Theology, providence and Anglican-Methodist reunion: the case of Michael Ramsey and Eric Mascall

[An extract from a chapter in the forthcoming book Anglican-Methodist Ecumenism: The Search for Church Unity, 1920-2020, edited by Jane Platt and Martin Wellings, to be published by Routledge in 2021.]

It was while Michael Ramsey was archbishop of Canterbury that the Church of England tried twice, and failed twice, to agree to reunion with the Methodist church. In July 1969 the Methodist Conference agreed to a union that involved the most radical recasting of church order: the incorporation of episcopacy into a system that had never known it. Ramsey thought it ‘an event in history of an almost incredible kind’ that one of the Free Churches should have agreed to enter in union on such a basis. However, the Church Assembly of the Church of England narrowly rejected the Scheme. Ramsey thought it right to try again, since the Anglican ‘no’ had to be set against the Methodist ‘yes’. But the General Synod, successor body to the Church Assembly, was to say ‘no’ again in 1972. The failure of the scheme was perhaps the greatest disappointment of Ramsey’s time as archbishop.

The central issue (at least on the Anglican side) is well-known: the nature of the ordained ministry. Anglo-Catholics held tenaciously to episcopal ordination as essential to a valid sacramental ministry. They were thus deeply concerned about accepting Methodist ministers into a united church who had not been so ordained. Conversely, conservative evangelicals in the Church of England were concerned about any implication that the particular form of ordination they themselves had in fact undergone was in any way fundamental to their ministry.

In order to circumvent this obstacle, a Service of Reconciliation was devised, through which all ministers in the united church would pass at the inception. It involved the laying on of hands, but did not address the precise question of how the status, before God, of both the Anglican and the Methodist ministers changed during the Service. Was it an ordination, or not? The Service was certainly similar in structure to the ordinations that Anglicans were used to seeing, and so it rather looked like one. For some, it mattered a great deal what one believed the answer to be; for others it mattered little. For some, it also mattered that men might undergo the Service while being allowed to understand its significance in quite different ways.

The advocates of the Service had been explicit that the important thing about the Service was neither the starting point, nor the journey, but the destination. This agnosticism was too much, however, for a significant minority of evangelicals and Anglo-Catholics, who together were to oppose and ultimately defeat the Scheme. For Ramsey it was a ‘double tragedy of two sections of our Church being ready to throw away the things which they most care about through fear of losing their theological tidiness.’

My own 2015 book on Michael Ramsey, available via Amazon or your local bookshop.

The disputes within the Church of England over the Scheme generated a great deal of heat and only limited light. Here I want to look at the basis of just this theological tidiness on the Anglo-Catholic side of the argument, through the relationship between Ramsey and the theologian and philosopher E.L. (Eric) Mascall, one of the most prominent opponents of the Scheme. Ramsey and Mascall both saw, more clearly than most, through the passions stirred by the debate to the fundamental issues behind them. Though the dispute seemed to be about understandings of episcopacy and ecclesiology, lying beneath were the relations between tradition and providence, and between philosophy, theology and history. The two agreed that the long-term shape of any united church had to be episcopal, but their disagreement over the means to create it was fundamentally about the nature of God’s sovereign action in the world.

For most of 1968 the two churches had before them the final Scheme and the Service of Reconciliation. Mascall concluded that the Service would produce a validly ordained ministry – it really was in fact an ordination, whether Methodists or Anglican evangelicals liked it or not – but by a ‘series of tortuous evasions’ it had been left ‘open to anyone to hold any view of the services that appeals to him.’ It was possible, he thought, to believe – and at least some people did believe – that both Anglicans and Methodists were being ordained, or that only the Methodists were, or that no-one was. This gave rise to ‘the gravest reservations on the ground of plain morality. Can it be morally right […] for a bishop deliberately to ordain to the priesthood a man who has no desire to be so ordained and who would repudiate the intention of the bishop if the latter openly expressed it?’

If there was one thing guaranteed to provoke Ramsey, it was the suggestion that he was sacrificing theological principle for pragmatic reasons. Mascall had joined a group of four opponents – two evangelicals, two Anglo-Catholic – which had submitted a statement to the Convocations in May 1969, and a second in July on the eve of the vote. (The group later published Growing into Union, an alternative scheme for union.) Shortly after that first defeat of the Scheme, the four wrote to Ramsey. ‘There has been a deep lack of understanding’ he replied, ‘between those who believe the Service of Reconciliation procedure to be theologically sound both in general and in this instance and those who believe it to be a rather disreputable “dodge” for getting round a theological and practical difficulty.’ However, it would not do, he argued, to ‘dismiss those who have the “other” view on this issue, including myself, as being a set of pragmatists who can be ignored’.

