George Bell, Walter Hussey and Christian support of refugee artists in England, 1943-58

This is a talk given at St John’s church by Waterloo station in central London, as part of a one-day conference, “A Jewish Jesus: Art and Faith in the Shadow of World War II” on Wednesday, 16th June 2021. The sound quality is not ideal, but usable.

Although the title refers both to George Bell, bishop of Chichester, and Walter Hussey, it is primarily about Bell. It is a much-truncated version of an broader article on Christian support of refugee artists, which I hope to submit for publication before too long.

As I say at the very beginning, it is not a contribution to the critical art history of the several paintings I discuss. It is, instead, the history of patronage, and of Christian artistic patronage in particular. Bell acted out several related impulses: a basic Christian hospitality to those in need; a longstanding special concern both with Germany and with Jewish refugees; and a wider theological understanding of Christianity, art and European culture. I show that he was successful due to a combination of practical support, artistic and spiritual counsel, and simple friendship.

The conference was held in association with Art and Christianity, the leading UK organisation exploring visual art and religion, and Insiders/Outsiders, a continuing celebration of the contribution of refugee artists from Nazi Germany to British culture. It was part of international Refugee Week 2021 and the 11th annual Waterloo Festival.

The playlist of the whole event is here.

Walter Hussey, Graham Sutherland and ‘Noli me tangere’ (1961)

[It is now sixty years since the unveiling of Noli me tangere, a painting by Graham Sutherland for Chichester cathedral, in April 1961. In this adapted extract from my book on Walter Hussey, the dean of Chichester who commissioned the work, I examine the commissioning of the work, and its reception.]

Walter Hussey’s understanding of architectural space is key to understanding the project to refurbish the Mary Magdalene chapel in the cathedral’s south-east corner. Although a small space, and enclosed on three sides, the chapel is however visible the whole length of the south aisle of the cathedral from the baptistry in the west: a view the architect Basil Spence thought one of the most beautiful in Europe. The chapel had in it a Victorian reredos, and paintings to the left and right, one of which was in a poor condition. The architect Robert Potter, asked in 1957 to advise Hussey, thought the best option to clear the whole space and begin again with a single coherent scheme, given its visual prominence. The reredos was not worthy of the redecoration it would need; one of the paintings was beyond repair, the other could be moved; neither were of any artistic merit, Potter thought. More fundamentally, there was an opportunity to be bold, rather than use the derivative work of the firms that made church furnishings. £500 was already pledged by the Friends of the cathedral.

The Mary Magdalene chapel in Chichester cathedral.

Of all those artists and composers Hussey had commissioned at St Matthew’s Northampton, before coming to Chichester, the two with whom he maintained the closest friendships were Benjamin Britten and Graham Sutherland. The ongoing closeness between Hussey and both Sutherland and his wife Kathleen made Sutherland an obvious choice for Hussey’s first commission for Chichester: the Noli me tangere that resides in the Mary Magdalene Chapel.

Sutherland and Hussey had been in regular contact by letter in the years immediately following his 1947 Crucifixion for Northampton, exchanging cuttings from newspapers and magazines and arranging photographs for the same. It was also at this time that Hussey began acquiring work from Sutherland directly for his own collection. The version of the Crucifixion placed in St Matthew’s was not the only version: Sutherland had made another, of which Hussey took possession at some point in 1947. This remains part of the Hussey collection at Pallant House in Chichester, as does Thorn Head, evidently acquired by Hussey around the same time. The Sutherlands visited Northampton in 1952 during which Hussey evidently had two further works on view at the vicarage, with a view to buying either or both of them. Also in the Pallant House collection is a study made in preparation for the portrait of Winston Churchill commissioned by parliamentarians in 1954; Hussey got his picture, of Churchill’s hand, at some point in early 1955.

The relationship was not purely that of artist and private patron, however. Hussey seems to have taken his holidays with the Sutherlands in France, Italy and Austria on a number of occasions during the 1950s, and the friendship seems to have been one of the closest that Hussey had. The mutual trust was evidently such that Hussey felt able to discuss his own homosexuality, still a matter for the criminal law. In September 1957, Kathleen Sutherland wrote that they had been discussing a recent report which she would not name; this was most likely a reference to the Wolfenden Report, published that month. This trust was important to the progress of what was to become the painting for Chichester.

