My occasional series on the clergy in English fiction now runs to some seventeen posts in all, from H.G. Wells to John Fowles, from the clerical sleuths of Cyril Alington to the existential crisis of Iris Murdoch. By and large, these men have often played bit parts or been mere cyphers for the institution they represent (as in the case of Robert Tressell). Even when these characters have been allowed more space to breathe, the dilemmas and indeed anguish that they feel are wholly circumscribed by their status; these men have little life other than as clergy.
The four novels from A.S. Byatt that make up what is sometimes called the ‘Frederica Quartet’ are a different case. In them are many characters, some of whom are clergy, some of whom are not but aspire to a kind of religious leadership. Some are more fully drawn than others, in particular Daniel Orton who features in all four volumes, and who (unusually) transcends his ordination to be also a husband and a father. He will have his own post. Here I want to deal with the two who function most clearly as symbols of a lost, or at least moribund, Christianity which Byatt needs to place as a backdrop to her main concerns. They make their appearances in The Virgin in the Garden, the first of the quartet, first published in 1978, and are not seen again.
The first of these is the Bishop, we know not of quite where, who appears briefly in chapter 37. The scene is after the first performance in 1952 of Astraea, a play which became part of the celebrations of the accession of the new Queen. The first performance marked the beginnings of a new university; just the kind of local ceremonial to which bishops were accustomed to be invited, and were invited. Also there as a matter of course is Bill Potter, local teacher of English and father of the eponymous Frederica, and of Stephanie, engaged to be married to Daniel Orton. About this fact Bill is not happy, since his attitude to Christianity is not merely indifferent but implacably hostile, to the point of not attending the wedding. The bishop is tall, saturnine, ‘bland, wine-dark and hard’, and as Bill hops around like a flyweight boxer, awaiting the moment to land a rhetorical blow, he spreads ‘automatically flowing oil on the choppy waters.’ The vision he presents is of the play as a ‘true communion’ of shared cultural heritage, as church, school and community come together in a joint work of art. (The post-war period was a time of hope among some in the Church of England about the potential of the religious drama as a means of evangelism and as a symbol of the residual Christian nature of English culture.) Not so for Bill; the play had been one of nostalgia for a time that had never been. It was time for both the nostalgia and the church to die with dignity and make way for the new.
The rest of the argument that ensues, in barely controlled screaming, I shall not elaborate. It is a setpiece in which Byatt allows all of the intellectual, moral and imaginative objections to Christianity that have been voiced elsewhere in the novel to be aired. It is a cacophony of voices by which nothing is resolved: a rehearsal of old arguments by old men, part of an commonplace antagonism between secularism and national religion. These are not the new and disruptive forces in English religion that Byatt shows us in the later novels.
Also in The Virgin in the Garden, the foil to the national figure of the bishop is Mr Ellenby, the vicar. We never know his first name, neither do we hear his voice directly (just as we do not hear the Bishop except in the narrator’s paraphrase.) We are not invited to attribute moral blame to him – within his own frame of reference he is conscientious enough – but together with the bishop he is part of a faded old settlement of religion, socially convenient but without life. His study, which we see only in the dark as Mrs Ellenby is sparing with heat and light, has in it ‘the ghosts of riches’ (p. 61): heavy dark Victorian furniture, inkwells with silver lids, volumes of Shakespeare behind glass and thick with dust, a once luxurious carpet worn to sackcloth. It is brightened only by flowers from the Ellenby’s spinster lodger, (surely a nod to Barbara Pym).
Ellenby is puzzled, indeed actively discomfited, by his ‘grim curate’, the gruff, dark and fat Daniel Orton. Although he frets over her lack of faith, he harbours a hope that Stephanie might be the civilising of Daniel, and that she might also come to grasp the idea of his religion: in Daniel’s phrase, Ellenby sees nothing seriously wrong with ‘someone who likes George Herbert and has lovely manners.’ (ch. 24, p.294) One who can speak wisely of The Temple ‘had the essence of the matter in her, must have’, Ellenby thinks (p.344).
