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.

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The Church and the law (Studies in Church History 56)

As seems to have become something of a tradition on this blog, I note the recent appearance of this year’s issue of Studies in Church History, the product of the 2018 conference of the Ecclesiastical History Society in Cambridge, and the 2019 meeting in London. As the required length of articles in SCH is gradually becoming longer, so the number of papers included has fallen, and my ready reckoning suggests that the volume includes perhaps a third of the papers presented. Since the transition of the journal to Cambridge University Press, my usual listing of the papers is no longer necessary, since titles and abstracts are all available online. I don’t propose to review the volume as such, since the 27 papers range from late antiquity to the present, and across several nations, although not (as is common with SCH) from north America. But there is one particular point of note.

As Rosamond McKitterick notes in her introduction, part of the stimulus for her choice of theme for the volume (in her capacity as EHS president) was the disjuncture (in the UK) between the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013 and the canon law of the Church of England. And it is striking how much of the attention of historians of the UK since 1945 (and perhaps elsewhere too), when paying attention to religion at all, has been taken up with what we might call the ‘moral law’, and the degree to which ‘secularisation’ (whatever we mean by the term) has entailed the emptying of the law of specifically Christian moral content. And there is now a substantial literature on the churches and the law, in relation to abortion, capital punishment, divorce, and the decriminalisation of homosexuality (in the Sexual Offences Act 1967).

What strikes me about this new SCH volume, however, is how little attention there is paid to issues of morality, in fact. Only one article – on illegitimate births in 19th and 20th century Austria – addresses the topic directly, and in the twentieth century (for the UK) there is only a brief discussion by Peter W. Edge of the Fraudulent Mediums Act 1951 that comes close to the topic.  Instead, issues of the narrow relation of church and state (both nationally and locally) and the toleration of religious minorities tend to dominate.

This is no reflection whatever on the Society or the editors of the volume, since they can only publish what they are offered, and the balance of the papers at the 2018 conference, at least, was not significantly different. I can’t speak for the early modern or medieval periods, but I suspect that for the twentieth century at least, this points to a certain gap between the concerns of scholars within the orbit of the Society – which tend to be specifically ecclesiastical – and the writing on broader social and political history in which religious questions are not always well enough integrated. This is not a new insight, but this volume is another illustration of it.

The pandemic and the idea of a national church

Has the Church of England had a good crisis? Well, it rather depends on what you think the CofE is for.

Image: Flickr (vinylspider), CC BY-SA 2.0

Just as was the case in the wake of the death of Princess Diana, the salience of parish churches in local communities has made them a focus for many without a habit of churchgoing, or who would not even profess any very particular faith themselves. I don’t doubt that the feeling is real. But it has led to criticism of the decision not to open the churches for private prayer (although the vast majority of urban and suburban churches would not have been open in normal circumstances, and have not been for many years). And this particular focus on the building has led columnists and pundits to lament ‘the absence of the Church of England’ in the pandemic response (the phrase is that of Will Self).

The pandemic has, perhaps not surprisingly, brought out some of the cliches that make discussion of the role of the established church rather difficult. One is the sense (rather fanciful, I would suggest) that the nation, still Anglican at its heart, cries out as one from Bradford to Basingstoke, from Camden to Combe Magna, for the archbishop of Canterbury to take the lead. The bishops may also reflect with a rueful smile that they are accused of being a mere mouthpiece of government public health propaganda, yet are too ‘political’ when it comes to the Prime Minister’s chief adviser and his conduct during the lockdown. And the rhetorical setting of a stout, honest laity against a perfidious clergy is a trope that runs through many disputes of the last century, to the Prayer Book crisis of 1927-8 and beyond.

Not a few have responded with details of all the things that those fixated on the building have missed: a revolution in online activity, as well as volunteering at food banks, debt counselling centres and all manner of other vital social relief work. To close the churches and help stem the spread of the virus to persons unknown may be as pure an expression of loving one’s neighbour as is to be found. Few of the critics have been able to explain why the church should have put its volunteer members – many of them elderly – at risk in order to staff churches for private prayer, police the wearing of masks or the washing of hands, and carry out all the additional cleaning.

There will in time be some reflection into the Church’s reaction to the crisis, and there will no doubt be lessons to learn. But in play here are quite fundamentally opposed ideas of what it means to be a national church. That the crisis has caused many people to ask the kinds of questions which had hitherto not forced themselves upon the mind is certainly true, as the remarkable levels of engagement with online worship suggest. And many, if not most, within the Church of England would still recognise a vocation to serve everyone living in the parish, to at least some extent. (One might want to question the idea that the non-Anglican churches are indifferent to the needs of their communities, but I set that aside for now.)

But the language of vocation is important, and precise. I return to Will Self, in a column in the New European (June 11th-17th), because as a novelist and as one brought up as an Anglican, his choice of words cannot be accidental. In criticising the Church, and Archbishop Welby in particular, he writes: ‘the fact remains that we have an established church in this country, one whose remit is to minister to the spiritual requirements of every single citizen, regardless of their beliefs or lack of them.’ Everything in this sentence is compatible with a sense of vocation, save for the word ‘remit’. The NHS has a remit for the provision of healthcare; local authorities have a remit to run schools and empty the bins. Whatever the people of England may expect from the established church, to speak of it in these terms is to make a category error.