Unfortunately, Hussey’s papers are uncommonly thin concerning the making of this particular work, probably because much of the detail was handled by Robert Potter, who coordinated the project between Sutherland and Geoffrey Clarke who designed new candlesticks and an altar rail, while himself designing the new altar. The theme – of the meeting between the risen Christ and Mary Magdalene as mentioned in John, chapter 20 – was already in Potter’s mind in June 1957, although there was an alternative. It was thought that the head of St Richard of Chichester had for a time rested beneath the floor of the chapel, and the cathedral was lacking any visual indication of the connection with its local saint. Might a refurbished chapel be devoted to Richard? Even though the idea was voiced among the clergy, neither Potter nor Hussey seem to have been enthused, and so Mary Magdalene it was.

At that point the intention was to provide carved figures, but by the following year Potter had decided instead on a painting, in order to provide sufficient colour. In his autobiographical Patron of Art, Hussey recorded that he had had Sutherland in mind from the beginning of his time in Chichester, having thought him very sympathetic at Northampton: it seems probable that holiday conversations in Venice or Menton (the Sutherland’s residence on the French Riviera) would have turned to such a prospect in general terms. Now Hussey saw the opportunity. He recalled mentioning the idea to Sutherland early in 1959, and Sutherland first mentioned it in correspondence in January of that year.

By August Potter had sent Sutherland revised plans for the chapel; Sutherland was still keen, but also occupied with work on his vast tapestry for Coventry cathedral, and an exhibition in the USA in November; the autumn was however in view as a time to start work. Sutherland visited Chichester with some early sketches, meeting the members of the Administrative Chapter in the Deanery; Hussey recalled that Sutherland won the group over by a combination of his personal modesty and the sincerity with which he approached the problem. Hussey was also reassured by the absence of opposition in the chapter, despite the many and varied opinions about art among its members.

By June 1960 Sutherland had two versions – different solutions to the compositional problem of the subject – of which he included hand-drawn sketches in a letter. Sutherland had to grapple with the problem of representing two figures as a group while one (Christ) is pulling himself away from the other: how should the two figures be positioned in relation to each other? What should their gestures be? Sutherland wanted more time to dwell on the two versions, and to select the most successful.

‘Noli me tangere’ by Graham Sutherland. Image: Chichester cathedral.

This, however, meant a delay, and St Richard’s Day 1960, the date that had evidently been fixed for the public unveiling, was only weeks away. Not for the first time (or the last) Hussey was required to change his plans for a public unveiling, and a less sympathetic patron might have been less accommodating. However, Hussey was able to persuade the Chapter that a delay was necessary, and so it was October when Sutherland brought not one but two finished paintings to Chichester, having completed both of his solutions that were part completed in June. After viewing both in situ in the chapel, one of the two, slightly larger, was selected. Hussey took possession of the second painting for his own collection, but it is not clear whether Hussey paid Sutherland for both. It may be that Sutherland made a gift of it, as he was already working for a greatly reduced fee of £550 at a time when Sutherland was asking his society portrait clients for £3,000.

Compared to the Northampton commissions of the 1940s, the public and critical reception of Noli me tangere was positive. The critic Eric Newton, already a Hussey ally, thought the picture proved that Sutherland was ‘almost the only living artist capable of expressing the full intensity of a Christian theme … To paint the Son of God momentarily mistaken for a gardener is surely more difficult than to visualise Christ crucified or Christ enthroned.’ The Atticus columnist in the Sunday Times dwelt on the straw hat which the Christ figure wears (borrowed from the vicar of Trottiscliffe in Kent where the Sutherlands lived.) Here Sutherland was placing the Biblical scene in his own environments of rural Kent and southern France in order to work out its implications: Kathleen had modelled for Mary, and their gardener for Christ. Hussey understood the metal stair which Christ ascends, as if towards heaven, to have been inspired by the terraced garden of La Villa Blanche at Menton. Sutherland’s garden is not an English one, gentle and lush, but Mediterranean: hotly coloured, and populated with sharp vegetation, reminiscent of Sutherland’s preoccupation with thorns in previous years.