Challenged about the ‘ambiguity’ of the Service, Ramsey preferred the term ‘agnostic’, since the proceedings ‘are clear in what they affirm and clear in what they shrink from affirming.’ Conscious ambiguity was not to be equated with dishonesty. Those who charged the service with ambiguity would need to face squarely the real ambiguity in parts of the Book of Common Prayer or the 39 Articles: ‘I think it is unfair if we tax this scheme with ambiguity as if it was something we never practised as Anglicans.’ The status of the Methodist ministers who would take part was different in some degree to his own, he thought, but they were clearly ‘ministers of the word and sacraments of a sort and I cannot regard them as laymen.’ Whatever he or they believed about their current status, the Service was to ask God to give both Anglicans and Methodists ‘whatever he knows them to need in authority and the gifts of the Spirit to make our ministries equal and identical as presbyters in the Church of God.’ Their current status relative to each other was not defined, and it did not need to be defined.

In the same letter to the Growing into Union group, Ramsey noted that the tone of debate had shown ‘that a mutual lack of theological comprehension exists. […] Here is a task of theological analysis, not the analysis of the content of belief so much as of the ways of looking at theological truth.’ What were these differences? They revolved around the degree to which Anglicans were prepared to live in exceptional circumstances with that which they found hard to fully articulate in theological terms.

Mascall and Ramsey were at one in their belief in the necessity of episcopacy, which the united church would, in time, have. Ramsey argued that ‘the scheme provides something unprecedented to deal with the unprecedented situation of the two churches coming together.’ In such circumstances, with regular orders assured for the future, Ramsey was not shocked by a temporary anomaly, ‘and I believe that God could and would overrule such anomalies.’ Episodes such as the discontinuity in the succession of bishops in third century Egypt, or the gradual success of Catholic faith and practice in the united Church of South India convinced Ramsey that God could bless and had blessed churches where such anomalies had existed as a matter of historical fact.

Eric Mascall

Ramsey’s view of the Church and of God’s providence, then, allowed him to deal with the Service in a way that Mascall could not. Writing in 1955, before the Second Vatican Council, Mascall argued that to discount the prospect of any thaw in relations with Rome was to show a ‘lack of trust in the power of God to bring about changes that are beyond our own power; [it assumed] that we can at this moment envisage all the possibilities that lie hidden in the womb of the future.’ However, Mascall’s reactions to the Scheme showed the limits of what he could imagine the providence of God ever intervening to do, in fact. The insistence on theological ‘tidiness’ which characterises his reactions to the ecumenical movement was not merely a scruple, or a failure to grasp the wider issues, but fundamental, a matter of metaphysical necessity. ‘Have we really any right to expect’ he asked of the Scheme ‘that God will reconcile logical contradictions?’ Though Providence was necessarily capable of all possible things, there were some things that it could not do without violating its own nature. The Scheme put the understandable emotional impetus towards union ahead of theological soundness. It was not merely undesirable to try to create a catholic united church on such a basis; it was impossible, a metaphysical contradiction of the true nature of the Church – the mystical Body of Christ – as Mascall understood it.

To the end of his life Mascall believed that, despite the infection (as he saw it) of the churches with the kind of institutional pragmatism of which the Scheme was an example, the Catholic tradition still contained a coherent framework for the whole of human existence. His solution to that crisis was a firmer restatement of that core doctrine. It had not, and could not, change in its fundamentals; it needed only to be recovered and restated. Ramsey held equally fast to the reality and sufficiency of the revelation available to the Church. But he felt more keenly than Mascall the real difficulty of articulating that framework in its fulness in a way that did not leave much unsaid, unsayable and indeed incomprehensible.

Ramsey also had a greater confidence that the unsettlement of those years was not merely a symptom of decline and loss of nerve; in that shaking of the churches, the action of God was to be discerned. Though he came later to downplay his debt as a young man to Karl Barth, Ramsey retained a vivid sense that God was sovereign over history; things that had been thought immoveable could change in ways beyond comprehension, if it was God’s will that they so changed. As he told the Convocation in January 1969, ‘our present understanding of the episcopate and of the Eucharist may be but a shadow of the understanding that may be ours in the future plenitude of the Church. It is in these ways that I think a voice is saying “Speak to the children of Israel that they may go forward.”

