A vicar in the country

Next in my series on fictional clergy is Mr Keach from J.L. Carr’s 1980 novel A month in the country, who is dealt with only briefly but (as with much else in what is only a short book) Carr achieves much with economic means. Birkin, our principal character and narrator, arrives at a small Yorkshire village in the summer of 1920 with a job to do. In fulfilment of a will, he is to investigate and (if needed) uncover and restore a medieval mural painting in the village church. He is greeted by an unsympathetic Keach, a relatively young man of perhaps thirty, neat, but ‘pale-eyed, a cold, cooped-up look about him’. Keach fusses and quibbles about small things: expenses, Birkin’s living arrangements (he intends to sleep in the belfry); we see a cramped, fiddly, irritable man, without grace or hospitality. His offence in Birkin’s eyes is compounded to his indifference to the mural; Keach had asked the executors to agree to an alternative use for the 25 guineas but was rebuffed: Birkin’s presence is a burden he has no choice but to bear, along with the scaffolding that occupies his church. Clergy were often caricatured as culpably indifferent to the arts, and Carr’s priest is so shown here. Keach worries that a painting about the chancel arch will distract his congregation from their worship. Worse still, Birkin could, he supposed, fill in areas that had disappeared. ‘Incredible! I thought. Why are so many parsons like this! Must one excuse their defective sensibility towards their fellows because they are engrossed with God?’

The mural painting at St Mary’s church, Goring-by-Sea. Image: Peter Webster

But Carr’s vicar is a more sympathetic character than this, or rather, more pathetic, in need of our pity. One of the great tasks of the reforming Church of England after 1945 was the rationalisation of parsonage houses, and indeed of parishes themselves. Already by 1920 clergy were often in the wrong place, marooned by demographic change, and in houses built on a different scale for an earlier time, and Keach is one such. Carr draws the vicarage as dark and foreboding to the point at which one almost expects to encounter a ghost, and Alice, Keach’s wife is driven to nightmares by its encircling trees, out of control, and the air, pressing in as if in a compression chamber. Leaving the overtones of Gothic horror aside, the vicarage itself is of a not uncommon type. Keach shows Birkin the vast empty house, that could have accommodated a large family and its domestic staff, now scarcely furnished, with room after room left as empty as on the day on which he and his wife arrived. ‘In this wilderness of a house’, they ‘huddled together for the comfort of each other’s company. Neither cares to be alone in the awful place’. The Keaches struggle on in its enveloping shadow, with some small comforts: a card table, his violin, an altar made of a trunk covered with a bedspread: ‘they shouldn’t have been made to live in it’, Birkin decides.

Keach’s predicament goes beyond his vicarage, however. Alice wonders whether he should not have been happier in the south, Sussex perhaps, rather than in the rural north, with people more like themselves, but the crisis to which he gives voice is in reality not one of location. In the last scene in which we see him, as Birkin has finished his work, Keach’s sense of his own superfluity and failure emerges. ‘The English are not a deeply religious people’, he says; their observance is largely out of habit, that at Christmas or Harvest merely ‘a pagan salute to the passing seasons’. They have no need of Birkin save as a ‘removal contractor’ at the rites of passage of weddings and funerals. And Birkin has, unwittingly, twisted the knife. Keach had, it turns out, hoped to be of pastoral use to Birkin, a man returned wounded from the war: ‘you have come back from a place where you have seen things beyond belief, things which you cannot talk of yet can’t forget, but things which are at the heart of religion’. Yet Birkin, like all the others Keach has tried and failed to reach, has passed the time of day, spoken of the weather, ‘and you have hoped that I shall go away.’ Though there is no suggestion that Keach is himself in any crisis of faith, he is diminished, reduced to irritability and pettiness, by a sense of waste, of a vocation unfulfilled.

Bernstein in Chichester

2018 is the centenary year of the birth of Leonard Bernstein. Among the many events to mark the year is the Bernstein in Chichester festival, which celebrates Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms, commissioned for Chichester Cathedral by its dean, Walter Hussey.
I shall be speaking about Hussey at a symposium event on April 20th (booking details here), and then curating an exhibition of archival holdings about the Psalms later in the year, including some of Bernstein’s letters. It will be shown first at the West Sussex Record Office, and then in the cathedral. This short essay was written for the festival website.
My own book on Hussey’s patronage of the arts is published by Palgrave Macmillan.