There were some less positive reactions, both local and national, although they were short-lived. The Daily Mail thought the picture ‘bizarre’ and ‘sinister’, and the Chichester press received a small cluster of letters, mostly hostile. In 1963 the painting was defaced and punctured with a ballpoint pen. Speaking in court, the offender, one Mabel Winifred Norris of no fixed address, described her actions as a ‘religious scruple’; the cathedral ‘belongs to the people’. Sutherland’s biographer thought that the press reactions might be related to the fact that Mary’s features are strongly Jewish: historically accurate, but by no means the convention in western art. One of the Chichester letter writers was more disturbed by her fleshy, human figure, Sutherland’s echo of the medieval depiction of Mary as a repentant prostitute; he had always thought of her as chaste and pure. Cheslyn Jones, chancellor of the cathedral, suggested that Mary’s figure and pose was indeed sexualised: she might have been saying “come up and see me some time” (a phrase of Mae West). The suggestion irked Hussey, and the original context in which the remark was made (a sermon) is now obscure, but the point was more serious than Hussey grasped.

Why was there a more favourable reception than might have been expected? As Hussey observed, there was the simple matter of Sutherland’s reputation. The relatively unknown painter of the Northampton Crucifixion was now the painter of portraits of the political, business and artistic establishment: Churchill, Lord Beaverbrook, Somerset Maugham among them. He was also now a member of the Order of Merit, an appointment at the discretion of the Queen, and of which there could be only 24 members at any one time. In a deferential age, such credentials (announced, in Sutherland’s case, in April 1960 while the picture was in progress) would have done much to stifle criticism.

The Mary Magdalene chapel as seen from the west, along the south aisle. Image: Peter Webster

Hussey also thought that the lack of critical comment was due to the location. Potter’s marshalling of Sutherland, Clarke and his own work is both sympathetic to the chapel and perfectly coherent as an ensemble. Sutherland’s painting also fulfilled both the requirements of the viewer from two yards and of being what Hussey later called ‘a kind of heraldic jewel’ when viewed from the baptistry at the far end of the building. Nonetheless, the chapel is a side chapel, at which few services were held, and so no-one would be required to worship in plain view of it, should they object. This was not the case with John Piper’s controversial tapestry, placed a few years later behind the High Altar.

Finally, the reaction may also be explained by the theme. Although there are examples of paintings of the theme, by Rembrandt, Fra Angelico and Titian, they are relatively few in number, when compared by the myriad depictions of the Crucifixion. Kenneth Clark, writing without having seen the finished picture himself, thought that this presented additional challenges for Sutherland, and that viewers must therefore expect something ‘strange and personal’. Be that as it may, an alternative (and indeed mutually compatible) reading might be that Sutherland’s interpretation was always likely to be more acceptable to viewers precisely because it could not so easily be lined up alongside traditional portrayals and found wanting, as had been the case with Henry Moore’s Madonna and Child for Northampton. The man in the street knew what a Madonna should look like, and a mother, and a child; the same could less well be said for Mary Magdalene.

The commission was another example of Hussey’s best gifts as a patron. By this point Sutherland was no novice in working for the churches. As well as the Coventry tapestry and the Northampton Crucifixion, in 1959 he was already in discussion with the Roman Catholic church of St Aidan in East Acton, a suburb in west London, over another Crucifixion to hang behind the altar. (It was completed in 1963). Despite this, Sutherland still felt he came to such projects ‘like a fish out of water – since we, the artists of to-day are (alas!) not acclimatised at the start.’ In contrast, Sutherland was always intrigued by working for Hussey, ‘so strong is my feeling for your example’. Hussey was an ‘understanding & wise patron – bringing into the world again the old relationship of patron & painter’.

[Church and Patronage in 20th century Britain: Walter Hussey and the arts is available in paperback from all good bookshops, or direct from Palgrave Macmillan (from where there is also an ebook edition available), or Amazon, including a Kindle edition).]

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.

Unguarded Hours

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

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

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

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

Image via Flickr (jamesbradley, CC BY 2.0)

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

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

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

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

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

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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