And to many in the late 1960s, and not only Ramsey, it seemed clear what that way forward was. ‘Nothing in the world matters more’, Ramsey wrote in 1946, ‘than the fulfilment of the prayer of our Lord “that they may all be one”’, and the height of his career coincided with the single most concrete attempt at that fulfilment. Though the years that have since elapsed have served to throw the ecumenical euphoria of the period into a colder and clearer light, it was at the time possible for Ramsey to see in the Scheme – or rather, the movement of which it was the product – a profound move of God. It was this that Ramsey felt, and Mascall did not; Mascall’s hopes were placed elsewhere, in the outworking of the effects of Vatican II. For Mascall, the reunion scheme was not so much a high-water mark, but the tide flowing in the wrong direction.

St Mugg, the bishop and the Pythons, an encounter reborn: a forty-year episode in Christian media history

Occasionally a particular event comes to stand for a shift in cultural history, a embodiment of the movement of impersonal forces at a key moment, or a sudden evidence that a shift has already taken place. One of these was a televised debate on 9 November 1979 about the newly released film by the Monty Python team, The Life of Brian. The programme, Friday Night, Saturday Morning was a late-night weekend chat show in front of a live audience in the mood for amusement. It pitted two of the Pythons – John Cleese and Michael Palin – against Mervyn Stockwood, the bishop of Southwark, and Malcolm Muggeridge, writer and former satirist, but in his latter years a very public convert to Christianity and one of the Church’s most trenchant apologists.

The show must be one of the most discussed television programmes of recent years, and in the last two decades it is the Pythons’ interpretation of it that has become dominant, for reasons I shall discuss shortly. Stockwood and Muggeridge are both long dead, and (as far as I know) never commented publicly on the programme after it was broadcast, and so their interpretation of it is hard to recover. It is clear that they had only seen the film earlier that day, and were likely still in a degree of shock, for reasons I shall come on to. Palin also gathered from Stockwood before the show that that he had missed the first few minutes due to confusion over times; Cleese later recalled that Muggeridge too had missed the beginning. These two facts together go a long way to explain the sheer misunderstanding of the film the pair showed, and the startlingly vitriolic way in which they showed it.

Watching it again, it is hard to disagree with Palin’s impression that Stockwood spoke ‘with all the smug and patronising paraphernalia of the gallery-player, who believes that the audience will see he is right, because he is a bishop and we’re not.’ Stockwood ‘posed and preened and pontificated’; Palin’s arguments were dismissed as ‘unworthy of an educated man’; the two were being ‘utterly dishonest’. How far the two misjudged the public mood is indicated both by the audience, and by the speed with which the programme – and Stockwood himself – were themselves lampooned on the satirical show Not the Nine O’Clock News. Within days clergy of the church of England were writing to the press regretting the pair’s performance.

In retrospect, it is hard to see the event as anything but a public relations disaster for the Church of England. (Even Raymond Johnston, who with the Nationwide Festival of Light was trying to have the film banned, had seemed to Palin to be embarrassed by Stockwood and Muggeridge.) Stockwood’s parting shot – ‘I’m sure you’ll get your thirty pieces of silver’ – was in retrospect terribly misjudged, a lack of communicative wisdom compounded by failures of charity and of respect. ‘We won the argument’ thought Cleese, ‘by behaving much better than the Christians’.

At one level the clash was visibly one of generations, of the residual authority of one generation over the next. Cleese had just turned 40; Palin was only 36. Stockwood, in contrast, was 66, and would within days announce a very welcome retirement after a long private struggle with depression. Muggeridge was a decade older still, at 76, having reached a similar stage of disillusion, but with life itself. ‘Extricating myself from the flesh I have too long inhabited,’ he wrote around this time, ‘disengaging my tired mind from its interminable conundrums, and my tired ego from its wearisome insistencies. Such is the prospect of death.’ Old and tired, neither man was likely to engage with the film and the questions it seemed to be asking. (After the event, the BBC’s head of religious broadcasting regretted having presented two ‘serious and brilliant’ performers with ‘geriatric’ opposition).

Stockwood emphasised the gap in generation by referring to his time as vicar of Great St Mary’s in Cambridge, the university church, in the late 1950s, and missioner to Blundells School before that: he was ‘familiar with undergraduate humour’. The impression was cemented by Cleese’s account of the religious education he had received at Clifton College in Bristol, during which time (it emerged) he had in fact heard Stockwood as a visiting preacher. But at another level, the four had as much in common as that which divided them: three Cambridge graduates (Cleese, Muggeridge, Stockwood) and one from Oxford (Palin, who was also an alumnus of Shrewsbury School).

