Poet of church and state: rereading C. H. Sisson

[Reading time: c.15 minutes]

I give away no secrets of the historian’s trade when I say that history is not often written purely for its own sake. However remote in time and spirit their period of study is, most historians write because of some sort of felt connection with present concerns, even if it is oblique. The past does not repeat itself, but past and present often rhyme. At other times, however, the very remoteness of the past serves to set our own time in a new light. Such is the case with the English poet and critic C.H. Sisson (1914-2003). What follows is taken from a new book chapter on Sisson, due out later this year.

You may ask how any aspect of a life that ended less than twenty years ago can be thought of as remote. Though most of what I describe is comfortably within living memory, Sisson’s understanding of what a national church should be, and of the ideal relationship of faith, worship and language, has now become almost entirely obscure, though parts of it survive in a more dilute form. Although Sisson’s sense of these things is some way removed from my own, to look at him afresh shows just how far English religious life has changed in a very short time.

Sisson worked in comparative obscurity until after his retirement in 1974, largely unknown to the world, Roger Scruton thought, by dint of ‘the unfashionable nature of his opinions and the frequently sour manner of their expression.’ Since then, the republication of much of his verse and prose in collected volumes by the Carcanet Press has secured a modest but enduring literary reputation. In his many prose writings on the Church of England, however, Sisson’s was a voice of a kind of ecclesiastical conservatism that sat in the gaps in between the main streams of change and resistance in English religion of the 1960s and 1970s. And since much of the writing of the history of the period has been organised along these same lines, Sisson has so far figured very little.

C.H. Sisson, by Patrick Swift (1960), via Wikimedia

The dominant theme in that historical writing has been the slippery idea of secularisation, the long process by which the mass of the English ceased both to participate in the life of the churches, and to think of the story of their lives in a Christian frame. But the body of opinion that Sisson most clearly represents is not of those who were leaving the churches, who have been most studied. Sisson’s kind of people were staying, and their opposition was born not of rejection of the Church, but of disappointment with the way in which it was changing. It comes from a religious need still felt, yet increasingly unmet, a sense of having been deserted. On the so-called permissive society, or the relaxation of the law on divorce, abortion and homosexuality in the 1960s, Sisson had relatively little to say. As such, he is also largely absent from the substantial historical literature that has now been produced on those topics. Sisson was liturgically conservative but on grounds other than doctrine; he was virulently anti-Catholic but for reasons of politics and national identity rather than theology; on issues such as the ordination of women or theological bestsellers like Honest to God or The Myth of God Incarnate he had little to say. The kind of conservatism to which Sisson gave voice has tended to be treated as a residual category, as if it were a kind of unthinking reaction amongst those without sufficient commitment to choose to be catholic, liberal or evangelical.

Sisson’s reading and writing on the Church of England seems to have begun in earnest in the early 1950s, a point at which many of the reforms to which he took exception were being discussed. It gathers momentum and volume during the 1970s, as many of the changes were at the point of implementation, and continues in the 1980s, when they were a fait accompli, a matter for regret rather than resistance. These later pieces read, to use Roger Scruton’s phrase concerning the verse, as ‘more like regrets than prophecies… a distillation of a common loneliness.’ Those changes fell into two broad categories: legal-constitutional, and liturgical.

In 1965 the church secured the permission of Parliament to produce experimental forms of service, three series of which appeared between 1966 and 1973 as alternatives to the Book of Common Prayer. The culmination of the process was the Alternative Service Book of 1980, against which a petition was presented to the General Synod in 1979, signed by some three hundred luminaries including cabinet ministers, heads of Oxford and Cambridge colleges, actors, journalists and poets. Sisson played a part in bringing the petition together, and continued to write frequently throughout the 1980s on what he saw as a calamitous loss, even though the BCP was (and remains) still authorised for use. Objections to the ASB clustered around three poles: that its language was unfamiliar, and so disruptive to worship; that the language lacked the beauty of the 1662 book (and that beauty was important in its own right), and thirdly, that it was banal, flat, lacking a certain allusiveness (or perhaps openness to interpretation), that pointed beyond itself to the mysterious things to which it referred.

