A. S. Byatt’s church in Sixties London

[The latest post in my series on clergy and churches in twentieth century English fiction. Here, in the third of four posts, I look at the third novel in the ‘Frederica Quartet’ by A.S. Byatt].

If we know nothing else about the religious life of the early Sixties, we know it to have been a time of experiment. It is possible to overstress the uniqueness of the time, to misremember nostalgically, or (on the other hand) to trace all our current ills back to it. But though the roots of the intellectual turmoil went deep into the past, there was clearly a sense that many things in doctrine, morality and church life that had been thought immutable were in flux all at once; a general sense of unsettlement. One reaction to this imagined crisis was to experiment: with new forms of ministry outside the traditional parish; with new secular ideas; with new ways of communicating. A.S. Byatt’s 1996 novel Babel Tower, which begins in London in the autumn of 1964, dwells on all of these.

In the crypt of the church of St Simeon, not far from King’s Cross, there is an experiment in new ministry. Like so many of London’s churches, St Simeon’s was damaged by German bombing during the Blitz. Some of these churches were rebuilt, others demolished, a few left in ruins as memorials. Some, though intact, were no longer needed as the populations they used to serve had left the city, and became homes for alternative ministries. The originally vast space of St Simeon’s was rebuilt on a rather smaller scale within its original walls. Its surviving Victorian glass is not so much reconstructed as remixed, ‘abstract, yet suggestive’, with storks and doves, giraffes and leopards, in ‘rivers of grass-green and blood-red, and hummocks of burned amber’; planks of the Ark; Christ’s hand breaking bread at Emmaus (chapter 1). The simple gaudy piety of the old glass is transformed, a bricolage now of the blackened shards deposited in the aisles; the symbolism is hard to avoid. (It is one of several ruined churches in English fiction, some of which I wrote about before.)

Image: Flickr (https://www.flickr.com/photos/nreijmersdal/), CC BY 2.0

No longer a parish church, St Simeon’s is home to the Listeners, the model for which is clearly the Samaritans, set up in the crypt of St Stephen’s Walbrook (in the City of London) in 1953. In a plywood booth the Listeners take phone calls from the desperate and the vexatious. One of them is Daniel Orton, no longer a parish priest in Yorkshire after suffering a breakdown following the death of his wife (in Still Life, the second of the quartet). Daniel (who shall have his own post in this series) simply listens, and coaxes his callers to talk; there is suggestion, but little direction. In the ruins of the old, a newer, humbler church listens and does not pontificate.

One of the other Listeners – their director, in fact – is Adelbert Holly, canon of St Paul’s, writer on theology and psychology, counsellor and ‘sexual therapist’, described by his publisher as ‘a daring and a subtle theologian’. His first book, Within God Without God has made his publisher a good deal of money, arguing in its ‘riddling and witty way’ that Christians must abandon their idea of God as the ‘Old Man Up There’. Instead, God may be found in every cell of the body, ‘the inherent Intelligence in the first protozoa clinging together in the primal broth.’ Canon Holly has much in common with the bishop of Woolwich and his Honest to God (1963) and has appeared on the television supporting it, and him. Daniel is not sure what separates such ideas from pantheism, and wonders whether the ‘Canon would shrivel if he were obliged to follow his own reasoning, his own metaphors, outside the walls, so to speak, of the Church, the singing, the ritual, the imposed duties.’ (chapter 1)

But Holly’s panentheism (which is perhaps what it is closest to, or perhaps the thought of Teilhard de Chardin) is not abstract, but very immediate to him, bodily and sensual, a matter of sex and of death. He is a founder member of a group called Psychoanalysts in Christ, and author of another, even more controversial book, Our Passions Christ’s Passion. One of the Listeners suggests that the ‘modern Church’ gives the impression that the subject of sex is what bothers it most. (The Church of England did indeed spend a good deal of time in the Sixties thinking, and disagreeing, about sex, heterosexual and homosexual. It was also a period of Christian flirtation with psychology, and the two movements were connected, although historians have not yet explored the connection all that much) ‘The Church has always been about sex, dear’ Holly replies, gleefully: ‘that’s what the problem is.’ In denying the sexual impulse and trying to eradicate it, people become obsessed with it, he thinks. ‘That’s why current moves to be more accepting and celebratory about our sexuality are so exciting’.