And it is this closeness of the four men in social terms that should make us wary of reading the dispute in terms of class, of popular and elite. ‘Have we not become as established as the Establishment we seek to kick?’ Palin wondered, a few days later. Were the Pythons not ‘licensed satirists… Keepers of the Queen’s Silly Things’, and likely to be afforded the full protection of Oxbridge men ‘in an English Establishment that is still Oxbridge-controlled?’ Here was a conversation within the elite about other things.

So what was the dispute really about? Although much of the discussion was about the representation of Christ in the film, the law on blasphemy in particular was never really invoked. But it might have been. In July 1977 the Christian campaigner Mary Whitehouse brought a successful private prosecution against the publishers and editor of Gay News for the offence of blasphemous libel. Whitehouse and the Nationwide Festival of Light certainly had their eye on the Python team. Just as the filming had finished in the autumn of 1978, the NFOL was warning its supporters ‘that there seems little doubt the the film is blasphemous.’ However, the advice from J.A. Fisher, canon of Windsor (after reading the script) was that while the film was likely to be found ‘extremely offensive’, it was clearly not blasphemous, and soon the NFOL admitted the same.

Even if not blasphemous, The Life of Brian did cause offence, and the NFOL pressed for it to be banned by local authorities if it could not be stopped nationally. Robert Hewison documented the campaigns against the film in towns across the UK, in the USA and in Canada, a subject ripe for a detailed historical investigation now. But the television debate in particular showed two older Christians grappling with rapidly shifting understandings of the proper purposes of the arts (broadly conceived) and the kind of treatment established Christianity could expect from them.

The decade and a half or so before 1979 saw all kinds of new interactions between faith and the arts, both ‘high’ and ‘low’. In 1968 the Theatres Act lifted the last vestiges of theatre censorship, allowing for the first time the personation of Christ himself on stage, not least in Jesus Christ, Superstar (1970). In 1978 A.N. Wilson’s novel Unguarded Hours depicted all manner of vanity and vice in an Anglican theological college. In Chichester, Walter Hussey welcomed the dramatic music of Leonard Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms into the cathedral, and the cast of the London production of Hair sang songs at St Paul’s. Meanwhile, missionally-minded Christians experimented with film and drama, and ‘pop’ church music gradually moved from the margins to the centre of Sunday worship in an increasing number of churches.

Viewed in the round, the whole period is one of negotiation, the forging of new terms of trade. If traditional ways of communicating the gospel by means of words were failing, perhaps the arts were another way. But in return for such co-operation, the churches could no longer expect the kind of reverential treatment that had been the case only twenty years before. However, by no means all British Christians were comfortable with all this. Indeed, by the late 1970s a kind of siege mentality had in places set in, a sense that all that had been stable was under threat: the King James Bible (endangered, it was thought, by modern translations), and the Book of Common Prayer, about to be pushed out by the Alternative Service Book 1980, after 15 years of experimentation with new services; traditional hymns replaced with ‘trivial’ choruses.

It is in this light, and not as mere abuse, that we should read Muggeridge and Stockwood’s scorn for the film on grounds of its quality: ‘cheap and tenth-rate’, something the Footlights company in Cambridge would have done ‘on a damp Tuesday afternoon’; it was ‘not worthy of you’. The Pythons had taken a subject previously the preserve of the ‘greatest art’ and made out of it the ‘lowest art’; posterity would make up its own mind about this ‘squalid little number’. It is striking that Muggeridge, himself editor of Punch in the 1950s and a satirist whose work Cleese and Palin knew and respected, should make such a category error as to try to equate the purposes of Brian with the art of the Renaissance or Chartres Cathedral (‘not a funny building’, as Cleese put it). But the assertion that higher art forms, executed to the highest standard, were the only acceptable means of reflecting on religious truth was a common one, and with a long history.

At base, the two sides were at cross-purposes, and so there could be no real meeting of minds. The Pythons sincerely believed that their purpose was not to ridicule Christ himself but to examine certain elements of human credulity. (Had Muggeridge and Stockwood seen the whole film, they would surely have accepted Palin and Cleese’s insistence on this.) Interviewed by Dick Cavett on American television not long afterwards, Cleese described the film as ‘profoundly religious’; although the Pythons had toyed with the idea of a film about Christ himself, they had found him to be ‘wise, flexible, intelligent’, and lacking in precisely the characteristics on which comedy thrives: envy, greed, malice, stupidity. It was these perversions of the religious impulse that the Pythons had in their sights. Only if religion was defined as something unexamined, controlled by institutions exempt from critique, was Brian an irreligious film.

