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).

A vicar in the country

Next in my series on fictional clergy is Mr Keach from J.L. Carr’s 1980 novel A month in the country, who is dealt with only briefly but (as with much else in what is only a short book) Carr achieves much with economic means. Birkin, our principal character and narrator, arrives at a small Yorkshire village in the summer of 1920 with a job to do. In fulfilment of a will, he is to investigate and (if needed) uncover and restore a medieval mural painting in the village church. He is greeted by an unsympathetic Keach, a relatively young man of perhaps thirty, neat, but ‘pale-eyed, a cold, cooped-up look about him’. Keach fusses and quibbles about small things: expenses, Birkin’s living arrangements (he intends to sleep in the belfry); we see a cramped, fiddly, irritable man, without grace or hospitality. His offence in Birkin’s eyes is compounded to his indifference to the mural; Keach had asked the executors to agree to an alternative use for the 25 guineas but was rebuffed: Birkin’s presence is a burden he has no choice but to bear, along with the scaffolding that occupies his church. Clergy were often caricatured as culpably indifferent to the arts, and Carr’s priest is so shown here. Keach worries that a painting about the chancel arch will distract his congregation from their worship. Worse still, Birkin could, he supposed, fill in areas that had disappeared. ‘Incredible! I thought. Why are so many parsons like this! Must one excuse their defective sensibility towards their fellows because they are engrossed with God?’

The mural painting at St Mary’s church, Goring-by-Sea. Image: Peter Webster

But Carr’s vicar is a more sympathetic character than this, or rather, more pathetic, in need of our pity. One of the great tasks of the reforming Church of England after 1945 was the rationalisation of parsonage houses, and indeed of parishes themselves. Already by 1920 clergy were often in the wrong place, marooned by demographic change, and in houses built on a different scale for an earlier time, and Keach is one such. Carr draws the vicarage as dark and foreboding to the point at which one almost expects to encounter a ghost, and Alice, Keach’s wife is driven to nightmares by its encircling trees, out of control, and the air, pressing in as if in a compression chamber. Leaving the overtones of Gothic horror aside, the vicarage itself is of a not uncommon type. Keach shows Birkin the vast empty house, that could have accommodated a large family and its domestic staff, now scarcely furnished, with room after room left as empty as on the day on which he and his wife arrived. ‘In this wilderness of a house’, they ‘huddled together for the comfort of each other’s company. Neither cares to be alone in the awful place’. The Keaches struggle on in its enveloping shadow, with some small comforts: a card table, his violin, an altar made of a trunk covered with a bedspread: ‘they shouldn’t have been made to live in it’, Birkin decides.

Keach’s predicament goes beyond his vicarage, however. Alice wonders whether he should not have been happier in the south, Sussex perhaps, rather than in the rural north, with people more like themselves, but the crisis to which he gives voice is in reality not one of location. In the last scene in which we see him, as Birkin has finished his work, Keach’s sense of his own superfluity and failure emerges. ‘The English are not a deeply religious people’, he says; their observance is largely out of habit, that at Christmas or Harvest merely ‘a pagan salute to the passing seasons’. They have no need of Birkin save as a ‘removal contractor’ at the rites of passage of weddings and funerals. And Birkin has, unwittingly, twisted the knife. Keach had, it turns out, hoped to be of pastoral use to Birkin, a man returned wounded from the war: ‘you have come back from a place where you have seen things beyond belief, things which you cannot talk of yet can’t forget, but things which are at the heart of religion’. Yet Birkin, like all the others Keach has tried and failed to reach, has passed the time of day, spoken of the weather, ‘and you have hoped that I shall go away.’ Though there is no suggestion that Keach is himself in any crisis of faith, he is diminished, reduced to irritability and pettiness, by a sense of waste, of a vocation unfulfilled.

