Iris Murdoch and the death of God

Iris Murdoch’s The Time of the Angels (1966) features not one but two clerical characters, both of the Church of England, and amongst the principal characters to boot. A little while ago I introduced the physical setting in which Murdoch’s drama is played out: the vicarage of a ruined church in a London wasteland, blanketed in snow and shrouded in the twilight of a London fog. It is against this backdrop of isolation and purposelessness that Murdoch is able to dramatise the impact of the ‘Death of God’ theology of the 1960s.

The blitzed church of St Dunstan in the East, now a public garden. Image: Peter Webster

The blitzed church of St Dunstan in the East, now a public garden.
Image: Peter Webster

There are two Fisher brothers: Marcus, and his elder brother Carel, the rector of St Eustace Watergate. Marcus has become concerned about his brother, living as a recluse in the rectory and refusing all callers, including Marcus. He is concerned not only for Carel, but also for Carel’s daughter Muriel, and for Elizabeth, to whom Marcus and Carel are guardians. He is also concerned on his own account. Marcus, a schoolteacher, is writing a book, Morality in a World without God (chapter 7), which will ‘rescue the idea of an Absolute in morals by showing it to be implied in the most unavoidable human activity of moral evaluation’. Thus armed, no longer would either theological metaphor or crude existentialism be necessary in order to society to function. But somehow he is distracted by the thought of his brother.

Marcus’ friend Norah has her doubts about the book, and Marcus’ intentions in writing it (chapter 2). Despite his apparent wish to start afresh, Marcus’ favourite reading is still works of theology; for Norah, Marcus is ‘just a Christian fellow-traveller. It’s better not to tinker with a dying mythology.’ The sooner the West would pass through its current twilight of the gods, the better, Norah thought. Her aim, characteristic of ‘the brisk sensibleness of an old Fabian radical’ was to get all that out of the system.

Concerned about Carel’s state of mind, Norah and Marcus consult with his bishop (chapter 9). Murdoch does not name him, but the parallel is very clearly with John Robinson, bishop of Woolwich, whose 1963 book Honest to God was perhaps the last theological bestseller in British history, for which he was censured by Michael Ramsey, archbishop of Canterbury. Both Norah and Marcus press the bishop on Carel’s apparent lack of belief, while he tucks into their treacle tart, washing it down with their claret. ‘It is a time’ he says ‘when, as one might put it, mankind is growing up. … Much of the symbolism of theology … is, in this scientific age, simply a barrier to belief. Our symbolism must change.’ As for Carel, the key is not his beliefs, but ‘passion, Kierkegaard said, didn’t he, passion. That’s the necessary truth.’ For the so-called ‘South Bank Religion’, what one believed was not so important as the earnestness with which one believed it. Despite his confession of atheism, the bishop regards Carel as ‘a profoundly religious man’.

I don’t want to write too much here about Carel himself, since to do so could very easily spoil the plot for anyone who has not read the book. But his character, and his actions, are the dark counterpart to both Marcus and the bishop. Marcus is superficially sure that his project of morality without the supernatural can be achieved. The bishop seems content enough that the church can survive the kind of testing and purification that the current ‘interregnum’ (Norah’s twilight of the gods) will entail. Carel, and the suffocating darkness that seems to emanate from him and damage those around him, is the side of their argument that neither can contemplate. Murdoch shows us the abyss of meaninglessness that may be glimpsed but cannot be faced.

Christopher Wren in the wasteland

Iris Murdoch’s The Time of the Angels (1966) is a dramatisation of the crisis of belief of the 1960s, and her two clerical characters deserve their own blog posts. But here,  I want to dwell on the setting of the novel in London and the atmosphere it creates.

A little while ago I wrote about Penelope Lively’s London churches of the mind: how the churches of Lively’s late 1980s are bearers of meanings imprinted by the past, but with no present life, and no future. As the redevelopment of parts of London is in full spate, these buildings are stranded, mute islands of memory in a sea of forgetting and obliteration. Murdoch’s London is of the mid 1960s, when pockets of land still remained uncleared of the rubble of the Blitz twenty years before. London’s population continued to fall, and it was only town planners that thought parts of the city had any future.

St Dunstan in the East. Image: Peter Webster

St Dunstan-in-the-East.
Image: Peter Webster

Although an invention of Murdoch’s, St Eustace Watergate is (or was) a Christopher Wren church, only the tower of which survived the bombing. The tower, and the nearby rectory are the only remaining buildings in the midst of a building site on which there is no building, shrouded by the London fog that makes day night, cut off from the city that surrounds it. The scene is the London docklands, close to the City but yet at the same time isolated on the peninsula of the Isle of Dogs, hemmed in on three sides by the river.