Both at the time, and in more recent years Christians have embraced the critique in the film and used it for evangelistic ends. Canon Fisher of Windsor (the father of a friend of Graham Chapman) thought there were things in the film that (in Chapman’s words) ‘he’d been wanting to say the whole of his life’. And with those aspects of the film Muggeridge and Stockwood would have no doubt largely agreed if discussed in the abstract, with an appropriate seriousness. Christians of their generation were more than accustomed to intellectual challenge, but not when framed in this way. Even if one disagreed strongly with Christianity, matters of faith could not be dealt with lightly; they were much too important for that. The Pythons’ offence was to touch theology with unwashed hands.

For all the sound and fury, the episode might have disappeared from public consciousness, had it not been for technological change and the retrospective assembling of a ‘history of Python’ on the Pythons’ own terms, in which the episode assumed a prominent place. The episode was first documented in 1981 by the cultural historian (and friend of long standing with Palin) Robert Hewison. But books go out of print, and television shows disappear into the air. (Home video recording was available to some in 1979 – the writer Douglas Adams, a friend of Palin’s, had recorded the show and watched it repeatedly – but such recordings were hard to circulate.) Stockwood had nothing to say of it in his 1982 memoir, and it is not noted by his biographer, or in either of the two biographies of Muggeridge that appeared together in 1995.

In the last twenty years, however, as the Python team approached retirement, a record of their careers has been assembled, both by the group themselves and by the media. Biographies and autobiographies began to appear, both of individuals (Cleese in 1999, Chapman in 2005), and of the group as a whole; the team recalled the broadcast in the 2003 group ‘autobiography’. Palin himself gave an account in his diaries, published in 2006. Channel 4 screened a documentary on the episode in 2007 (The Secret Life of Brian) which was followed by a 2011 film, Holy Flying Circus. One morning in 2013 the BBC’s flagship morning radio news programme Today gave the guest editorship to Palin, during which show he and Cleese reflected on the dispute.

At the same time, footage of the Friday Night, Saturday Morning encounter was beginning to be reborn online, and on YouTube in particular. The earliest clip I have so far found was carried on the channel of the campaigning Atheist Media Blog in 2009, which boasted several thousand subscribers. (The clip is now deleted, but archived by the Internet Archive). And before long the footage was itself being re-edited, captioned and republished on YouTube to frame Muggeridge and Stockwood as both idiots and persecutors.

That the footage has now floated entirely free of its historical moorings was evident in the reaction in early 2020 to a Facebook post by the BBC Archive. The posted clip showed six minutes of the programme, from towards the end when the tensions between the four men became most apparent. (The post was ostensibly to mark the death of Terry Jones, even though he did not take part in the programme). Posted on January 23rd, at the time of writing it had attracted some 1,800 comments. Many took the same dim view of Muggeridge and Stockwood as has become the orthodoxy; at the same time many Christians commented on their own appreciation of the film. A good few seemed not to grasp that the footage was historic. Some reacted to Stockwood in particular with comments concerning historic sexual abuse within the churches (there is no suggestion that Stockwood had any involvement in the several cases that have recently come to light). The subsequent revelations concerning Muggeridge’s own reputation as a serial sexual harasser of women are also noted, having been given new prominence by Jean Seaton’s 2015 book on the BBC. 

In 1979 Muggeridge and Stockwood doubtless thought that they were dealing with an ephemeral film, in the similarly airy medium of a television chatshow. Instead, their performances are reborn again and again in new media contexts, as the established narrative of the Christian churches as both ridiculous and hypocritical continues to evolve.

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.

Reconstructing a late-Nineties web sphere

I was very pleased to take part this week in ‘Engaging with Web Archives‘, originally supposed to take place at NUI Maynooth in April, but which instead took place online. My thanks for Sharon Healy and Michael Kurzmeier for the original idea, and for their remarkable perseverance in making the final event take place. It’s very good to see an event of this kind happening in Ireland, and I expect it will come to be regarded as a highly significant moment in Irish engagement with the archived Web.