Walter Hussey, dean of Chichester between 1955 and 1977, was the most significant patron of the contemporary arts for the Church of England in the twentieth century. The Bernstein in Chichester festival celebrates his most famous commission of music for Chichester, the Chichester Psalms. But there was more music than this for the cathedral: works from William Walton, Lennox Berkeley and others. For his church of St Matthew Northampton (where he was vicar for nearly twenty years before coming to Chichester) there was more music: from Lennox Berkeley, Gerald Finzi (Lo, the full final sacrifice), Michael Tippett and (most famously) Rejoice in the Lamb, by Benjamin Britten, with whom he became a lifelong friend.

Hussey in the late 1940s. Image from West Sussex Record Office, all rights reserved.

Though music was perhaps Hussey’s first love, his own collection of painting and sculpture was the basis of the collection at Pallant House in Chichester. Visitors to the cathedral can see commissions from John Piper, Graham Sutherland and also Marc Chagall; Chichester is one of only two churches in the UK that contain Chagall stained glass. At Northampton two commissions by Hussey still face each other across the church: one by Sutherland, and the other, Hussey’s first, from Henry Moore.

In 1943, in wartime Northampton, still under blackout conditions at night, why did Hussey, provincial parish priest, decide that a revival of the religious arts should be his life’s work? (This, to be sure, was not his first thought, but within a few short years he had achieved national and international recognition for his project.) Hussey was not given to much theological reflection on why he, a priest, should be trying to commission contemporary art for the church at a time when such activity was at a low ebb. But Hussey was led by his senses. Deeply moved as a young man in London by the art he could see and the music he could hear, he could not see why the close relationship between church and artist he saw in the medieval churches of England should not be restored. Leaving the justification to others to make, he decided just to do what he could in a practical way. Unencumbered by any sense of his place in the pecking order, his first successful commissions were from Britten and Moore, who came to be arguably the two greatest exponents of their arts that England produced in the twentieth century.

Kenneth, Lord Clark, a Hussey ally from early on, described him as ‘aesthete, impressario and indomitable persuader’. It was this persistence and sheer self-confidence which led him to approach Leonard Bernstein on the basis of the briefest of meetings in New York some years before. But it is this chutzpah that is the hallmark of Hussey’s way of working. Artistic commissions in the twenty-first century tend to be committee affairs, with stages of consultation with all those with an interest in a project. Hussey was a patron of an older school: he kept his eyes and ears open, decided what he liked, and went all out to persuade an artist or composer to work for him, and to raise the money to pay for it. Chichester, Northampton, and the English church in general are the richer for it.

Evangelicals, culture and the arts

[This is an edited extract from a forthcoming essay in the Routledge Research Companion to Evangelicalism, edited by Andrew Atherstone and David Ceri Jones. It should be published in 2018.]

One evening in the early 1960s Michael Saward, curate of a thriving evangelical Anglican parish in north London, went to the Royal Festival Hall to hear the aged Otto Klemperer conduct Beethoven. As the Polish violinist Henryk Szeryng played the Violin Concerto, Saward unexpectedly found himself

‘sitting (or so it seemed) a yard above my seat and experiencing what I can only describe as perhaps twenty minutes of orgasmic ecstasy. . . . Heaven had touched earth in the Royal Festival Hall. . [It was]  . .  a taste of [God’s] work as creator of all that is beautiful, dynamic and worthy of praise . . . speaking of his majesty in the universe which he has made, goes on sustaining, and fills with his life force, the Holy Spirit, who draws out of humanity an infinite range of talent, skill and glorious creativity in artistic works.’

Saward’s words were part of a memoir and not a work of theology, but they challenge many received views of the relationship between evangelicals and the arts. Here was a graduate of the conservative theological college Tyndale Hall, Bristol, sitting in a concert hall, listening to a German Jew conduct a Polish Jew in a piece of wordless secular music, and yet attaching such significance to the experience. Even though music was the art form most likely to be appreciated within the evangelical constituency, rarely does the historian find such a positive evaluation of the arts, their effects, and their place in the theology of creation and of the work of the Holy Spirit.