Had the Church brought forward the ASB forward before 1974, it is likely that the opposition to it would have centred on Parliament rather than the General Synod. But that year had seen Parliament pass the Worship and Doctrine Measure, the culmination of a thirty year process in which Parliament had relinquished more and more practical control over the Church. The 1974 measure allowed the Church itself, through the Synod, to authorise permanently new liturgy where previously it had required parliamentary assent, and to settle its own doctrine. The measure marked a decisive redefinition of what membership of the Church of England meant. The notion that Parliament acted as a ‘lay synod’, guiding and if necessary restraining the Church on behalf of the nation was to be superseded by a Church more directly controlled by its active members, through the newly instituted Synod.

But there was yet a significant attachment to the existing constitutional settlement, as is evident from the deliberations of a commission on church and state, which reported in 1970. ‘Some people belong to the Church of England more because they are English than because they are Anglicans’, and this idea of membership, though ‘vague and inarticulate’ is better represented by Parliament on behalf of the whole nation, the authors thought, than by the narrower group of clergy and church-minded laity which made up the Synod.

So it is in these two related contexts – one linguistic and aesthetic, the other constitutional – that we ought to read Sisson’s writing on the Church of England.

*****

The nature of Sisson’s own belief is somewhat hard to pin down. But belief is necessarily articulated in language, and Sisson’s view – a profoundly serious one – of the nature of language is the foundation of the whole social, aesthetic and political superstructure which can be reconstructed from his essays. There were ‘spaces between the ultimate silence and exposition, which are filled only by great literature, and by poetry in particular.’ The language of worship occupied this space, and as such was a matter of the utmost seriousness. And its nature was fundamentally social; the Church was what later critics might have called a linguistic community. ‘Our speaking is that of a race, a tribe, a time. There is no speech which is not of a here and now and it is nothing in terms of other times and elsewhere. That is why the historical church is so apt to our needs and meaning. It is a congregation of meaning and there is no meaning without congregation.’ Given this, liturgical revision was a very serious matter, and (as Sisson became convinced) too difficult to attempt with any safety. He saw nothing in the theological milieu of the Church of England in the 1970s that suggested that a restatement of Christian faith in a way intelligible to a secularising society was likely. And so the idea of revision, already difficult, seemed more and more frivolous. ‘Pending a new clarification of things,’ he wrote in 1981 after the battle for the Prayer Book was lost, ‘better try to understand what our ancestors were saying.’ Better to work with – even despite – an authentic older text, however unwieldy, than to say nothing meaningful in contemporary prose.

Of which community was the Book, and indeed the Church, a product? ‘I am of a religion’, he wrote in an essay on Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ‘in which … Christianity is an accident; the religion of our fathers, or the mère patrie, of the spirits buried in the ground, of the religion of England. I cannot help it.’ In metaphysical terms, the religion of England was an accident, the substance of which was a nation, formed in a place. And Sisson’s thought pointed both to a certain kind of localism, and a very particular idea of the national community. The fundamental message of the parish system, an outward order that comprehended every inch of the country, was: ‘You will find the faith taught, and the sacraments ministered, where you live. Go to your parish church.’ To travel to a different church for a particular preacher, or to another for the manner in which the Eucharist was celebrated, was to call into the question the Church of England’s claim of catholicity. ‘There is no meaning except in terms of a time and a place’ he wrote: ‘If one could understand it would be at one altar, in a stone building, in such a place’.

The historical fact of the Church of England also had, for Sisson, ineluctable implications for politics and nation as well as the parish. Despite its dwindling strength, the Church of England was driven by its very nature to make universal, indeed implacable claims about the whole of human existence. It could never become simply a private society for the provision of ‘innocent Sunday entertainments’, no different in kind to any other voluntary association. Some form of relationship between the Church and the state would have always to be defined that recognised its unique scope and the range of its claims. And atop this whole structure sat the sovereign, who in the last instance was ‘the final safeguard of our unity… a point of unity in a single Person present on the throne by hereditary right and form of law.’ The established Church and the sovereign were bound together in a relationship, in which the disappearance of one entailed the extinction of the other. Sisson’s sense of the nation had at times almost a mystical tone; Donald Davie noted Sisson’s remarkable metaphor of the monarch who ‘broods over this body of laws and institutions’, as if in some kind of maternal, creative relationship, the nation’s originator.