My presentation is available on YouTube. It’s a shortened version of ‘Digital archaeology in the web of links: reconstructing a late-90s web sphere’, forthcoming in Gomes, Davidova, Winters and Risse (eds), The Past Web. Exploring Web archives (Springer, 2021)

 

Towers and networks: on the differences between the sciences and the humanities

Having worked for several years in interdisciplinary environments, a thing often heard both from humanists and scholars in STEM disciplines is a kind of amiable incomprehension about the way the other works. It crops up in relation to publishing, in the so-called ‘reproducibility crisis’, and in many other contexts. Here, I propose a pair of metaphors which may go a little way, towards least, at bridging the gap.

One of the questions that was ever-present in the background of my recent little book about edited collections was this: why is it that the edited collection is so prevalent in the humanities and (to a lesser degree) in the social sciences, while it is very rare indeed in the hard sciences? I didn’t address the question directly, as I wanted to explore how the format worked in the places where it was to be found, rather than to account for its absence elsewhere. But it has come to mind once again, prompted by a 2014 post by Patrick Dunleavy of the LSE (which had eluded me until now) on the varying cultures of citation in STEM subjects, when compared the humanities and social sciences. (In short, the critique is that, in general, articles in the latter tend to cite many fewer publications by others; that this is a bad thing – even a failure of ethics – and should be changed.)

The two issues may seem unrelated, but I should like to suggest that the answer to both lies in understanding the structurally different way in which knowledge accumulates in the ‘hard’ sciences as opposed to the more humanistic disciplines. I suggest that the difference may usefully thought about by means of two metaphors for bodies of scholarly literature: the tower, and the network. The two metaphors doubtless oversimplify the matter, but contain nonetheless a real and durable distinction.

Consider for a moment a particular topic in medical research: the making of a vaccine for a virus. All the several teams currently racing to develop a vaccine for COVID-19 will – I strongly suspect – all be fully familiar with the same literature: that published on COVID-19 specifically since the crisis started; on vaccines already developed for other coronaviruses; on the development of vaccines in general. And although these literatures are doubtless very large, they may be visualised as a tower, in which each individual study forms a brick in the wall. The dependence of the scholar on each study is relatively direct – all the bricks are, as it were, load-bearing in the structure. The papers high up in the walls could not have been written without those below them.

Contrast this for a moment with an essay I have just this week completed on the conservative poet and critic C.H. Sisson, and specifically his understanding of the relationship of church and state in 1970s England. To be sure, there is a tower here, but only a small one – a group of half a dozen studies over the past forty years that have touched on the specific question of Sisson’s religious politics. My work builds on, refines, critiques and contradicts these as it proceeds.

But the tower metaphor only takes one so far, and so I propose a new, or at least additional, one, of the network. The essay is also a new node in a vast network of studies on the very broad fields of British religion, politics and the arts in the twentieth century. I’ve been reading in these fields for nearly twenty years, and am sure that my mind has been shaped in ways that I couldn’t possibly remember, by studies that I don’t even recall reading. Sisson was an example of many things: a certain kind of political conservative, a maker of trouble in his parish church, a resident of Kent and then Somerset – he has a local history – a fierce anti-Catholic, a working-class boy made good, a member of a profession (the civil service), a former soldier who had served in colonial India, a philosopher of religious language (of a sort), a poet with a certain set of ideas about how verse should work. Each of these aspects of his life and thought is touched upon in my account. Each of those aspects – English anticatholicism and the ecumenical movement, the local history of Kent, the Anglican parish system, the political history of English conservatism, the effects of the Empire on English thought, the evolution of religious language, the development of English poetry – has its own scholarly literature, some of them vast; much of it I have read, but I can hardly claim to know it all. All I can hope to do is to refer the reader to studies that most closely touch my work, or that exemplify current ways of understanding the period, and that provide ways into those literatures; to create new edges in the network that the reader can follow. To systematically cite them all is simply impractical, and arguably pointless. It is surely this structural difference between different kinds of knowledge that in part accounts for differing citation cultures. I have added a brick to a small tower, and a node to a vast network.

And the connection with the edited collection? Perhaps the reason that the edited collection is so rare in the hard sciences is that it is very difficult for it to contain bricks from the same tower. If bricks are to be laid on top of each other – to cite and develop each other – they can’t very easily be published simultaneously.

However, the edited collection format is ideal for the publication of a group of new nodes in a network, since they are not so dependent on each other. My study on Sisson is (I hope) to form part of a collection on his work, alongside essays on his verse, and on his translations of the Latin classics. I cite one of the other chapters as providing a complementary point of view; I could have written my own chapter without it, but they are now in relation with each other. With some modification, however, my essay might have equally well have found a home in a recent edited collection on the Church of England and politics, or in another on the developing relationship between the Church of England and the arts. The three volumes (two real, the last still just an idea in my mind) are each a snapshot of different sets of nodes in the greater network.