But Stephanie is drawn to Daniel for the very reason that Ellenby is alarmed by him: his fierce passion to help those who need help. Ellenby opposes the couple living on the council estate (ch.25, p.295). This was in part for fear that the social workers would resent an encroachment by the Church into a social sphere in which (as Ellenby sees it) it had no place. But this is a diversion from the real reason: the impression it might give if the curate was to live in such a place (there was ‘a position the church had to keep up’). At base a snob, and lazy with it, Ellenby’s main concern is ‘parish politics, precedence and prettiness of altar-piece and bazaar.’ (ch.17, p.224) Though Daniel later comes to miss Ellenby’s unthinking certainty (Still Life, p.166), in The Virgin in the Garden, he is the hollow shell of English social religion in its local form.
In a part of Newcastle that once was central but is now on the edges of the real business of the city is the cathedral of St Nicholas. It is an unassuming building, dark and quiet inside, and attracts relatively few tourists. But it remains part of my own pilgrimage trail when visiting my native city, the venue of what as a schoolboy seemed to be interminable carol and Founder’s Day services.
On a recent visit, on a grey day just before Christmas – a break from the swirl of Christmas shoppers in Northumberland Street and the glaring palace of light that is the Eldon Square shopping arcade – I found a remarkable war memorial, tucked away in the far corner of the north choir aisle. In this cathedral of St Nicholas, patron saint of sailors and of merchants, is a memorial to a particular group of sailors with a largely unknown connection to the north east: the Danish merchant navy. Behind it lies a story of migration and memory, of people, things and places, and of what it is to be European.
When in April 1940 Denmark was occupied by the German navy, there were many Danish ships in British ports, and more again still at sea. Those already in port came under British protection, and many of those at sea also put into British ports. Newcastle became the temporary home of the Danish merchant fleet, based at the so-called ‘Danish pool’ in St Nicholas’ Buildings, opposite the cathedral, outside which flew the Danish flag. There the sailors were received after the short climb up the Castle Stairs from the quayside, and from there they were sent out. In the meantime they could spend time in their social club, in the same building. The club’s kitchen turned out hundreds of smørrebrød at a time; a photograph survives of a visiting British government minister playing billiards. In all, somewhere between three and four thousand Danish seamen sailed from Newcastle in those five years.
In 2005 the Danish frigate HDMS Triton arrived on the Tyne before the VE Day Commemorations, its crew disembarking and walking up the hill to the cathedral to attend a special service; the Danish consul in Newcastle thought the Newcastle events were the largest outside Denmark itself. On the banks of the river to greet the Triton was Paul Jorgensen, then 80 years of age. Jorgensen had sailed with the Danish fleet, met and married a Newcastle woman and lived still in Wallsend, a short walk from the river. Bruno Jensen Hansen, aged 89 and one of the very last surviving veterans, travelled from Canada to Newcastle to attend a similar service in 2015. At sea when Denmark was invaded, his ship put into Newcastle. Placed in lodgings in the city, he met Phyllis, another local girl, and the two married. Hansen served in the Atlantic convoys bringing essential supplies from the USA, and in 1942 spent ten days in a lifeboat after his ship was torpedoed.
After the war, minds turned to the business of memory. There had been a Danish congregation in Newcastle since the nineteenth century, meeting for a while in the Sailors’ Bethel, built in red brick in Horatio Street on the north bank of the river in 1877. (Now hemmed in by new apartment blocks on the regenerated Quayside, it houses a consultancy firm, part of the new Tyneside of the knowledge economy.) In recognition of the number of Danes now living in the city, a new mission church was built by the Danish Seamen’s Church in Foreign Ports, and consecrated in 1949. (Further down the coast in Hull, the seamen’s church had been destroyed by German bombing. Rebuilt in 1954, like the cathedral it was dedicated to St Nicholas.)
The new building in Newcastle contained a memorial wall to those seamen who had died, along with a book of remembrance, one name on each page. One page was apparently turned each day. It seems that several of the widows and other relatives travelled to Newcastle for the consecration of the church, and the sight of them walking around the city moved one local woman to set up what became the Newcastle Anglo-Scandinavian Society.