There were many blitzed churches, several of them of Wren, but by the 1960s the Church of England had more or less found ways of dealing with them, a cluster of fine buildings without parishioners to serve. Some were abandoned, their demolition completed and the sites sold. Some that could be rebuilt were rebuilt; others such as St Dunstan-in-the-East were left in ruins and converted into public gardens, both war memorial and public utility. Even those that were intact were no longer typical parish churches, but lived only during the working week: ‘lectures and concerts and shut on Sundays’ (p.13).

Murdoch’s St Eustace, neither rebuilt nor demolished, is ‘a niche for problem children’ (p.13): clergy whom the bishop can neither make use nor be rid of. There is half-hearted talk of an appeal to wealthy Americans for funds with which to rebuild, but we hear little of it. St Eustace is half a church: stranded amidst the debris of an old order, an empty shell which looms in the gloom, the only thing yet to be cleared before rebuilding may begin. But that rebuilding is itself stalled, stymied, by the withdrawal of planning permission for a skyscraper. All is becalmed, frozen in the half-light of the fog and carpeted in snow. It is both symbol and backdrop against which Murdoch develops her theme of the loss of faith and the directionless search for something with which to replace it.

London’s churches of the mind

Twentieth century British fiction features a good few fictional clergy of the established Church of England, and some (if fewer) accounts of religious life itself. Rather fewer again are the number of church buildings. And those that there are tend to be anonymous and stylised if set in a real town or village. Penelope Lively’s novel City of the Mind (1991) is a rather beautiful meditation on London, and its architecture in particular; its buildings invested and reinvested with meaning by the successive generations of people who encounter them over time. Unusually, the novel is populated with several churches, and although none of them are integral to the plot, they are all but one of them named; all of them real buildings rather than merely symbols.

The blitizd church of St Dunstan in the East, now a public garden. Image: Peter Webster

The blitzed church of St Dunstan in the East, now a public garden.
Image: Peter Webster

Most iconic of all London’s churches is of course St Paul’s cathedral, and although part of the novel is set during the Blitz, Lively avoids using St Paul’s as other novels have, although her character, an air raid patrol volunteer, is at work in the same area. Instead, it is Christopher Wren’s church of St Bride Fleet Street that he sees, largely destroyed in December 1940, its spire ‘lit from within like a lantern’ (p.10). St Paul’s is a church of the mind in a city of the mind; when her Elizabethan explorer encounters the massive ice floes of the North-West Passage, it is in the shape of St Paul’s that he sees them, a ‘cathedral in the ice’ as ‘time and space collide’ in the imagination (pp.48-9). The novel’s main protagonist, Matthew Halland, stands mesmerized in a Charing Cross Road bookshop by a photograph, taken by Herbert Mason on the same night as St Bride’s was gutted by fire, 29th December, of the dome of St Paul’s framed by black smoke but intact.

Halland’s London is that of the late 1980s, as the processes of demolition, redevelopment and gentrification are in spate; Halland is an architect rather reluctantly engaged with a tower of glass in the Docklands. Elsewhere, Spitalfields is the shoreline of the tide of change where ‘a reconstructed past and an inexorable future are fighting it out amid the estate agents’ signs and the cement mixers’ (p.92) Here the spire of Hawksmoor’s Christ Church fights for the skyline with cranes and new office blocks. Round the corner is the former Huguenot church on Fournier Street, an immigrant church itself already overwhelmed by waves of later immigration: subsequently a Methodist church, next a synagogue, now a mosque. The churchyard of St Anne Soho is being redeveloped as a paved shopping precinct, the bodies of generations exhumed and deported to a cemetery further out of the city. Nothing may obstruct the progress of redevelopment (p.36).

Lively’s churches point always to the change that surrounds them, rather than drawing any attention to themselves. The caryatids on the north side of St Pancras’ church on Euston Road are to Halland redolent of the classicism he understands; to his daughter they are nothing so much as ‘ladies wearing bath towels with books on their heads’ (p.87) What these churches never are is alive; places in which real breathing Londoners meet and worship. There is an implicit contrast between the rural, where such things may well continue, and the ghostly Christianity of the city. The German immigrant Eva Burden, who undertakes an engraving in glass for Halland’s tower, was first inspired to work in glass by the west screen in Coventry cathedral by John Hutton: a declaration in the early sixties that the urban church was not dead; the ‘Phoenix at Coventry’ (the phrase is of Basil Spence) could rise from the ashes of the blitzed city. In the late eighties, her only church commissions are of saints and angels for country churches; in the metropolis her work is mere decoration, decanters for the corporate boardroom. In Lively’s London, the churches are bearers of meanings, objects for the imagination, but without present or future. This is a thoroughly secular city of the mind.