South Riding religion

A slight digression in this post in my fictional clergy series, to take in Winifred Holtby’s fine South Riding. It was published posthumously in 1936, but is set in the years between 1932 and 1935 in the fictional South Riding of Yorkshire, which is inspired not by present-day South Yorkshire but rather the East Yorkshire coast and wolds.

It is well known that Alice Holtby, the author’s mother, disliked the novel intensely and opposed its publication. This was despite Winifred’s protestations that, though some of the details were clearly derived from her mother’s career, Alderman Beddows was not Alderman Holtby, the first female alderman on the East Riding County Council. Despite this, and despite the range of characters deployed, we are clearly invited to understand the headmistress Sarah Burton as the closest representative of Holtby’s own views, and this extends to Sarah’s religion, such as it is. Raised by her Methodist mother as an Anglican, as a means of social advantage, the girl grew into a young woman who was sceptical both of her mother’s faith and that into which she had raised. Her mother’s Methodism was both theologically complacent and (in its imaginative repertoire, of washing in the Blood of the Lamb), repellent. ‘Resignation, acceptance of avoidable suffering, timidity and indecision, she found contemptible. The world is what we make it, she would preach [to her pupils]. Take it – and pay for it.’ Her code was one of taking responsibility for one’s own decisions: ‘we must do it ourselves, she thought: we are our own redeemers.’ (Book 2, chapter 6)

Flamborough. Photo by akademy, via Flickr: CC BY-NC-ND-2.0

South Riding is unusual amongst novels of its time in taking the inner experience of faith seriously, even if in the final instance it is not to faith that Holtby looks for the solutions for the social problems in need of solving. The nature of providence runs through the thoughts of several characters, as they grapple with unfolding events. Sarah has no place for providence, if all that is meant is a resignation to one’s lot in the face of circumstances that, with greater determination, could be changed: ‘through her mind passed a procession of generations submitting patiently to all the old evils of the world – to wars, poverty, disease, ugliness and disappointment, and calling their surrender submission to Providence.’ (Book 4, chapter 2) And it is in Alfred Ezekiel Huggins, Methodist lay preacher, haulage contractor and local councillor, in which we see the antitype to Sarah’s bracing faith.

In other novels in this series (as in the case of Robert Tressell), belief is made nothing but a smokescreen to hide self-interest or class conflict. Holtby’s craft is subtler that this. Huggins’ desire to serve his community is every bit as genuine as Sarah’s, and his distress at the hardship he sees is real. His piety is also not feigned; indeed, it is ever-present. But his belief in the guidance of the Lord at every turn is no admirable quality here, no marker of the completeness of his devotion. Instead it emerges as both frivolous – a trivialising of the action of God in the world – and as a much too convenient rationalisation of the petty materialism, corruption and snobbery which others, with clearer sight than Huggins, are able to exploit.

Yet, Sarah’s scepticism is of a gentle kind; in particular, there is room still to feel the imaginative force of some of the Christian images as expressed in the arts: the ‘superb tumult and affirmation’ of Handel’s Messiah shook ‘even so fierce an individualist, so sceptical an agnostic’ as she. ‘He was despised for our transgressions … with His stripes were are healed’ was the text, and ‘her senses were swayed by the image, but her mind could not accept its implication.’ (Book 2, chapter 6) And it is not only the great works of religious music that retain a power: for another character, the popular religious ballad The Lost Chord, largely disdained by professional musicians, is nonetheless evocative of a ‘queerly huddled group, the solemnity of Sabbath, the memory of good religious thoughts’ (Book 6, chapter 5). This openness to aesthetic experience is contrasted with Mr Drew, another Methodist, and self-appointed moral overseer of the public libraries on behalf of the Watch Committee. The novels of Aldous Huxley, Virgina Woolf and Naomi Mitchison attract his ire, but without his needing to quite read them all the way through. (Book 5, chapter 4)