But is religion not really about God, and the prospect of death, he is asked? Yes indeed, Holly continues: ‘the germ cell is immortal but the sexually divided individual is doomed, it is sex that brought death into the world.’ And suffering too – to inflict and to bear it – is at the heart of Holly’s gospel, of a cruel God who tortured His Son and of a suffering Christ, battered body and blood spilt, pain and degradation. It is on these lines that Holly speaks for the defence in the obscenity trial that forms the centrepiece of the novel. But the subtlety that his publisher values is a liability in the court room. ‘You have lost me, Canon, I fear’, says the judge; ‘I can understand your individual sentences, but your general drift I find hard to follow.’ Holly’s flights into obscurity try the patience of both judge and jury (chapter 20).

For all the attention that has been paid to the religious ideas of the 1960s, historians have neglected the means by which those ideas spread – the history of religious publishing. And there was certainly a market for economical editions of religious writing in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Letters and Papers from Prison, through which most English readers first encountered the martyred Dietrich Bonhoeffer, appeared in the Fontanta paperback series in 1959, and went through an impression a year for some years; John Robinson’s Honest to God was in the similar series from the SCM Press. In chapter 4, we see the office of Rupert Parrott, Canon Holly’s editor, and his books are on display, with Op Art covers, spirals, in black and white or blood-red and orange; they are ‘elegant, and evidence of energy’. (And self-consciously modern, as I’ve observed elsewhere). The firm of Bowers and Eden is run by an ‘old-style socialist’ who thinks religion nonsensical, unworthy of attention. But Parrott – and Honest to God – has persuaded him that there is a market in the ferment: ‘much more extreme stuff than [Honest to God], much sexier, literally, sex and religion’, the new youth cultures, studies of ‘charisma’, the death of God. The conventional ways in which people were prepared to live even without believing are no longer available, Parrott observes. ‘We’re moving into a period of moral ferment, moral realignment, fruitful chaos, people want to know what’s going on.’

Part of that moral realignment was in the relationship of creativity and the law; the 1959 Obscene Publications Act, the ‘trial’ of Lady Chatterley, and the ending of theatre censorship in 1968. The established Church played important parts in all these developments, since it was on Christian foundations that the whole justification of censorship had rested. Holly is present at the meeting of solicitors and barristers to plan the defence of Bowers and Eden and of Babbletower. John Robinson had appeared at the Chatterley trial in 1960 for the defence, making him ‘a stumbling-block and a cause of offence’ in the eyes of the archbishop of Canterbury, Geoffrey Fisher. ‘There was a bishop in the Chatterley case’ says the silk representing Bowers and Eden; ‘Got rather mangled. Said the book promulgated marriage. Got himself reprimanded by the Archbish, I hear… … Not a good precedent on balance.’ Holly thinks he can find a better bishop for the job, ‘a radio Bishop with a large following’, but it is decided against (chapter 18).

But at least one bishop does appear in the trial of Babbletower, but for the prosecution. Though the episode is not often noted (overshadowed at it is by Robinson and Chatterley), David Sheppard, later bishop of Liverpool, but at the time a priest-cum-social worker in east London, appeared as a witness in the 1967 trial of Last Exit to Brooklyn by Hubert Selby Jr. And it is words very much like Sheppard’s that Byatt gives to the bishop Humphrey Swan, ‘thin and sad and bespectacled and insubstantial’, suffragan of a ‘difficult’ part of Birmingham. Had the bishop been depraved and corrupted by Babbletower, (the test in the law)? ‘I must answer yes. I am a worse man, a sicker soul, for having read that book. I shall take time, I shall need effort, to recover from the experience.’

As with the earlier novels in the series (see earlier posts on The Virgin in the Garden, and Still Life), Babel Tower teems with religious themes and with clergy through which they are examined. All of them are faced with the challenge of the new: intellectually, pastorally, aesthetically. In Holly and Swan, Byatt shows us some of the paths out of the predicament.

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Perfectibility and grace in the New Town

The novel next in line in my series on fictional clergy, and the churches they work in, is a relative rarity. ‘Few indeed are the novels set in the new churches … built after 1945, or in warm and well-lit buildings with every chair full.’ My words, from a piece for the Church Times a couple of years ago, and these fictional churches are few indeed, but there are at least some. One such church appears in Angus Wilson’s 1964 novel Late Call.

Wilson’s novel is one of the tension between old and new, ‘progressive’ and traditional, dramatised through the mutual incomprehension of three generations of the same family. And the setting is important: Carshall, a fictional post-war New Town somewhere in England. The two churches in the novel, and the two clergymen found in them, are not at all central to the plot. But the two pairings, of oldness and newness in their different ways, are part of the framing of the novel’s central theme.