Like all metaphors, my tower and my network are a simplification; all fields will manifest elements of both patterns. And there are also structural and economic reasons why the literatures in different fields tend more toward either tower or network, which I don’t propose to go into here. But I would assert that literatures in the hard sciences in general are structured more like the tower, and those in the humanities as a network. If having such metaphors to hand does anything to lessen some of the mutual incomprehension between disciplines, then I shall have achieved my aim.

Unguarded Hours

After six years and dozens of posts in my series on fictional clergy, a new record has been set for the most priests in a single novel. In Unguarded Hours, by A.N. Wilson (1978), I counted some ten clergy, plus half a dozen ordinands in theological college, and a wandering bishop. It is to Mar Sylvestrius (Exarch of the Isles, Abbot of Cluny, Elector of the Holy Roman Empire, but otherwise plain Mr Skegg, retired electrician) that we owe the intervention that catapults the hapless hero into the sphere of the Church of England. But it is in the other characters that most interest lies.

Wilson’s fiction has often been likened to that of Evelyn Waugh, and our hero Norman Shotover is, like Paul Pennyfeather in Decline and Fall, knocked off his professional course by a ludicrously minor misdemeanour into a situation for which he is manifestly unsuited. But while Pennyfeather is ejected from the study of theology, Norman is instead thrust into it. Wilson himself had spent an abortive year in training for ordination at St Stephen’s House in Oxford, and we are invited to identify Norman’s experience with Wilson’s own (Norman is Wilson’s middle name). It is perhaps for the goings-on, the ‘mucking around with sex’ and more besides at St Cuthbert’s College that the novel is most remembered. Though it is not my concern here, Wilson’s portrayal of the high camp subculture of the college is of a time when the Church of England, having in 1967 supported decriminalisation of homosexuality had not yet begun to reassess its own discipline which remained conservative. The antics of Thelma, Amelia and the other St Cuthbert’s ‘bags’ were a symptom of what has recently been called the ‘undigested’ nature of the Church’s relationship with homosexuality.

St Cuthbert’s is worth pausing over for a moment, however, as a portrayal both of a particular type of college, and of the general disorientation of Anglican Catholicism in 1974, when the book is set. The Church of England was in the process of rationalising its training, and a number of the colleges that were in cathedral towns – and distant from the universities – were under threat of amalgamation or closure. St Cuthbert’s is in the Sussex cathedral town of Selchester, and exudes the whiff of decay that the reformers wished to remove. Based in two houses in the cathedral close, the college is the proud possessor of a biretta blessed by Darwell Stone, and a stole worn by Father Tooth which has taken on the character of a holy relic. Norman, however, is unable to find the library, the books having been sold off to pay for repairs to the chapel roof; instead of writing essays, the students recycle old ones from a collection kept in the Common Room. The principal, Father Fosdyke, is on ‘paid leave’ after a series of scandals the previous year, and another colleague, ‘Dahlia’ Dickens, left to get married, leaving only ‘Felicity’, the vice-principal Arthur Fogg.

Not a few of the clergy Wilson shows us are in states of decrepitude, and their churches with them. The bishop we never meet, though we learn that he is unwell. The wizened Canon Pottle has been incumbent of St Botolph Bowlegs for sixty years, and the local conservation societies can only hope that he expires before the building falls down. Felicity Fogg is another, with his stammer (which Wilson lampoons mercilessly), ‘one of those moth-eaten clergymen who look as if they are falling to bits’ (part 2, chapter 7). Fogg is happiest when recounting stories of the shrine at Walsingham in the old days, but unable to exert any influence whatever on the student body, good or bad. Little of value emerges from Wilson’s account of Fogg, St Cuthbert’s and the particular kind of Anglo-Catholicism they represent. The most fully-drawn caricature in the novel, however, is of a quite different kind.

Image via Flickr (jamesbradley, CC BY 2.0)

The Very Reverend and Honourable Ronald Etherington-Hope, dean of Selchester – or just plain Ron Hope, as he preferred to be called – is an amalgam of every possible kind of liberal or radical cleric from the 1950s to the 1970s. His early career clearly evokes that of John A. T. Robinson, author of the controversial 1963 book Honest to God. A doctoral thesis on Rudolf Bultmann and a well-regarded book on early Christian texts lead to academic success in his college. A contribution to the best-selling collection of controversial essays Rumblings (a clear reference to Soundings, published in 1962), opens the way to the equally successful Room for Doubt, television appearances and articles in the newspapers.