Evangelical theologies of culture have at root been theologies of the Fall. Anglican Catholics in England in the twentieth century began to recover a much older incarnational sense, thought to have been lost since the Reformation, of human activity as a subordinate participation in the work of creation. Not only could the maker of a work of art communicate something to the viewer about the aspect of creation that he or she was representing; the act of making could also in some sense be co-operating with God. In contrast, the evangelical view of human capability has tended to be more pessimistic. At its strongest, this view was that sin so defaced the divine image in human beings and so clouded their perception that their unaided attempts at understanding God and creation would be at best partial and incomplete, if not indeed corrupted and thus useless. Any attainment of virtue would be accidental, the product of external influence rather than any effort on the part of the individual. To attempt to create anything of beauty would be futile, and all participation in secular activity prone to the corruption of pride and self-interest.

At base, this is the centre of theological gravity in what remains, even after thirty years, the most sustained historical treatment of the question of evangelicalism and culture in Britain, Evangelicals and Culture by Doreen Rosman (1984). In the early nineteenth century, Rosman found many individual evangelicals who were able to engage in the arts in positive ways, and indeed to delight in their performance. However, evangelical theology was never able to develop its instinctive rhetorical claim on the whole of human life into a framework that could comfortably encompass the arts. Unable to sanctify the senses, it was often forced instead to seek to subjugate them. Evangelicals ‘were never confident to assimilate such worldly activities within the framework of their world-denying theology.’

This chapter examines evangelical encounters with the arts in several modes: as both consumer and performer in the apparently ‘neutral’ sphere of the home; as users of the arts in the context of public worship; as users of the arts as tools for evangelism; and as moralist and reformer of the artistic pursuits of others. It concerns itself mainly with music, literature, the visual arts and drama, and its examples are drawn chiefly from Britain and the USA, and from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. That said, its overall analysis makes a claim to be applicable to the evangelical movement as a whole.

In certain cases there were evangelical principles that went to the very basis of the art form concerned, such as the stress on the intelligibility of words sung to music, which as a result were both widespread and persistent. At the same time, there were other evangelical concerns, such as the taboo on attendance at the theatre, which were not so much issues with the medium itself, but a particular social context in which it was produced. As a result such prohibitions could be, and were relaxed at other times and in other places. Evangelicals at times enthusiastically embraced certain art forms and individual works; at others they rejected them on principle; in other circumstances the story was one of resistance, adaptation, and the replacement of secular versions with safe and edifying substitutes.

Implicit in much of the chapter is a wider question: how far was evangelical engagement with the arts conditioned by the cultural power that they were able to exercise in general, and the extent to which their cultural presuppositions were shared with their neighbours? At the height of influence of British evangelicalism in the mid-nineteenth century, evangelicals shared many of the same presumptions as their neighbours about the moral purpose of the arts, and about the conditions that should surround their production and reception. As Elisabeth Jay has shown, this cultural closeness was mirrored in the degree to which evangelical life itself was the subject of the Victorian novel; an interest which waned as did evangelical influence in society, reaching a terminal point in Samuel Butler.

In contrast, evangelicals in late-twentieth-century Britain and America found themselves marooned by the processes of secularisation in societies in which any consensus about the purpose of art had fractured, and in which middle-class consensus on morality (the consensus that mattered) had disintegrated. It is no coincidence that this period saw a spate of evangelical writing on the supposed death of Christian culture in the west as reflected in the arts, by figures such as Francis Schaeffer and H.R. Rookmaaker. In this context of perceived cultural and moral crisis, the paradox was that evangelicals were in confrontation with secular artistic production for its godlessness, whilst domesticating its forms for their own purposes – in popular church music, or in religious drama – to a greater extent than ever.

Worth a thousand words

Image from the West Sussex Record Office, by permission of the Dean of Chichester. All rights reserved.

Very recently I had what was a new experience for me: selecting images to illustrate a new book, on a remarkable Anglican patron of the arts, Walter Hussey. Before now, most of my work has been concerned with ideas, which are arguably rather difficult to illustrate convincingly, and there was no opportunity to illustrate my book on Michael Ramsey, save for the cover. But this new book is about patronage of the arts, and about an individual, his personality and the crucial importance his relationships with others had in his success as a patron. The publisher allowed some twenty images, and so there was an opportunity to be grasped.

I don’t intend to go into the laborious details of securing the necessary copyright permissions for these images (although there were times at which I wondered whether the effort was justified). Here I am interested in the curious interaction, largely obscure to me before, between text and image in the telling of a story. Hussey died in 1985, and his various appearances on television are hard to track down, as are recordings of his voice. But my various interviewees gave me remarkably consonant accounts of his personality, which also matched the picture that his extensive papers suggested. Included in the papers are a perhaps unsually large number of portrait photographs of Hussey at various ages. How far can one usefully read a photograph as indicative of personality?