Were the Church of England funded directly from the public purse, with statutory duties set and maintained by government under Parliament, then this might be a meaningful way to speak. The current entanglement of the Church with the law in no way amounts to the same. Critics often refer to the ‘privilege’ the Church enjoys, of having some of the bishops sit in the House of Lords. That’s a debate I shall not go into here, but I’m not sure that the presence of the bishops in the Lords constitutes one side of a quasi-contractual relationship, in return for which the Church writes a blank cheque to every pundit who occasionally enjoys a spot of archbishop-bashing. Whatever the Church offers is (or should be) a gift freely given; to frame it as an entitlement of citizenship, or (worse) a service purchased by the nation from the Church, is to misunderstand it fundamentally. Whatever it means to have a national church, I’m not sure this is it.

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Sacred and secular martyrdom: a review

Sacred and secular martyrdom in Britain and Ireland since 1914
John Wolffe
London, Bloomsbury Academic, 2020, viii + 197pp., £85 (hardback), ISBN 978-1-35001927-0.
[A review forthcoming in the Journal of Beliefs and Values.]

After the terrorist attacks in the USA in 2001, and in London four years later, the idea of martyrdom gained a new salience. This important study by John Wolffe is the product of a RCUK Global Uncertainties Leadership Fellowship: an attempt to build an informed religious literacy on the subject to aid the making of public policy. The book fills a gap that, after having read it, seems obvious, and indeed glaring, but which was not so before (to this reviewer, at least): a measure of how significant and new a perspective on the period it presents.

Wolffe expressly adopts no a priori definition of martyrdom, opting instead to trace its shifting meanings. The churches, both Protestant and Catholic, had their sixteenth century martyrs, and the nineteenth century had seen their ranks added to from the mission field. While the Christian martyr tended to be passive, the historic shape of Muslim martyrdom was more activist, a life lost in struggle. Wolffe’s achievement is to show how far the idea could be extended into more secular contexts, concluding that no easy line may be drawn between sacred and secular varieties. Martyrs could be made in defence of a nation (particularly during the First World War), even if they were conscript soldiers, or of a different faith to the national one, or indeed of no faith at all. In Ireland in the 1920s there were competing martyrologies, nationalist and unionist. The former focussed on the Easter Rising of 1916 or the hunger strikers of the 1980s; the latter (though less explicitly articulated) centred on the Battle of the Somme. Whole nations could be cast as martyrs in a collective sense for rhetorical purposes, or individual towns. And it was not even entirely necessary to lose one’s life for it to be glossed in this way; such was the case of Martin McGuinness, a former IRA member who died of natural causes at the age of 66 after serving as deputy first minister of Northern Ireland.

Wolffe’s reading of the language of martyrdom is deft and subtle, showing the complex uses of religious texts and their overtones in the wider commentary, and the interplay of this specific language with the more ambiguous concept of sacrifice. The extent to which martyrs were made and remade according to the needs of the present is a persistent theme. But the range of sources is wider than this, taking in dozens of interviews, as well as fine readings of the architecture of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemeteries in France and Belgium, and of myriad local war memorials at home.

Wolffe’s chronology is too complex to be easily summarised, but the period began with an unusually tight interweaving of national and religious stories. This was exemplified by the bishop of London, Arthur Winnington-Ingram, who in 1914 described the war dead as ‘martyrs as really as St Stephen … covered with imperishable glory they pass to deathless life.’ Even then this connection was contested. Wolffe shows just how contingent on events and personalities the shape and symbolism of the commemoration of the war was. But by the centenary years of 2014-18, the process of secularisation had left the imagined community (on which such an idea depended) much less Christian, and (in the context of Scottish and Welsh nationalism) without another glue with which to bind itself together. Though the centenary events were in a sense a renaissance of remembrance, it was without a stable consensus on its meaning. By the end of the century, the language of martyrdom or sacrifice for the nation was being replaced by that of victimhood, a motif both more inclusive and more reflective of the ambiguity with which death in the trenches has come to be viewed.

All this will be of absorbing interest to scholars of national identity, but there is a parallel story concerning the churches. The view of William Temple, archbishop of Canterbury between 1942 and 1944, was subtly but substantially different to that of Winnington-Ingram. Even though the Nazi regime was a more unambiguously anti-Christian opponent, Temple could mark the sacrifice of those who had died without speculating on their salvation. By the time of the Falklands conflict, it was clear to many that too close an association with national remembrance compromised the churches’ attempts to present a Christian view of conflict focussed on reconciliation. The churches in both Britain and Ireland had also come to view Catholic and Protestant martyrs of the sixteenth century not as opponents, but as common witnesses to a larger truth, to whose number had been added others from other countries: Oscar Romero, Martin Luther King and the German, Dietrich Bonhoeffer. These and others were commemorated in 1998 above the west door of Westminster Abbey, just inside which is the tomb of the unknown soldier: old and new (or perhaps rediscovered) understandings of Christian martyrdom in a symbolically crucial building. Wolffe’s telling of these stories will be required reading for all students of British and Irish religion and politics of the last century; no serious historical library will want to be without it.

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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.

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