By 1968, seamen were spending less time in port before sailing again, and the decision was taken to close the church, leaving the resident Danish population without church services. At this point began a peregrination of the memorial itself that parallels that of the men it commemorates. The memorial wall was shipped to Copenhagen to the Frihedsmuseet, itself little more than a decade old, created to bring together the traces of Danish resistance both in Denmark and at sea. At some point it moved again, this time to the Frøslev museum near the German border, a former prisoner of war camp which after 1945 became an internment camp under Danish control.
Meanwhile the book of remembrance was taken to another Danish seamen’s church, in London’s Docklands. This church was in Ming Street, formerly King Street but renamed in recognition of the Chinese community. Built in 1867, it was a short walk from the North Dock, now overlooked by the Museum of London’s Docklands base, in the shadow of the towers of Canary Wharf. It too had been bombed, and restored in 1948 by Caröe and Partners (W.D. Caröe was the son of the Danish consul in Liverpool).
When this building too was closed in 1980 and later demolished, there were other possible homes for the book in London, not least the Danish Church near Regent’s Park. However, the Newcastle congregation, by this point meeting in the German Lutheran church in the Shieldfield area in the east of the city, approached the Lord Mayor and the Provost of the cathedral.
As a result, the book found what will hopefully be its permanent home, and the present memorial was created with funding from the Danish shipowners’ association, and unveiled in 1982. Designed by the cathedral architect, Ronald Sims, its four pieces of Westmorland slate represent the Danish islands, surrounded by sea. In 2002 a new stained glass window was added above it, again at the initiative of the Danish church in Newcastle. Made of glass both from the north-east and from Denmark, it is based on the design of one of the vestments in Aarhus cathedral, and includes the arms of the three ports of Aarhus, Copenhagen and Marstal. Above it hangs the Dannebrog, the same Danish flag that marked the entrance of the ‘Danish pool’ during the war.
Why tell this story, and why tell it now, this mixture of obscure local history and personal travelogue? I tell it because it is a story of Britain in Europe, at a time when recollection of such stories is at a discount.
In June 2016, the moment when it became clear to me that the Brexit referendum was lost was when the result for Newcastle was declared, a bare Remain majority of 50.7% in a university city. The results were less close elsewhere on the Tyne: in North Tyneside (53.4% to leave), South Tyneside (62%), and in Gateshead, Newcastle’s poor relation over the water, 56.8%. To grow up in Gateshead in the 1980s was to feel different, to feel very distant from London and its concerns. Insofar as the European project has been one made on the Eurostar between London and Brussels, for many in the north east it had, and continues to have, nothing to do with them. And on Boxing Day, after they had opened the Christmas presents bought in Eldon Square and Northumberland Street, European friends and neighbours in Newcastle as elsewhere were reminded of the need to apply to remain in the homes they had made in good faith, acting on promises already made by the UK and now broken, and to pay for the privilege.
This story is an ‘island story’, that mode in which so much English history is told. But it is not one of isolation, but of connection, of the migration of people and things, and the memories that attach to them. It is a story of the sea, and of the river as the symbolic centre of a certain idea of Tyneside, of ships and coal and the working man. But it is not a story of empire, but rather of the provision of safe harbour, of hospitality, of co-operation in the face of a common enemy. And it is part of the conjoined story of two nations which joined the EEC at the same time in 1973, entering into a new community with their former enemy, a community born in the rubble of conflict. The idea of Brexit was articulated – but did not have to be so framed – in terms of English isolation, of our exceptionalism, of how we did not ‘feel European’ in the way others might do. But that feeling, such as it is, is not a given, but a product of the stories we tell ourselves. Another idea of Europe and our place in it is possible, and this is just one of its many small stories.
Sources Mindersmærke og Mindevinduet for Danske Sømænd [Leaflet, Cathedral Church of St Nicholas, Newcastle upon Tyne, c.2002]
In the Vatican Museum, there is a relief panel that depicts the meeting of the two men. At least, I think there is; I think I saw it there in June of this year. But I was at the time in the grip of the ceaseless torrent of visitors that surges through the Museum to reach the Sistine Chapel, therein to be prodded and scolded into prayerfulness by the staff. I saw the panel at the top of a staircase but was swept away downstream by the flow, and had to press myself against the wall of the stairwell to take this picture.