Though the several Nonconformist characters emerge more or less badly from Holtby’s story, they are least present, a social reality in the South Riding. The contrast is with the established Church of England, which serves a largely ceremonial role, part of the order of things but with no purchase on life as it is lived. In the golden autumn of 1933, as the harvest is brought in, the parish church of Yarrold is an ‘exquisite height… a legacy of twelfth-century devotion, its delicate grey stone melting into the pale quivering summer sky.’ Land, church and town form a tableau in Holtby’s ‘English landscape’ (the book’s subtitle), ‘a gentle landscape of English rural life.’ (Book 5, chapter 6) But there are no characters for whom the parish churches play anything much more but an historic part. Miss Sigglesthwaite, impecunious daughter of a clergyman, dutifully attends church on Good Friday while she struggles with advancing age, domestic gloom and professional failure in Sarah’s school (Book 3, chapter 5). The farmer Robert Carne sits in the pew he owns, but his God is ‘the God of order who had created farmers lords of their labourers, the county and the gentry lords over the farmers, and the King lord above all his subjects under God.’ (Book 7, ch. 6) Meanwhile, of Mr Peckover, the rector, we learn little. He is a governor of the High School, of limited private means to send his own daughters anywhere better, and somewhat conscious of having a degree from Manchester, rather than Oxford or Cambridge. And of him there is little more. In the great struggle of local government to build a new Jerusalem, peopled by men and women of good will and initiative, the established Church counts for little. South Riding is a valuable corrective to the weight of novels set in the rural south of England, where the balance between church and chapel was quite the reverse.

Murder in the cathedral

When some months ago I read Barbara Pym’s Some Tame Gazelle for this series on clergy in fiction, I thought I had perhaps found the novel with the largest number of clerical characters (four in all.) I had not reckoned, however, with Holy Disorders, a detective novel by Edmund Crispin. It was first published in 1946 by Gollancz, and subsequently in an inexpensive Penguin Classic Crime edition in 1958. Featuring Crispin’s sleuth Gervase Fen, it is an entertaining tale of murder and black magic set around the south-west cathedral city of Tolnbridge. An attempt has been made on the life of the cathedral organist, and suspicion falls on the several clergy of the cathedral.

Cathedral at night (Salisbury).
Image: Lee Hughes (Flickr), CC BY-NC-ND-2.0

There are five clerical characters, all of them lightly drawn but with some deftness. Both bishop and dean are absent, for reasons we never know, and the cathedral is overseen by the precentor, Dr Butler. The precentor has the frame of a giant, and ‘the coldest eyes … ever seen in a human being.’ High-handed with clergy, organists and his family, Butler cuts a remote and unpopular figure. Canons Spitshuker and Garbin, one a Tractarian, the other a Low Churchman, busy themselves in furious and inconclusive disputes about doctrine: ‘unlike parallel lines, it was inconceivable that their views should ever meet, even at infinity.’ The two are also divided by class and wealth: Spitshuker, rotund and complacent, descends from a family long connected with the church; Garbin, a scholarship boy from a poor family, has a more personal, more earnest view of his vocation. A scholar, of the Albigensian heresy, Garbin suspected the precentor of plagiarising his work; an offence over which he almost resigned his canonry. The chancellor, Sir John Dallow, is the expert in the long and dark history of witchcraft in Tolnbridge: it is easy to become an expert when one has almost nothing to do and considerable wealth to support one in doing it. Finally, there is the young July Savernake, vicar of a nearby parish, who spends half the year living beyond his means as the curé bon viveur, and the other as the poor parson. He also has designs on the hand of Frances, the precentor’s daughter.

Crispin’s world owes a good deal to Trollope, and may well have been inspired by another murder in the cathedral, that written for Canterbury by T.S.Eliot a decade earlier. The cathedral provides a convenient setting for a complex plot: a group of people with relationships and rivalries of long standing, which live in close proximity in a small town, around a building with many doors, dim lighting and many secrets. But it is purely incidental that these characters are clergy. The plot never engages their conduct as religious professionals; there are no points of decision that are dramatic by reason of the faith of the person who must decide. At heart, Holy Disorders is a morally conventional tale in which a murderer is brought to book. Crispin has no design on the reader’s conscience; no desire to dramatise the place of the national church at the end of a world war. His purpose is simply to entertain, in which purpose he succeeds.