Such an attachment to a locality and to the ideal of the parish is, of course, far from extinct, and neither is attachment to the monarchy. But Sisson’s religious politics drove him to certain conclusions which would now find little assent. Raised a Methodist, he became dismissive of the Free Churches which were ‘ancillary and in the main derivative’, bodies whose political battles were fought for them by the established Church; Sisson was no ecumenist. The fact that, for the first time, England was now home to many from the Commonwealth who adhered to other faiths – a spanner in the works of Sisson’s idea of faith and nation – seems hardly to have registered. Roman Catholics, however, were almost an enemy within. Despite the day-to-day quiescence of English Catholics, Sisson thought, the Papacy had never renounced its claims as a temporal sovereign, and so in England those Catholics were a minority simply biding their time. ‘They have their politics, however subduedly for the present, and they are not in their obedience bound to England.’ A greater misunderstanding of the English Catholicism of the time, and of the Papacy, would be hard to find.

*****

Sisson emerges from his essays as a voice of a kind of ecclesiastical Toryism which, though elements of it survive, is surely hard to accept as a whole system. No-one now seriously asserts the need to restore greater parliamentary oversight of the established Church. Although the Book of Common Prayer is still used and valued by many – not least in the cathedrals – it is as one option among several to be chosen; no longer has it the same sense of givenness or universality. Overtones of Sisson are perhaps audible in the sense of loss felt by those people, perhaps not all regular worshippers, who were unable to visit the churches at times due to the pandemic, just to sit and think and perhaps pray. The idea of a faithful laity deserted by trendy clergy is still certainly live and well in certain section of the conservative media, for whom the troubles of the Church of England still make good copy from time to time. But except for a very few, the late Roger Scruton notable among them, Sisson’s understanding of what a national church should be – indeed, must inevitably be – and of the necessary relationship of faith, language and nation, has now become almost entirely obscure as a viable intellectual option. But it deserves to be understood, as a missing piece in our understanding of recent religious history.

Walter Hussey and the Arts: chapter summaries

Abstracts of each chapter of Church and Patronage in 20th Century Britain: Walter Hussey and the Arts (now available from Palgrave Macmillan, 2017 as ebook and hardback), with links to purchasable PDF versions of each.

The book as a whole
The first full-length treatment of Walter Hussey’s work as a patron between 1943 and 1978, first for the Anglican parish church of St Matthew in Northampton, and then at Chichester Cathedral. He was responsible for the most significant sequence of works of art commissioned for the British churches in the twentieth century. They included music by Benjamin Britten, Leonard Bernstein and William Walton, visual art by Henry Moore, Graham Sutherland and Marc Chagall, and poetry by W. H. Auden. Placing Hussey in theological context and in a period of rapid cultural change, it explores the making and reception of the commissions, and the longer-term influence of his work, still felt today.
As well as contributing to the religious and cultural history of Britain, and of Anglo-Catholicism and the cathedrals in particular, the book will be of interest to all those concerned with the relationship between theology and the arts, and to historians of music and the visual arts.

Chapter 1. Introduction
The introduction outlines Hussey’s reputation as patron of the arts both during his career and since his death. It reviews the scholarly literature to date insofar as it has paid Hussey any attention, and sets out the several areas of the current historiography of British religion and the arts to which the study addresses itself. Finally it outlines the argument of the book chapter by chapter and ends with some remarks on the scope of the book and what it aims (and does not aim) to do. Buy the PDF

Chapter 2. The formation of a patron
Chapter 2 traces Hussey’s formation in the 1920s and 1930s: the son of a clergyman who progressed through public school (Marlborough), Oxford and ordination training at the Anglo-Catholic Cuddesdon College to a curacy in London. It also examines his early aesthetic development, as a viewer, listener, amateur musician and artist, and lays out the context for that development: of Anglican theologies of the arts of the 1920s, and the available examples of ecclesiastical patronage that others set. It argues that Hussey’s understanding of the arts in relation to culture and of the right form of patronage were both present in their essentials before he began his work at Northampton, as were his particular enthusiasms and artistic blind spots. It also shows that Hussey’s homosexuality was key to understanding the relationships he was later to form with those he commissioned. Buy the PDF

Chapter 3. The 1943 Jubilee festival at Northampton
Chapters 3 and 4 together examine the full record of patronage for Northampton. Chapter 3 begins by situating the church of St Matthew in its local context, and as a prominent example of an Anglo-Catholic church. It then examines the five ventures that together formed the jubilee festival of the church in 1943: an organ recital from George Thalben-Ball, a concert by the BBC Orchestra, new music from Benjamin Britten (his Rejoice in the Lamb) and from Michael Tippett, and finally (in 1944) the sculpture Madonna and Child by Henry Moore. It examines in particular the critical and public reactions to each work, and shows that the debates that the Moore provoked went to the very heart of what religious art was, and what it was for. Buy the PDF