John Fowles’ country parson

Most of the fictional Anglican clergymen in my little mini-series so far have been contemporary; that is, they are characters in stories set notionally in the present in which they were published. Daniel Martin, written by John Fowles and first published in 1977, has an extended vignette on the character of Daniel’s father, a parish priest in rural Devon in the 1930s and 1940s.

The Reverend Mr Martin owes something to Trollope, but bears a much greater symbolic weight. There is the enthusiasm for his garden, and for his collection of controversial religious writings of the seventeenth century, with which he regales his young son. He might have been a collector of butterflies or fossils or the detritus of dead languages: fictional clergy seem often to be antiquarians of one sort or another.

Not unlike Orwell’s Suffolk vicar in A Clergyman’s Daughter, he also disdains what earlier would have been known as ‘enthusiasm’, which he terms ‘demonstration’. ‘If only the good man would rely less on the demonstrative’ he would say of a visiting preacher; a visiting African-American preacher from the nearby US airbase was ‘over-enthusiastic’. In the Reverend Martin’s ‘Platonic notion of the perfect human soul’, any manifestation whatever of strong feeling was wholly absent. This was in part to do with where his real belief lies. Not uncommonly at a time when a clerical career was a predictably secure option for one of the right social stamp, the Reverend Mr Martin was ‘not truly religious’ but a good parish man. ‘His real faith was in order; and his mildly privileged place in it.’

Punch (1841) (14780579884)

A country parson and a pauper (Punch, 1841, via Wikimedia Commons)

Fowles’ portrait of a rural parson bears some similarities with Orwell’s, but its fictive function is quite different. Orwell’s clergyman is a contemporary; Fowles’ Mr Martin is part of a world, the dramatic loss of which is the subject of the whole novel. ‘I disowned all this world for so long simply because I saw it as freakishly abnormal’ Daniel tells us, as narrator:

But I see it now as no more than an extreme example of the general case. My contemporaries were all brought up in some degree of the nineteenth century, since the twentieth did not begin until 1945. That is why we are on the rack, forced into one of the longest and most abrupt cultural stretches in the history of mankind.  Already what I was before the Second World War seems far more than four decades away; much more like the same number of centuries.

If as historians we are to see the 1939-45 conflict and the period afterwards until the early 1970s as the key period in the secularisation of Britain (and the 1950s as an Indian summer of Christian observance) then the Reverend Mr Martin is to be read across that divide, a fictive emblem of a lost world.

[‘The umbrella’, in Fowles, Daniel Martin (London: Triad, 1978), pp.82-98.]

Three score years and ten

An oblique contribution to my occasional series on the Anglican clergy in twentieth century British fiction, and another from John Wyndham. This time, it’s from his Trouble with Lichen, first published in 1960.

Diana Brackley has discovered the secret of living for hundreds of years: it’s all to do with a kind of lichen. She’s kept it quiet, but now, seemingly all of British society has caught wind of the reason her beauty clinic seems to have such remarkable results. Insurance shares are in freefall on the London Stock Exchange, and the press are at the door. In the midst of this, a voice from the wireless one Sunday.

Image by LeoLondon (Flickr), CC BY-NC-ND

Image by LeoLondon (Flickr), CC BY-NC-ND

‘… To the other sins of science , which are many, are now added those of pride, and arrogant opposition to the expressed will of God. Let me read you the passage again: “The days of our age are three score years and ten; and though men be so strong that they come to fourscore years…” That is the law of God, for it is the law of the form he gave us…. Now science, in its impious vanity, challenges the designs of the Architect of the Universe. It sets itself up against God’s plan for man, and says it can do better…. It is unthinkable that the laws of this Christian land should countenance this flagrant attack upon the nature of man as he was created by God…’

‘Good stirring stuff’ thought Diana. ‘Makes one wonder whether healing the sick, and travelling faster than one can on foot, are sinful interferences with the nature of man, too, doesn’t it?’

We do not learn who the speaker on the Home Service is, though we are expected to understand that it is a clergyman, most likely from the established Church of England. As well as an intriguing device to introduce a religious voice, the passage captures a key issue in Christian medical ethics at the time and since.

[John Wyndham, Trouble with Lichen (London: Penguin), pp.149-50]

Studies in Church History 52: the Church and doubt

Once again, I’m delighted to receive today the latest volume in Studies in Church History, published by the Ecclesiastical History Society (and now with Cambridge University Press.)