Image from the West Sussex Record Office, by permission of the Dean of Chichester. All rights reserved.

Take the first image above, for instance, undated but probably taken in the early 1930s when Hussey was only recently ordained as a priest. He is perhaps 25 or 26 years old, having progressed straight from school at Marlborough College to Keble College Oxford, through theological college at Cuddesdon to a church in Kensington. The very thin sources for this period show a young man of puppyish enthusiasm for his particular interests, but also very earnest and not a little naive. Is this reflected in the picture? Possibly; but other readers may see quite different things.

For me, the second image (left) is a much clearer capturing of certain elements in Hussey’s make-up. By this time, probably in the early 1950s, Hussey has achieved what might have been thought impossible for the vicar of a provincial parish church. In the space of four years, he commissioned works of art from Henry Moore and Graham Sutherland, poetry from W.H. Auden, and new music from Benjamin Britten, Lennox Berkeley and Gerald Finzi, amongst others. Hussey, never very much prone to self-doubt, is very probably at a high point of confidence in his largely lone quest to bring the Church of England into a closer relationship with the contemporary arts. He is in demand as a speaker, as a member of committees, and in the print and broadcast media, and his growing network of critics, artists and musicians are telling him how important and remarkable is his project. Part of that success was his boldness, directness, persistence and charm, and the friendships that he was able to develop, notably with Britten and Sutherland. Gone is the awkwardness of the younger man; in this picture, a cliche finds new life: Hussey here is at the height of his powers.

Image copyright Sussex Life, all rights reserved.

The last image is of Hussey as he neared retirement as dean of Chichester, photographed by a local magazine in his study (he retired in 1977). Clearly posed (although it isn’t clear by whom), it coincides with the time at which Hussey is working towards his final projects, and arranging his retirement. The gaze is cast sideways, as if in thought, which alludes to a cliche, of the saintly figure contemplating higher things. He is posed in front of a case of books (another cliche, of the scholarly priest) although there is little evidence that he read much or very deeply. Behind him is a maquette of the Henry Moore sculpture for Northampton, made nearly 30 years before, which remained his favourite commission (it was on the cover of his memoir Patron of Art). While all very fine works in themselves, some of Hussey’s last commissions, from William Walton, Lennox Berkeley and Marc Chagall have a valedictory quality: gifts from old men to another old man. In the book I argue that, although Hussey is often held up as an example of what the churches could do (and should do now), the understanding of theology and culture on which it was based had by this point in time run its course. By the time this picture was taken, Hussey had reached the furthest extent of what he could achieve. The photograph is a summation of a career nearing its end.

War memorials, bombed churches and ‘Christian civilisation’

I usually summarise my articles here, but this older one has not had such a summary before now as it predates this blog. As I’ve had cause to revisit it in the process of thinking about London’s blitzed churches in fiction, here’s a digest.

Title: Beauty, utility and “Christian civilisation”: war memorials and the Church of England, 1940-47
Published: Forum for Modern Language Studies 44:2 (2008) 199-211
Read the final version (proofs)

The years following the end of the First World War saw an effusion of memorials to that war, to the extent that scarcely a village, school or regiment was without one. The impression that might be gained from a journey through much of rural England is that the stone cross, placed by the village green, was the predominant form of memorial chosen by English communities after 1918. In contrast (it has been argued) the years after 1945 were characterised by indifference, and indeed hostility, towards the building of further monuments in stone. Nick Hewitt has suggested that this ‘sceptical generation’ desired ‘practical’ or ‘useful’ memorials, such as playing fields, community halls or educational scholarships. The ‘artistic establishment’ was by 1944 out of touch with a utilitarian public. This article considers just this establishment and the part played by the Church of England in its deliberations.

It examines the moment during the last years of the war and immediately after, during which the interlocking ecclesiastical, artistic and governmental establishments began to imagine the general shape of memorialisation, and the part the bombed churches of London and elsewhere might play. It shows that there had been a much more lively debate on memorials than the eventual inventory might imply. Debate centred in particular on whether or not a beautiful but “useless” memorial was an appropriate response and (if it was) in which style it ought to be executed. Clergy, artists and architects and the committees and bodies that facilitated their interaction were keenly interested in the relationship between beauty, utility and the reconstruction of “Christian civilisation”.