Take the two churches, one in the New Town centre, and the other in the historic old town. The church in Old Carshall sits serenely by the village green and the stone cross, the timbered houses and the preserved ducking stool. The only concession to the twentieth century is a window, showing the tommies and nurses of the First World War. It is in these village churches that one of the characters finds ‘such a real sense of order and tradition’ in their worship (chapter 5). Wilson tells us little more of it, and does not need to.

With time on her hands, the novel’s main character Sylvia shops and wanders in the New Town, taking in the self-conscious gestures of its architecture (chapter 4). The public library is well set out, clean, lit by large glass windows. And the church of St Saviour too, like the library and the bowling alley too, is light and simple inside, lit with a ‘lovely sky-blue light’ by its windows of thin slotted glass. In fact, apart from the long thin silver crucifix ‘you’d hardly know it for a church’ so much as a lecture hall, with wooden chairs with tie-on cushions in a jade green cloth. In the atrium there are racks of pamphlets with clever, eye-catching photographs on their covers.

Bush Fair shopping centre in Harlow. From the J. R. James Archive (Flickr), CC BY-NC 2.0

Outside in the town centure the gestures are more explicit. There is a fountain with mechanical metal arms; a twisted bronze sculpture called the ‘Watcher’, ‘difficult and modern’; a mural in pink and lilac, of the naked young in bucolic freedom, by some ‘name’ artist the Corporation had sought out. And St Saviour’s is quite a famous ‘modern’ church, she understands, with its ‘odd metal steeple more like a piece of children’s Meccano and the funny slots in the side of the building’; it is its strangeness that draws her inside into its simplicity and quiet.

We never meet the Reverend Mr Marchant, rector of St Saviour’s, though he is the kind of man that the pragmatic and progressive folk of the New Town appreciate (chapter 5). He is controversial, we are to understand, a preacher from whom one never hears ‘any of this dry-as-dust theological stuff’. His piety is much more this-worldly, upsetting the grammar school people with his sermon on the eleven-plus. And to the church on Easter Sunday come ‘women in smart hats and men in their best lounge suits… everyone was dressed up to the nines’; it looks even more like a meeting room than when empty.

But Mr Marchant has slipped a disc, and the parish must accept whoever the archdeacon can supply to preach at short notice. And the substitute, Mr Carpenter, is far from what the neat and ostentatious congregation expect. Very old, with a long red nose and a dirty-looking beard, he seems like ‘some bedraggled, mangy old goat’. And his voice is one that reduces the flighty young to fits of stifled giggles: first strange, trembling and drawn out, then ‘the refined squeak of an Edinburgh Judy in a Punch and Judy show’. But grotesque though he appears, it is his words that provoke consternation; no gospel of good works from this holy fool. To be a ‘bustling, hustling busybody – that’s not life, or no more life than the frugal ant or the hoppitty flea…. Good works’ll not save your soul alive… This Grace, Lord, impart!’

But this is no Calvinistic straitjacket; there is much one can do to meet God. ‘Go out to mind who you are. Go out, not into the busy clamour of getting and spending, not even into the soothing clamour of good works. No, go out into the dreadful silence, the dark nothingness… then indeed may the Lord send the light of his face to shine upon you, then indeed may you be visited by that Grace which will save your soul alive.’

While the busy headmaster is apoplectic at such ‘vicious nonsense’ – this ‘barbaric doctrine’ of grace – and resolves to inform the church authorities, it is his mother Sylvia who alone troubles to thank the old man: ‘I shan’t forget what you said.’ ‘Ah’ he replies; ‘it’s all old stuff, I’m afraid.’ Into the sleek project of human perfectibility that the New Town represents, Wilson intrudes an older, more troublesome, more exacting faith.

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The fame of C.S. Lewis: a review

Stephanie L. Derrick
The fame of C.S. Lewis. A controversialist’s reception in Britain and America
Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018
978-0-19-881944-8

[A review to be published in Reading Religion.]

Readers might be forgiven for asking how much more there is to be known about C.S. Lewis. The biographical materials for Lewis’ life are relatively small in bulk, and well known, and the published writings are also easily accessible. And scholars have come at the canon itself – the apologetics and the fiction in particular – from every conceivable angle. (There were more than 160 books published on Lewis in the decade after 2000). Alister McGrath, in the final chapter of his 2013 biography (reviewed here), briefly indicated a new direction of travel for Lewis studies, that paid attention not so much to the man and to the works, but to their reception. Stephanie L. Derrick has now given us the first extended essay in the subject, which will shape work on Lewis for perhaps a generation. Her scope is the UK and the United States as two analytic units treated as whole, and the works of Lewis in question are the Narnia stories and the most well-known apologetic works (Mere Christianity, The Screwtape Letters, and others).