Archdeacons Afloat

So far in my occasional series on clergy in fiction, I have not engaged with detective fiction, and in particular the clergyman as sleuth. Most readers will, I imagine, think immediately of Chesterton’s Father Brown, but the clerical detective is in fact a numerous class of men. Rather smaller is the group of ordained sleuths who are themselves creations of clergy. Here, I deal with one (or rather, a pair) of them, the archdeacons of Thorp and Garminster, creations of Cyril Alington, dean of Durham.

The improbably titled Archdeacons Afloat, published in 1946, was in fact Alington’s 37th book, and his ninth work of fiction. Alington was prolific, in fact, in several genres: history, popular theology, poetry and memoir, little of which has had a permanent impact. However, this was no mere clerical hobbyist: the publishers of his fiction included Macmillan (his first novel in 1922) and (in this case) Faber and Faber, of which T.S. Eliot was a director. That said, it is hard to dissent from the verdict of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography that Alington’s fiction was ‘clever, witty, but quickly perishable’. William Temple, writing to Dorothy L. Sayers in 1943, noted that Alington ‘has several such [detective] stories to his credit – or discredit; frankly, I am not quite sure which because though they amused me, knowing him as I do, I don’t think they are very good!’

Simon McBurney as the fearsome archdeacon in the BBC’s series Rev. (Image from @ArchdeaconRob)

As literature, Alington’s fiction may well deserve the obscurity in which it now languishes: merely a part of the necessary but anonymous mulch of nondescript writing out of which better work grows. But the archdeacons are interesting for the light they shed on the ways in which the clergy feature as fictional characters. Archdeacons Afloat is particularly interesting in that it is set not in Blankshire, the English county in which three later novels involving the pair are set, but on a cruise ship in the Mediterranean. As such, we see the archdeacons transferred out of the social setting that gives clerical characters their significance in other works in this series (see for instance John Wyndham or John Fowles), and focusses our attention on their personal qualities as the mystery unfolds.

Though we are told that Craggs, archdeacon of Thorp, was ‘a name of terror to negligent clergy’, these men are not like the cantankerous Archdeacon Hoccleve (Barbara Pym), or Trollope’s worldly Archdeacon Grantly. Certainly, there is no sense here of the social tension of post-war England, under a Labour government and undergoing sweeping social reform. Our heroes are quite at ease with faded aristocrats, the wealthy wives of northern industrialists, and eminent lecturers. The only threats to this floating microcosm of stable and respectable English life are Greek brigands and the ruffian Blades, who ‘doesn’t look as if lectures were much in his line.’ (chapter 1) Alington is by this time an old man, and the novel is deeply nostalgic for a former time.

There are of course nods here to the ecclesiastical: in-jokes that must have been recondite even at a time when general knowledge about the Church of England and its doings was deeper and more widespread. The archdeacons relish their temporary escape from the dilapidations of parsonage houses or the recalcitrance of the Ecclesiastical Commissioners – the day-to-day lot of the archdeacon, along with vicars at war with their churchwardens, choirs that could not sing, and armies of plumbers, registrars and indeed bishops. Indeed, the whole plot turns on the old joke of John of Salisbury, ‘Num archidiaconus salvari possit’ (can an archdeacon be saved?), a neat trick that must have had Alington’s clerical readers chortling. However, the role the two play is more commonplace: the priest as confidant and go-between, and ultimately as a restorer of order. ‘Gentlemen’, remarks one character in the ship’s smoking room, ‘I give you the toast of the Archidiaconate of the Church of England’.