Similar contortions were necessary to see another piece of particular interest to me: this maquette for the large statue of the Madonna and Child that hangs in Cavendish Square in London. To take this picture, I was pressed against the display case as the throng streamed past behind me, able neither to step back nor to stoop down to look at it. ‘There are some paintings by Chagall in this section’ I heard one guide say, ‘but we don’t have time to look at them.’
Galleries are often busy, I understand that; the private contemplation of great works of art in cool hushed galleries is a luxury which was for too long unavailable to most people. But Christian organisations have two particular reasons to take their art seriously, neither of which seems to be at all influential in the Vatican Museum. Much of the collection in Rome is specifically Christian art: treatments of Christian subjects, like Epstein’s Madonna. Such art is largely made to prompt reflection both in the believer and in those who are not: edification and evangelism together. It is hard to imagine conditions less conducive to either kind of reflection than those that I found in the Vatican Museum.
And as for the vast stock of works that are not on Christian themes, catholic theologies of art have often tended to stress that any beautiful thing can point beyond itself, to the creator God without whom there could be nothing of beauty. But that pointing also requires that the viewer has time and space in which to see the thing properly. This test, too, the Vatican Museum sadly failed. If its custodians took the reasons for the existence of their collection seriously, it would not have failed that test.
Nestling on one of the reaches of Chichester harbour, the life of the village of Bosham is peculiarly dominated by the changing tide. At high tide the road around the narrow channel becomes impassable; sometimes the cars of unsuspecting visitors are engulfed by the water that changes the appearance and even the sound of the village. Legend has it that it was in Bosham that Canute ordered the tides to cease, yet still they continue to rise and fall.
Although the visitor does not see it when arriving from the main road between Chichester and Portsmouth, the village is dominated by the parish church. Overlooking the meadow that separates it from the quay from which sailing boats are launched each weekend, the church of the Holy Trinity can be seen from north, south and west. Also on the green is the village war memorial, one of the great many made after 1918 which had to be modified, not always comfortably, to accommodate the dead of the second generation; some of those lost in both conflicts were lost to the sea. And despite the apparent givenness of the scene, Bosham was the scene of a remarkable controversy lasting from 1945 until 1947 over how the village dead should be remembered.
The dispute centred over a proposed memorial, a new clock face on the church tower. It ended in a hearing in the consistory court of the diocese, in which disputes over alterations to churches were settled, after which the clock was in fact approved, made and installed. The papers of that hearing illustrate the full range of local opinion on how a small community should remember its dead, when grief remained raw.
But this was not merely a local dispute, as the idea provoked a national campaign in opposition that engaged the English establishment at the highest level. Letters to the Times were written; representations were made to the diocesan chancellor (to whom it fell to settle the case). Which should win out: the national guardians of the architectural heritage of the nation, or a local community? And with whom in that community did authority rest?
The names of the Bosham dead of both world wars are recorded both on two brass plates in the church, and on the memorial on the meadow: thirty names from the first conflict, forty-two more from the second. Some names appear in both lists; others more than once, such as the three Stubbington brothers, all killed in the second conflict. Among them were the names of sons of both the two opponents in the controversy: the vicar, and the lord of the manor.
The general idea of a memorial clock had been in the mind of the vicar, A.L. Chatfield, very soon after the end of the war, if not before. Chatfield had himself won a Military Cross, and his son, John Anthony Cecil Chatfield had been killed by shellfire near Caen in northern France in July 1944. As well as on the plate in the church, his loss was recorded amongst the dozens of others from his school, Lancing College, a short train ride away from Bosham. He had been mentioned in despatches.
George Bell, bishop of Chichester, was by this time already known as an encourager of the contemporary arts in his diocese. Emboldened by a conversation with Bell during a visit, Chatfield put the idea to the church’s Parochial Church Council in November 1945, and announced his intentions in the parish magazine in January 1946. A public meeting was held in the village hall in early February, at and after which objections were raised; already the key issues were in view.