The first chapter outlines Lewis’ conscious fashioning of his literary self as a kind of ‘Ulster contrarian’, a ‘Christian dinosaur’ with a vocation to reach popular audiences with his rejection of modernism in both literature and (in a wider sense) theology and society. Chapter 2 sets out Lewis’ reputation with his peers in the UK, and in particularly in Oxford. These two chapters will not surprise specialist readers in matters of detail to any great extent, but they frame the main burden of the book: that there were radically different trajectories in Lewis’ reception in the USA and in the UK, which are to be explained both by specific religious and cultural conditions, but also by the degree to which Lewis was known as an individual alongside his writings. In the UK, academic readers and others in the literary and journalistic fields knew, or thought they knew, a Lewis who was tricksy, unreliable, an invented literary persona; it was unclear where the posture ended and the man began. (Significantly, reference was often made to his Irishness, which meant different things to an English audience than it did in the USA).

Readers in the USA, by contrast, reacted rather more to what Derrick calls a ‘Platonic Lewis’, found in the writings alone, detached from the very specific literary and cultural context into which he intended to speak. Free to shape an idea of Lewis to their own purposes, American readers’ engagement with Lewis had a ubiquity and intensity that far outstripped that in the UK, where there remained a persistent unease with Lewis both as an apologist and as a writer of fiction. Derrick’s exposition of these contrasting national reactions is acute and convincing, although there of course remains room for further refinement within each story, both chronologically and sociologically.

In all this, Derrick’s reading of Lewis’ fame against the religious context in which he was read is fresh and invigorating. The most innovative aspect of the study, however, is in chapter 4, where Derrick examines Lewis and the ‘mechanisms of mass culture’. Religious historians of the twentieth century have not always paid sufficient attention to the means by which religious ideas are communicated. Derrick’s achievement is to direct attention not just away from the man to the reader, but also to the sheer contingency of his fame. Lewis’ reputation was shaped not so much by the intrinsic appeal of the work as the fact that it coincided with particular moments in technological history. Radio broadcasting in the UK during the 1940s; the peculiar liveliness of learned periodical culture after the war; the development of a market for paperback children’s fiction (and marketing devices such as the Puffin Club); patterns in library acquisition; the decisions of the Lewis estate; the control of his works as it passed from publisher to publisher; the internal dynamics of media conglomerates with interests in film as well as print: Lewis’ fame is inexplicable without considering the interactions of all these parts of the broad ecosystem of ideas.

Given this sensitivity to technological and economic context, one curious – and explicit – omission is the impact of Lewis online, especially as Derrick draws attention in her conclusion to the dependence of British evangelicals on American resources, which is surely in part a function of the Internet. This leaves open a significant gap to be filled by other scholars, as there is also for a history of Lewis’ books as designed objects, and of their illustrations in particular.

These cavils aside, Dr Derrick has given us a striking and important study. It should find a wide readership among historians of Christianity and of twentieth century literature, as well as those interested in the history of the media. Well written, generously produced and reasonably priced, it deserves an audience outside the academy.

Walter Hussey, Henry Moore and the Northampton ‘Madonna and Child’

It was a great pleasure to give a lecture at Pallant House Gallery in Chichester on 9th January on the subject of Walter Hussey, Henry Moore, and the Madonna and Child made for St Matthew’s church in Northampton in 1943-4. It is available on Soundcloud and the slides in Slideshare.

The lecture was largely drawn from my recent book on Walter Hussey, dean of Chichester and patron of the arts. My thanks are due to Pallant House for permission to use certain images of Henry Moore’s works in their keeping.

A. S. Byatt’s ‘Grouper’

Among the several stereotypes of Anglican clergy in English fiction, there is one which appears relatively infrequently: that of the ‘Grouper’. Partly because of its lack of organisation, the Oxford Group movement has left relatively little trace in the self-understanding of the British churches, but for a time in the 1930s it seemed poised to disrupt and refresh British Christianity from its local roots.

The Reverend Gideon Farrar appears in A.S. Byatt’s Still Life (1985), the second part of the so-called ‘Frederica Quartet’. The novel is set in the mid-1950s, somewhat after the heyday of the Group, and though he is never identified directly with it, or indeed any larger organisation, the parallels are unmistakeable. Farrar’s gospel is one of relationship and mutual self-discovery, which has its intellectual roots in two soils: an understanding of Jesus that stressed his humanity at the expense of His divinity; and the findings of the ‘new sciences’ of psychology and sociology. Farrar’s curate at St Bartholomew’s, Daniel Orton, who distrusts much of it, sees that Farrar has an ‘almost anthropological vision of the source of morals in the life of the family’ (ch. 10).