Chapter 4. Music, art and poetry: 1944-55
Chapter 4 continues the story of Hussey’s patronage from 1944 until his departure from Northampton in 1955. It produced a painting from Graham Sutherland (Crucifixion, 1946), poetry from W.H. Auden and Norman Nicholson, and music from Malcolm Arnold, Lennox Berkeley, Edmund Rubbra and Gerald Finzi (Lo, the full final sacrifice, 1947) amongst others, including Benjamin Britten (for a second time). Those twelve years also saw the establishment of Hussey’s characteristic modus operandi, as he created ex nihilo a network of supportive critics, clergy and key players in the spheres of art, music and broadcasting. Buy the PDF

Chapter 5: The religious arts on a rising tide: people, media, networks
Chapter 5 places Hussey’s growing renown in the changed context of the immediate post-war period. Whilst the characteristic catholic understanding of the nature of culture was mostly unaltered by the War, Hussey’s project was now also framed by the need for reconstruction, both physical and (as some saw it) cultural and spiritual. The chapter describes a moment at which a new settlement between the church and the arts seemed possible, supported by a growth in media coverage, scholarly interest and exhibitions. It also details two key relationships in Hussey’s network: with Kenneth Clark, perhaps the most influential individual in British art, and with George Bell, bishop of Chichester, the other most significant figure in Anglican patronage of the arts in the period. It was Bell who brought Hussey from Northampton to Chichester in 1955: the cathedral of a diocese in which Bell had done significant work in relation to the arts, but that was itself not quite ready for a project such as Hussey’s. Buy the PDF

Chapter 6: new visual art for Chichester
Hussey’s commissions of new visual art and new music for Chichester cathedral are examined in chapters 6 and 7 respectively. Chapter 6 begins with an examination of what cathedrals were thought to be for, since their purposes were in question in a new way in the fifties and sixties. It then examines each of the works of visual art in turn: works by Graham Sutherland, Geoffrey Clarke, John Piper, Ceri Richards, Cecil Collins and Marc Chagall. As in chapters 3 and 4, it examines both the making of the works and their reception, and argues that, whilst highly effective in their own right, the works as a whole strike a less radical note than the Northampton pair from 1944-6. Buy the PDF

Chapter 7: Chichester music
Chapter 7 examines the series of compositions of new music for Chichester. It argues that the final compositions in the 1970s from the older figures William Walton and Lennox Berkeley have a similarly conservative flavour to the works of visual art documented in chapter 6. However, the commissions from Bryan Kelly, James Bernard, William Albright and in particular from Leonard Bernstein (the Chichester Psalms) show a more consistent engagement with contemporary trends in composition, and in particular the revolution in ‘church pop’ then under way. Buy the PDF

Chapter 8: cathedral, city and diocese
Hussey’s time as dean was one of searching, indeed existential questioning of the very purpose of the cathedrals within the church, in their urban environments, and as destinations for tourists. The whole of Hussey’s career was a response to these challenges by one particular means; chapter 8 examines the rest of his record as dean, and argues that his overwhelming focus on the arts was to the detriment of other areas of the cathedral’s life. Buy the PDF

Chapter 9: Legacy
The book ends with a reflection on the nature of Hussey’s model of patronage. Hussey did inspire others during his career and immediately following to commission new works for churches. But chapter 9 argues that Hussey’s success was in large part due to his personal qualities; his work was not as a distant, demanding patron but as a friend and collaborator, and as an unofficial chaplain to those with whom he worked. As such, his way of working was not easily codified into a model that could easily be transferred to other contexts, and the more public and institutional way in which the churches have come to work in the very recent past is perhaps an acknowledgment of the fact. More fundamentally, it argues that Hussey’s work was based on a catholic understanding of the relationship between national religion and culture, formed before the Second World War but given new impetus by it, which became hard to sustain as both the arts and the position of the churches changed during the long Sixties. Those in the present day churches who would see a live tradition of ecclesiastical patronage have needed to look elsewhere for their justification. Buy the PDF

Walter Hussey, patron of art

[From the introduction to my new book on Walter Hussey ]

Walter Hussey is known for an extraordinary sequence of commissions of contemporary art and music, for the church of St Matthew Northampton from 1943 and, from 1955 to 1977, for Chichester Cathedral. The names read as a roll-call of post-war artistic and musical life: Henry Moore, Graham Sutherland, John Piper, Marc Chagall in the visual arts; Leonard Bernstein, Benjamin Britten, Gerald Finzi, Michael Tippett, William Walton in music.

