth cultures, studies of ‘charisma’, the death of God. The conventional ways in which people were prepared to live even without believing are no longer available, Parrott observes. ‘We’re moving into a period of moral ferment, moral realignment, fruitful chaos, people want to know what’s going on.’

Part of that moral realignment was in the relationship of creativity and the law; the 1959 Obscene Publications Act, the ‘trial’ of Lady Chatterley, and the ending of theatre censorship in 1968. The established Church played important parts in all these developments, since it was on Christian foundations that the whole justification of censorship had rested. Holly is present at the meeting of solicitors and barristers to plan the defence of Bowers and Eden and of Babbletower. John Robinson had appeared at the Chatterley trial in 1960 for the defence, making him ‘a stumbling-block and a cause of offence’ in the eyes of the archbishop of Canterbury, Geoffrey Fisher. ‘There was a bishop in the Chatterley case’ says the silk representing Bowers and Eden; ‘Got rather mangled. Said the book promulgated marriage. Got himself reprimanded by the Archbish, I hear… … Not a good precedent on balance.’ Holly thinks he can find a better bishop for the job, ‘a radio Bishop with a large following’, but it is decided against (chapter 18).

But at least one bishop does appear in the trial of Babbletower, but for the prosecution. Though the episode is not often noted (overshadowed at it is by Robinson and Chatterley), David Sheppard, later bishop of Liverpool, but at the time a priest-cum-social worker in east London, appeared as a witness in the 1967 trial of Last Exit to Brooklyn by Hubert Selby Jr. And it is words very much like Sheppard’s that Byatt gives to the bishop Humphrey Swan, ‘thin and sad and bespectacled and insubstantial’, suffragan of a ‘difficult’ part of Birmingham. Had the bishop been depraved and corrupted by Babbletower, (the test in the law)? ‘I must answer yes. I am a worse man, a sicker soul, for having read that book. I shall take time, I shall need effort, to recover from the experience.’

As with the earlier novels in the series (see earlier posts on The Virgin in the Garden, and Still Life), Babel Tower teems with religious themes and with clergy through which they are examined. All of them are faced with the challenge of the new: intellectually, pastorally, aesthetically. In Holly and Swan, Byatt shows us some of the paths out of the predicament.

If you’ve enjoyed this post, why not support the blog on Patreon? For only £2 a month, get advance access to new writing, and unlimited access to the archive.