A moorland hike. Image: bearpaw (Flickr.com), CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

His ministry starts with the ‘agape meal’ in which the rather reluctant parishioners of Blesford are to ‘discuss and discover’ each other. The Young People’s Group, which meets in the church hall for dancing, cider and earnest discussion, is much the same. The Grouper ‘house party’ is a weekend away in which the youth of the parish and others are to ‘experience each other’ as they walk briskly over the moors (ch. 17). In the evening, cosy and hot, the group sit and tell their life stories, an antidote to their English reserve and the repression of emotion that it is thought to entail. Farrar, while affecting to listen, in fact guides and shapes these stories into one larger archetypal narrative, of parental inadequacy, failure or absence; of damage that, once uncovered and owned, can be repaired in the wider ‘family’, the Church.

All these features of the Group – its emphasis on the personal, the spontaneous, the self-expressive; the influence of a kind of garbled depth psychology – all remained within the bounds of orthodoxy, and (as David Bebbington showed) anticipated much about the charismatic movement of the 1960s, and the related flirtation of the churches with the broader counter-culture. And Farrar appears briefly again in the third book in the quartet, Babel Tower (1996), now in the mid-1960s, as leader of the Children of Joy. The Children meet in large halls in London, and on country retreat weekends, where they ‘dance, sing, shout and encounter each other’s bodies in loving exploration, acting out infant joys and terrors, anger and tenderness, birth and death.’ (c.13) By now the distrust is widespread. But in the Blesford of the 1950s, Farrar’s religion seems to work: though the elderly members of the congregation are disorientated, the young are enthused, the sad held up, those ‘hungry for feeling’ fed (Still Life, ch.20).

The contrast between Farrar and his predecessor Mr Ellenby (who has his own post) is both theological and aesthetic. Ellenby represented the eternal givenness of the faith, and the awesome unknowable Father (ch.10). Now the sentimental Victorian crucifix is removed from the altar; Farrar’s religion is of the human Son as He dwelt among men. The heavy branching candlesticks make way for plain wooden ones; the closely embroidered altar cloth to ‘austere snowy linen’. All this recalls more than one artistically-orientated reordering of a church, as do the new vestments with ‘modern, abstract stitching’. In the vicarage, whole walls are gone, and new bright spaces opened up. It is emptied of its heavy useless things, the mahogany cabinets with glass fronts, the thick Turkish carpets; all is sleek, plain yet well-made, modern, European, young. Picasso, Miro and Chagall prints hang on the newly painted walls in lemon yellow and white (ch.10).

Where Byatt’s character parts company with the historical Group is in what Farrar does with his hold over his flock. There was certainly a kind of personality cult around Frank Buchman, the moving spirit of the Group, and a creeping authoritarianism under certain conditions. But Buchman’s appeal, rather like that of another American, Billy Graham, is exotic and foreign at a time when British culture was unusually susceptible to such things; Farrar’s is a similar handsome and clean charisma but transposed onto an unusual Englishman. Farrar is assertive, indeed intrusive, in his attempts to force an emotional intimacy with others which is not on offer. Stephanie, Daniel’s wife, who sees through Farrar sooner than most, recognised a combination of ‘personal conceit and intrusiveness’ which she had seen in other clergy (ch.10). But where in others it was a mask for shyness, for Farrar his directness is merely the outflow of a restless energy. He is a large man, ‘with a presence he enjoyed’; all is abundance, from his full beard flecked with gold, to his exuberant embraces as he gambols among his hikers on the moor (ch. 17). Daniel detects a compulsive need to both receive and give affection, warmth (ch .10).

Byatt shows us little of Farrar’s inner life, and so (though we are clearly invited to view him as culpable), it is not clear how calculated his manipulation of his young female flock is. But the picture that gradually unfolds – of late night ‘counselling’ in various states of undress, complaints from parents that their teenage girls are ‘interfered with’ – is an unsettling one, of which his wife is well aware. Though she is repelled by it, and by him, she nonetheless attributes it to his nature – to the inevitable inbuilt drives which the new psychology told her that no-one should be expected to regulate – and her own inadequacy in satisfying them (ch. 30). And in Babel Tower (ch. 18) we see the terms in which, after a decade of unregulated elaboration of his own myth, Farrar ends up justifying himself to his victims: ‘a horrible fantasy of sacrifice and communion’, created by Farrar’s exploitation of his own physical presence and clerical separateness. Real theological and social currents in the post-war English churches are eventually a means of sanctifying what Stephanie, the moral centre of the novel, knew immediately as a ‘crude version of the routine pass’.