The local artist Helen Reid objected on the grounds that it would spoil the appearance of the tower (although the design was not yet finalised). Others, she thought, favoured an alternative idea that had begun to circulate, that of a social centre in the village for returning servicemen: ‘wouldn’t that be a practical tribute, for it would be for those who came back to enjoy.’ (This predisposition towards ‘useful’ memorials was widespread in England at this point.) However, she stressed that it would be ‘such a pity to have any strong divergence of ideas over anything as sacred as a War Memorial’ and invited Chatfield and his wife to take tea.
Despite these early signs of trouble, Chatfield was undeterred. In March, on Bell’s advice, the idea went before the Sussex Churches Arts Council, a body unique to the diocese and set up by Bell to advise churches on new works of art. The Council approved the idea in principle, but suggested modifications to the design, sketched by F.C. Eeles, a member of the Council, but also secretary of the national Central Council for the Care of Churches. A revised design then went in October to the Diocesan Advisory Committee, the body with the legal responsibility for regulating alterations to churches, which recommended that it be approved.
In the meantime, an alternative memorial scheme was being put in place, following a further public meeting in May. An appeal was instituted in July to fund (in this order): the addition of the names of the war dead to the existing village memorial (a very common practice); the reconditioning of a play area nearby, and to raise £2500 for a new village social club. The manifesto document of the fund still at this stage stressed its non-denominational character; there was no wish to cut across memorials that the churches in the village might wish to make themselves.
In February 1947, the statutory invitation for objections to the granting of the faculty seems to have been the trigger that turned a smouldering local dispute into a full-scale fire. The argument was made that the church was a Saxon one (which was correct, in part) and as such any addition to it would be too incongruous; one correspondent thought it a ‘desecration’. Chatfield responded that, although the church was indeed very old, the cladding on the tower in fact dated from the nineteenth century. Even if that had not been the case, ‘if your Norman and Early English Church builders had all declared Bosham Church unique and added nothing for us today – I’m afraid there would be very little for us to be proud of – do please try to see things ahead – it is only fair to the future generation.’
Others suggested that, whatever form it took, ‘a war memorial should have the general approval and support of the parish as a whole and not be a source of dissension thereto’. Several hundred names that had by now been added to a petition against the clock. Chatfield, however, believed them to be mostly those of day-trippers and of the growing number of temporary holiday residents in the village. Were the wardens and PCC to be overridden in parochial affairs, he asked, by outsiders who ‘merely indulge themselves in occasional residence at Bosham for any purpose other than that for which a church was built and continues to exist?’ Implicitly implicated in this was Rupert Guinness, the second earl Iveagh, lord of the manor, who was listed among the principal objectors. Iveagh’s father, the industrialist Edward Guinness, had been created the first earl in 1919 and bought the lordship at some point after that. The family seat was in Norfolk; the second earl himself was resident near Woking, some fifty miles away.
These particular arguments of principle were given a particular intensity by the presence on both sides of those who had been bereaved. Chatfield received several letters from the bereaved, both in favour and against. Chatfield wrote to Iveagh with a list of 33 names of the bereaved who were supporting the scheme, urging him to drop his ‘wholly inadequate, also extremely inconsiderate’ objections. ‘To proceed with any proposal’ Iveagh replied ‘in the face of strong opposition from so many, including those, like myself, are among the bereaved, introduces an element of discord, wholly at variance with what should be our feelings in regard to a memorial. While the present generation lasts, it would emphasize discord, when a memorial should be an expression of unity of purpose.’ The plaque in the church bears the name ‘Elveden’: Iveagh’s son Arthur, viscount Elveden, killed while part of an anti-tank regiment at Nijmegen in the Netherlands in February 1945.
If this had been the extent of the dispute, it may well be regarded as merely an unusually bitter local disagreement; the issues of principle involved were repeated in other places. It was however further complicated by the intrusion of influential national opinion. Resident in the manor house next to the church was the architect Grey Wornum, and it was apparently at Wornum’s instigation that a letter was sent to the Times, objecting to an ‘incongruous addition’. The letter suggested that the various watchdog bodies had been caught napping, and that the last line of defence was to dissuade the diocesan Chancellor, Kenneth Mead McMorran, from granting the faculty. ‘Time is short, and if this last defence is to be effective it is desirable that public opinion should reinforce local opinion. To that end, Sir, we address you and your influential readers.’