I’m a great fan of Studies as a series, and have indeed published four articles in the series myself. Partly dependent on the theme that is chosen, the number of articles on the twentieth century very much varies from year to year, and this year is a lean one. Volume 51 last year had no fewer than ten articles on the twentieth century; this year there is just the one: Kirstie Blair on the religious sonnet in the nineteenth and twentieth century, including the poets Geoffrey Hill and Carol Ann Duffy.

This is not to criticise the Society: they may of course only publish the articles that are offered. But I wonder why it is that the theme of doubt seems to have exercised scholars of the twentieth century so little, given the scholarly energy expended on questions of secularisation.

An English priest in the beloved country

[Another post related to my occasional series on clergy in fiction. This time, not an English author, but an English character working overseas.]

I can think of no other novel in years that has struck me so forcefully as Cry, the beloved country, by Alan Paton. The book was first published in the UK in 1948 by Jonathan Cape; issued as a Penguin Modern Classic in 1958, and subsequently reprinted almost every year until at least 1982, the year in which my copy was printed. Paton was an educationalist, and campaigner for the rights of the native South African population. He was also a friend of Geoffrey Clayton, archbishop of Cape Town, whose biography he published in 1973.

Why am I so struck by it ? Fundamentally it is because the plot has an intense humanity, intertwining themes of place and home, familial loyalty and parental loss, individual moral responsibility and racial injustice. Part of its achievement is that the novel presents the full range of thought and feeling about the ‘native question’, but is not subsumed by it, as political novels sometimes are.

The Penguin Modern Classics edition, with a cover design by Germano Facetti from an original by Marianne Podlashuc.

The Penguin Modern Classics edition, with a cover design by Germano Facetti from an original by Marianne Podlashuc.

What is also surprising to a modern reader is the style. To readers accustomed to a prosodic palette of Orwellian plainness and the crispness of Evelyn Waugh, Paton’s elevation of style is reminiscent of the fiction of the nineteenth century and seems somehow marooned, out of time. Yet it achieves this heightened registration without pomposity; the elevation of the sentiment is always brought low by the brute tragedy of the matter at hand. And this height is achieved by means which are fast becoming inaccessible to modern readers, in that Paton draws freely not only on explicit Biblical images, but also on the rhythm of Biblical prose. In this, the narrator takes on the voice of the preacher, although this kind of preaching is in eclipse in the modern churches.

The plot centres on Kumalo, a black Anglican priest from the country who comes to Johannesburg in search of his son who (it transpires) has been involved in a botched burglary that resulted in the shooting dead of a white man. The dead man, Arthur Jarvis, was himself a vigorous supporter of change in the lot of the black majority, and an active and young Anglican layman. Kumalo is at the Mission House in Johannesburg when the news breaks, at which point it is not known that it is his son who is the culprit, only that Jarvis grew up in the same part of the country as Kumalo.

The reader is told very little of Father Vincent, ‘the rosy-cheeked priest’ of the Mission House who was also there, save for that he is from England. The two had been talking of their respective homes in the countryside: the white man of ‘the hedges and the fields, and Westminster Abbey, and the great cathedrals up and down the land.’ (p.65) After it becomes clear that Kumalo’s son is under arrest, Father Vincent promises whatever aid he can give. It is Father Vincent who marries Absalom Kumalo and the girl who carries his child in the chapel of his prison as he awaits execution, in order to secure the future of the girl and her child, the senior Kumalo’s grandchild. The words of the service are those of the Book of Common Prayer. In the hands of another novelist the scene might be desperate, even horrific; but in Paton’s handling it emerges as dignified, as the couple promise to be faithful for better, for worse, til death should part them.

It is also significant that it is the white priest, an Englishman, who is able to uphold Kumalo, the priest who is also the loser of a son, in a scene of great pastoral sensitivity between two men of the same calling, of which there can surely be very few in modern fiction (Book 1, chapter 15). Despite himself, Vincent manages to resist the temptation to offer facile words in the face of Kumalo’s desolation. Instead, he allows Kumalo to voice his bewilderment at his situation, in which God seems to have turned from him. He then leads Kumalo out of his focus on self to the need to see repentance on the part of his son. Finally he is able to send Kumalo away to prayer, again not for himself, or for some explanation as to why, or for his son alone, but for everyone else touched by the tragedy: for the bereaved family, for the girl soon to be left a single mother and for her child, for Vincent and his colleagues ‘who try to rebuild in a place of destruction, and ‘for all white people, those who do justice, and those who would do justice if they were not afraid.’ It is part of the priestly calling to remember, and to model to others, that ‘it is Christ in us, crying that men may be succoured and forgiven, even when He Himself is forsaken.’