Such theologically radical and media-friendly clergy also appear in the work of Iris Murdoch and A.S. Byatt. Ron Hope’s journey, however, was not yet finished, and Wilson gives to him more markers of a kind of politicised cleric of the early 1970s. As the angry young of the 1950s became older, the new generation of the late 1960s had less appetite for Hope’s writing, and so ‘jauntier, and yet more aggressive, tones had to be adopted.’ Unlimited abortion and the abolition of the age of consent are causes he adopts, along with government aid to guerrilla movements (the World Council of Churches had in 1970 begun to aid certain southern African groups, and it was not quite clear that the money had not been used for arms). Newly arrived in Selchester in the early 1970s, his projects include hospitality to just such a group of African freedom fighters, and raising money to support striking car workers. His solution to the disorder at St Cuthbert’s is a course of lectures on ‘The Church in the Modern World’; the ordinands are packed off to experience ‘real life’ in factories, mental hospitals and immigration centres.

Leaving aside the implausibility of his career path – such a figure was a highly unlikely candidate for a deanery – Wilson’s Dean is a stereotype of an earlier period updated for the Seventies. What is more unusual is Wilson’s depiction of Ron Hope’s family life. Of his seven daughters, several seem to have achieved the kind of enlightenment that he might have desired: one is experimenting with communal living near Glastonbury; another is travelling to Kathmandu; Cleopatra – whom we meet – runs a natural food store in Selchester which has displaced the old tea room and its doilies, after returning from a squat in south London. Only the eldest – respectably married to an MP with three privately-educated children – is a disappointment. The reader is however, invited, I think, to compare them with the clergymens’ daughters in Orwell, Barbara Pym and others, and not quite favourably; it is not only in St Cuthbert’s that people are ‘mucking around with sex’, but the Dean’s daughters too. The expectations most readers would have had of a clergyman’s home life are further confounded by the fact that the Dean’s wife has taken what is tactfully described as an ‘extended holiday’ in South Africa with Hope’s elder brother, an embarrassment in Cambridge which he has come to Selchester to escape.

Wilson’s acidulous and well-informed picture of the Church of England would seem to leave nothing unscathed. But there are two priests with whom, though very different from each other, Norman/Wilson seems to appreciate rather more, and who in their shambolic and somewhat ridiculous way still seem to point towards a faith and practice that have something of value. The worship at St Willibrord’s, the ‘highest’ in Selchester, with its (to Norman) inexplicable smells, costumes and gestures, and its chant, ‘half like the mysterious music of an oriental temple and half like a cat caught in a mangle’ is both ridiculous and in some vague way moving. And it is as curate to Father Crisp that Norman feels that his unwonted vocation might be worked out. Crisp is cheerfully dismissive of the Dean (a ‘silly donkey’), and pragmatic about the youthful indiscretions at St Cuthbert’s. Mucking about with sex is to be expected; the question was whether or not they would, in time, make good priests. And Norman is impressed by Crisp’s own sense of vocation, which had pressed itself on him despite his doubts, and through his simply carrying on had lasted forty years. It is to Crisp that Wilson gives the only opportunity to speak at length in his own voice (part 1 chapter 5). It was simply by obedience to the Divine Will, he tells his congregation, that Christians could hope to stand in the same company as the saints, however inscrutable that will might seem.

Norman’s prescribed dose of ‘real life’ after the scandal in the college was to be taken in a parish in an obscure part of the Surrey commuter belt, all mock Tudor houses with neat little gardens. Mr Dumble is, as the students had thought, rather ‘low’: communion only once a month, no list of times for confessions, and Mr Dumble preaches in just a surplice and scarf. Instead of a fug of wax and incense, the church smells of polish, flowers and damp. Norman preaches his first sermon, on neighbourliness, which seems to be appreciated, and visits the hospital. And the parishioners who host him every day to lunch or tea seem kind, and speak of their family and their pets. Like the Dumbles, with their garden and with Nationwide or Dr Finlay on the television, they are unglamorous, conscientious and happy. Though the vicarage was not full of nice things, and the Dumbles’ talk did not scintillate, Norman resolves to be as much like Mr Dumble as he can. ‘How much good Mr Dumble is doing by stealth’, says another character: ‘if we only had half the goodness of some of those pathetic little clergymen.’ (part 3 chapter 2) For all its comedy, the Church of England still seems to Norman/Wilson a force for good.

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.