Wornum had been assiduous in gathering signatories; as well as Iveagh, the list included the prominent architects A.E. Richardson, Charles Holden and W.H. Ansell (the latter a former president of the Royal Institute of British Architects). Another signatory, the architect Lionel Pearson, had designed the memorial for the Royal Artillery at Hyde Park Corner. Also on the list were Sir Alfred Munnings, President of the Royal Academy; the Slade professor of fine art at UCL, Randolph Schwabe, and the former director of the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, Sir Sydney Cockerell. The letter was followed by several others in support, expressing the hope that ‘the opposition to the scheme may be overwhelming, and that we shall hear no more of it.’
The effect of this pressure was felt in Bosham. One of Chatfield’s most vocal correspondents despaired of the fact that the vicar would not accept the judgment of such a group of ‘eminent signatories’ as those of the Times letter. It wasn’t only Chatfield who was to feel the pressure; enquiries were made to the Diocesan Advisory Committee by Walter Godfrey, of the National Monuments Record. The secretary of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings also made an enquiry to the chancellor’s office, but was warned that the matter was sub judice. Undeterred, the Society’s chairman, Viscount Esher wrote directly to Macmorran, strongly deprecating the proposal, and was instructed again that the matter could not be discussed.
So it was that George Bell’s chancellor was caught in a near-perfect storm. The village locally had been divided over the appropriate form of memorial, and of the proper relation of beauty and utility; in play was the issue of the right relation between a church, its parishioners and an historic building; all this was mixed with a liberal portion of local grief. As Macmorran made clear in his judgement, he had in addition been caught between a correctly administered process of deliberation by experts within the diocese on the one hand, and the precipitous intervention of national bodies on the other; a case in which different parts of the ‘establishment’ were in disagreement. He was to rule, in June 1947, in favour of the former, and against those, like Esher, who ‘ought to have known better’ than to try to pressurise him.
Few in the village now know of the story of the ‘Battle of Bosham Clock’, and it seems that memories of the dispute faded relatively quickly. Only three years later, in 1950, Grey Wornum was also to lose a child: his daughter, Jenefer, who had lived at the manor, drowned in the sea off the Australian coast at the age of 23. It would seem that he made his peace with the church enough to design a set of gates in her memory, described in a nearby tablet as his last work before his death in 1957. And so the clock, weathered now as its designer had anticipated, still looks out at the tide as it rises and falls in Bosham Channel.
[A review first published by Fulcrum in November 2018]
Jane Shaw Pioneers of Modern Spirituality. The neglected Anglican innovators of a “spiritual but not religious” age
Darton, Longman and Todd, 2018. Further details
What is the church’s past for? How far might it hold examples for today’s Christians, and how easily are those examples translated into our present context? This intriguing book, by the principal of Harris Manchester College, Oxford and a former cathedral dean, is one answer. Based on the Sarum Lectures for 2017, in its brief compass it demonstrates both the potential and the limitations of church history as a resource for the present church.
Jane Shaw’s aim is to show that in the early twentieth century there were Anglican figures whose life and work might be a resource now in reaching those who might think of themselves as spiritual but not religious. Before moving to Oxford earlier this year, Shaw ministered for several years in California, and she rightly notes a similarity in Anglican missional strategy on both sides of the Atlantic. Mission is too often concentrated on deepening the faith of those who are already in some way engaged with the church, she argues, to the neglect of those who are not. Are there resources within historic Anglicanism that might help engage those who might never otherwise consider crossing the threshold of a church?
Among these seekers, she argues, the things that are sought are: an engagement with the beautiful as something that points beyond the self; ways of dealing with the hyperactivity and over-connectedness of daily life; a sense of community; agency in building a juster society, and a seriousness about fundamental questions of human life. All these the tradition can provide, if only these seekers can find pathways into it.
Shaw focusses on four Anglican figures of comparable ages, all active either or both before and after the First World War, some of whom are reasonably well known, others not at all. Rarely, if ever, have they been juxtaposed in this way. The book is pithy and engagingly written and has the cardinal virtue of sending the reader back to the texts themselves, to which end there is a useful guide to further reading.