Hussey became something of a grandee: an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Institute of British Architects, an honorary Doctor of Letters of the young University of Sussex. Kenneth Lord Clark, critic, broadcaster, and sometime director of the National Gallery, described Hussey as ‘aesthete, impressario and indomitable persuader’. As interest in the relations between theology and the arts has grown, so has Hussey’s reputation as the most significant patron of art for the English church of the twentieth century. Countless recording sleeve notes and exhibition catalogues record Hussey’s role in glowing terms, and the art historical literature has accorded him a corner niche in the pantheon of the great individual patrons. For one commentator, Hussey single-handedly ‘turned the tide against Anglican neglect of modern art’.

Missing in all this is any extended critical study of Hussey’s life and work as a whole. The musicological and art-historical literature confines him to a walk-on part, while church historians have paid greater attention to the other major figure in Anglican artistic patronage, George Bell, bishop of Chichester.

Why, then, study Walter Hussey ? Most obviously, the Hussey Papers are a rich source for studying the commissioning of the contemporary arts, giving a vivid picture of the relationship between one exceptional clergyman and his commissionees. Almost none of this material has ever been integrated into the existing literature.

Within the contemporary Church of England with its cathedrals now crammed with contemporary art, Hussey has been seen as a voice in the wilderness, preparing the way for a rediscovery of a contemporary language for the Church’s message. This story of dogged effort in the face of philistinism and ignorance is the nearest we have to a meta-narrative of the churches and the arts. But it is a story established by dint of omission, since the integration of the religious arts into the study of recent British religious history is in its infancy. To document Hussey’s patronage is to provide key signposts in this terra incognita.

Hussey is also a case-study in the unspoken assumptions of catholic Anglicans about the arts, the church, and the place of creativity in national life. The social and economic crises of the 1930s, 1940s and 1960s prompted intense debate over the nature of ‘national religion’, and its connection with the mainstream in national culture. The church could not hope to regain the attention of ‘Modern Man’ without speaking through the art in which he was already expressing himself. Hussey stands as one of the most active and well self-documented case studies of this theological current in action.

Hussey’s career saw revolutionary change between the churches and the people. Church attendance and affiliation collapsed dramatically, as did the church’s confidence in its own ability to communicate and minister effectively. Part of the crisis was of religious language, and its ability to communicate in a manner meaningful to Modern Man. Some sought new means of mission, and the contemporary arts were seized upon as a means to that end. If words were no longer securely meaningful, then perhaps the arts provided an alternative language. If the 1960s saw the discursive death of Christian Britain, as Callum Brown has suggested, then Hussey made an attempt at resuscitation.

The means by which taste was shaped and determined also changed in the ‘long 1960s’. The vision of a beneficent establishment raising the horizons of the people through the BBC and other channels was overturned by a quite new emphasis on the entitlement to ‘do one’s own thing’. Hussey’s mode of patronage depended on a discerning patron, authoritative critic and notable artist working in tandem, disseminating new art downwards to a grateful if uncomprehending public. This way of working, successful in the 1940s, was by the 1970s no longer fit for purpose.

The period was also one of general cultural fracture, during which the classical in all the arts was shifted further and further from the centre of artistic life; a movement which posed difficulties for those in the churches and outside who wished to place Anglican patronage in the centre of the mainstream of national cultural life. By the end of Hussey’s career it was less than clear where that centre might be.

The career of Walter Hussey thus affords the historian a unique opportunity to examine one sphere in which the church met, resisted, negotiated with or capitulated to forces of change in the society in which it was located.

Letters of T.S. Eliot

I note the recent appearance of the second volume in the correspondence of T.S. Eliot, covering the period 1923-25. Although Eliot was writing little new poetry in this period, there appears to be much there on more general questions of learned publishing, the circulation of ideas and Eliot’s view of what The Criterion was to do. Several reviews have appeared, the most extended of which is by Stefan Collini in the Guardian. Collini has of course written on Eliot in his Absent Minds. Michael Wood in the LRB draws out some traces of Eliot’s emerging religious thinking on the importance of suffering and sacrifice.