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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The Church of England and theatre censorship

I was delighted yesterday to find on my doormat Studies in Church History 48 (2012), in which there is my own article on the archbishops of Canterbury and theatre censorship between 1909-49. It is available direct from Boydell and Brewer or from the Ecclesiastical History Society, or at an academic library near you. Here is an edited extract which gives a flavour of the whole, or read the whole thing here.

[from the Introduction]

“The position of the archbishop of Canterbury at the heart of the Establishment engendered requests to be patron, advocate or opponent of almost every conceivable development in national life. One such entanglement was his role as unofficial advisor to the Lord Chamberlain in the matter of the licensing of stage plays.  According to the report of the 1909 Joint Select Committee on the system, the Lord Chamberlain was able to refuse to a licence to any play that was likely ‘to do violence to the sentiment of religious reverence’, to be indecent, or ‘to be calculated to conduce to crime or vice’. It was on matters such as these that from time to time the Lord Chamberlain’s office would consult the archbishop.

“Despite the apparent oddity of a senior churchman being asked to adjudicate on artistic matters such as this, the matter has hitherto received little attention from religious historians to match that given to the censorship of the cinema and to the Lady Chatterley trial of 1960. It receives scant attention also from successive archiepiscopal biographers, due perhaps to its apparently epiphenomenal nature. The role of the archbishops is treated in passing in general accounts of the censorship, but by its very nature this scholarship has not treated the theme directly.

“Taking as its period the forty years from the Joint Select Committee report in 1909 to the unsuccessful attempt in Parliament to reform the system in 1949, this article details the curious unofficial position of the archbishops within the system of censorship. The various grounds on which Archbishops Randall Davidson (1903–28) and Cosmo Gordon Lang (1928–42) in particular offered their advice to the Lord Chamberlain are then examined. The article thus provides a case study of the singular and often anomalous position of the archbishop at the heart of the Establishment in Britain, and the extent to which the secular and ecclesiastical powers combined in the regulation of the life of the nation, both moral and aesthetic. In addition, it examines a unique nodal point in the interaction between the Church and the arts.

[from the Conclusion]

“In 1940 Colin Gordon of the Lord Chamberlain’s office solicited Lang’s opinion on the play Family Portrait by the American playwrights Lenore and William Joyce Cowen. A.C. Don, Lang’s chaplain, accepted the ‘obvious reverence and restraint’ of the script but raised some fundamental concerns. The first issue was the portrayal of the brothers and sisters of Christ, the very non-existence of whom was a matter of some importance to Roman Catholics and to some within the Church of England. The second was the downplaying of the incarnation to the extent that Christ appeared as solely an ethical teacher, although a great one. Don concluded that the play ought not to be licensed in the usual way.

“Here was the archbishop’s representative advising in accustomed fashion. When called upon, Davidson and Lang had advised on the licensing of plays on a number of different grounds: the likelihood of incitement to vice; of gratuitous offence to religious people; and, more controversially, of theological or artistic defect. They helped shape the formulation of guiding principles, and advised in cases where there was doubt.

“It is, however, an indication of the degree to which the situation had changed by 1940 that Family Portrait had in fact already been licensed the previous year, without reference to Lambeth at all; and the exchange was one of the last of its kind. After a peak in the 1920s and early 1930s, there had been a marked decline in the number of plays referred to Lambeth. Lang’s successors William Temple (1942–44) and Geoffrey Fisher were seldom consulted, although Fisher was kept informed of major changes in policy, such as the relaxation of restrictions on the portrayal of homosexuality in 1958. One of Fisher’s few interventions was to reinforce the longstanding ban on the representation of God in The Green Pastures in 1951, a decision reinforced by Michael Ramsey ten years later. So it was that the single stipulation relating to the impersonation of the persons of the Trinity was by 1949 the only remaining matter on which the archbishops advised the Lord Chamberlain.

“I hope elsewhere to continue the story beyond 1949, and to treat of the attitude of Anglicans to the final abolition of theatre censorship in 1968. Anglican support for abolition was in part fostered by the manifest anachronism of the remaining rule and its stultifying effect on religious drama within the Church. That aside, the operation of the system to 1949 is demonstrative of some governing assumptions concerning the joint operation of church and state in the regulation of morals; of understandings of the appropriate modes of representing the national faith; and of some of the tensions in the relationship between the church and the arts.

The Church and literature

I’ve just finished correcting the proofs of my article on the archbishops of Canterbury and the censorship of the theatre between 1909 and 1949, which is destined to appear in Studies in Church History vol. 48 this summer. It can be pre-ordered on the Boydell and Brewer site, which has a list of the contents. Re-reading it after 18 months, I’m still pleased with it, although the re-reading has suggested some new questions to pursue, about which I’ll blog another time. There’s a brief summary of the article here.

It isn’t always that themed volumes such as these that the Ecclesiastical History Society produce are so squarely in one of my areas of interest, but this one certainly is. It can be read as a companion to SCH 28 (1992), which was on ‘The Church and the Arts’ and contains several articles which remain the most recent word on their subjects. I was at the St Andrews conference that spawned the forthcoming volume, and as one of the session chairs was involved in the EHS’s normal peer review process, and am looking forward to reading the final versions of several of the papers I heard. Judith Maltby writes on Rose Macaulay, Stuart Mews on the Lady Chatterley trial, and Crawford Gribben on rapture fiction. There are also several pieces on twentieth century representations of the medieval past, by Sarah Foot and Stella Fletcher amongst others.

[Update: see a summary of the published article]