It opens with Evelyn Underhill, perhaps the most important English writer on mysticism of her generation, whose most significant books were written during a very wide-ranging intellectual journey which only later ended in Christian conviction. As both author and as a leader of retreats at a time when few women did so, Underhill stressed that spiritual experience was not the preserve of elite practitioners but could be open to all. Crucially, her practice was to allow those under her direction to use prayer and meditation on the truths that they could understand and accept as a pathway towards those doctrines which seemed more difficult. Demanding but forgiving, practical and gentle, Underhill’s example offers much of value.
More exacting was the spiritual direction of Reginald Somerset Ward, who left parish ministry to work as a ‘freelance’ spiritual director for over forty years, counting bishops and archbishops among his several hundred directees. In Ward’s stress on the importance of a regular rule of life in which prayer is the first rather than the last priority – a discipline of time and attention – Shaw finds a possible means to manage the demands of modern life. That many will find their way into the full rigour of Ward’s practice is harder to imagine.
Third among Shaw’s subjects is Percy Dearmer, and his work in the renewal of Anglican worship. Through his writings, not least The Parson’s Handbook, and through the model of St Mary Primrose Hill in London, Dearmer promoted an art of public worship (the title of another of his books) that demanded the best in all its aspects: its music, its words and its movements, its architectural and decorative setting. Shaw focusses rightly on Dearmer’s theology of beauty as articulated in Art and Religion (1924), and notes contemporary experience in San Francisco and elsewhere of the response of seekers to the arts in church settings.
This ‘high’ theology of beauty as sacrament was taken up by others, notably Walter Hussey, dean of Chichester, but not all parishes can hope that their building and their music may be beautiful (supposing for a moment that we could agree on what was beautiful in the first place). However, I would argue that Dearmer’s thought and practice also points towards a more achievable aspiration that is no less useful and likely to be as attractive in a different way: that the way in which public worship is conducted is a demonstration that it is important, that attention has been paid to it, that time and effort have been expended on it, as a means of pointing to the One to whom it is all directed.
The final chapter is on the novelist Rose Macaulay. After a conventional church upbringing, Macaulay spent nearly three decades out of contact with the church as a member, only returning to faith at the age of 69. However, she continued to draw on what she called ‘spiritual capital’, describing herself as an ‘Anglo-agnostic’ who (had it come to it) might have been an ‘Anglo-atheist’. This identification was a matter of ‘taste and affection’ but also in her ‘blood and bones’. Art, music, architecture, liturgy, the company and conversation of Christian friends (many of them clergy); all these remained sources of delight and meaning throughout. It is the existence of this spiritual capital in the British upper and middle classes that allowed Underhill, Dearmer and Ward to operate, and arguably this chapter might have been better placed first in order to frame the argument. But it is telling that Macaulay features little in Shaw’s conclusion, since we surely now face a different situation, in which that spiritual capital is not there to be drawn upon, but must be invested afresh.
Specialist historians may well be left with questions that Shaw raises, but which (quite understandably in a book of this size) it is not her aim to pursue. Shaw is quite right to draw attention to a critique of ‘institutionalism’ voiced by Underhill and Dearmer, but there is work to do yet to establish how widespread this understanding was. As well as that, I would question how far this impatience with certain aspects of the way in which churches operate can be equated with the self-conscious identification as being of ‘no religion’ that characterises our current situation. The conditions are now quite different, and to project them back risks distorting our sense of the inter-war period.
Shaw also perhaps overplays how marginal some of her subjects were. Underhill and Macaulay clearly were, but Percy Dearmer, while not holding an appointment within the Church after leaving Primrose Hill (to his discomfort), was still a widely read author, an academic in a university setting in which ordinands were trained (King’s College, London) and eventually a canon of Westminster. Somerset Ward was certainly not well known in public, but the array of the great and the good who gathered for his memorial service surely demonstrates that he was far from marginal.
More generally, the book is marred by a great many small mistakes – personal, organisation and place names misspelled, titles of books given incorrectly – which could have easily been ironed out and are a distraction. This is a shame, as Jane Shaw has brought four neglected figures to our attention again in a fresh and fertile way. This book deserves to be widely read.