Evelyn Waugh’s modern churchman

Mr Prendergast, the hapless protagonist of Evely Waugh’s Decline and Fall (1928), is one of the more unusual clerical characters in this series. The majority of the men we have met so far are either country parsons or urban priests; they have also all been incumbent when we meet them. Prendy, by contrast, we encounter in two quite different contexts: the undistinguished public school Llanabba Castle, staffed by the shady and variously disgraced, and then prison. Prendy, you see, had Doubts, of which we learn in his own words. Newly installed as rector in the genteel obscurity of Worthing, Prendy had a neat, well-decorated church, and local society enough to entertain his mother, when she was not busily making new chintz curtains for the drawing room. Most pleasant it all was, until Prendy was all of a sudden assailed by doubt. Not about the more familiar matters of which religious controversy were then made, such as the miracles of the Bible or the consecration of Archbishop Parker: ‘no, it was something deeper than all that. I couldn’t understand why God had made the world at all…. I’ve not known an hour’s real happiness since.’ (part 1, chapter 4)

Vincent Franklin as Prendy in the 2017 BBC adaptation

As often the case with Waugh, the funniest lines are only asides, as Prendy asks his bishop for help: ‘he said he didn’t think the point really arose as far as my practical duties as a parish priest were concerned.’ The questions of ultimate purpose were an indulgence when set beside the practical need to keep the Church running as a social reality. But the passage, only a few paragraphs long, is a poignant dramatisation of the crisis of faith, and occurs early enough in the novel that it is not overwhelmed by the grotesqueries that are to come. But Prendy continues to teach, if that be the right word, while the boys mercilessly mock his wig, and he continues to maintain an interest in ecclesiastical obscurities. ‘Are you sure he is right in the head?’ asks the local vicar at Sports Day after discussing with Prendy the apostolic claims of the church of Abyssinia. ‘I have noticed again and again since I have been in the Church that lay interest in ecclesiastical matters is often a prelude to insanity.’

Readers who know the novel will know of the grisly and senseless end with which Prendy meets. But the path which brings him and Paul Pennyfeather (the novel’s main character) together again in prison is a neat satire on a certain trend in the Church of England. Much to the irritation of Dr Fagan the headmaster, Prendy resigns from Llanabba as ‘he has been reading a series of articles by a popular bishop and has discovered that there is a species of person called a “Modern Churchman” who draws the full salary of a beneficed clergyman and need not commit himself to any religious belief.’ (part 2, ch.4) Prendy cut a rather pathetic figure at Llanabba, but not unsympathetic. He is a victim of a sudden and inexplicable collapse in faith to which he responded honourably by resigning his living; a misfortune which parallels that which landed Pennyfeather at Llanabba. The reader is, I think, invited to share Dr Fagan’s incredulity that it should be possible to be such a ‘Modern Churchman’; it smacks of disingenuousness, intellectual evasion. Of course, jobs in parishes are hard to come by for men who commit to no belief, and so Prendy ends up as prison chaplain to Pennyfeather. Waugh invites us to read Prendy’s modern churchmanship in parallel with the modern and enlightened methods of the prison governor, Lucas-Dockery; methods so blind to human nature that they lead directly to Prendy’s death. In Decline and Fall Waugh shows the reader the predicament of a secularised generation, but the ‘Modern Churchman’ is no answer.

Paul Avis reviews Archbishop Ramsey

I’m very pleased to be able to point out another favourable review of my book on Michael Ramsey, this time from the Anglican priest and ecclesiologist Paul Avis, visiting professor in the University of Exeter. Editor of the journal Ecclesiology, Avis devotes his whole editorial for volume 12, issue 3 to the book, and Ramsey at large.

Avis’s piece is more than simply a review, and is worth reading in its own right for his remarks on Ramsey, Luther and the Cross. He also notes Ramsey’s much noted personal eccentricity, which I have suggested that this could be explained by a retrospective diagnosis of autism. However, his observations on my book are uniformly positive.

Webster’s study is marked by well-paced narrative, perceptive analysis [and] a few correctives to [Owen] Chadwick’s picture…  Altogether Ramsey emerges as an impressively capable and indeed prophetic Archbishop of Canterbury. Like the other excellent recent reappraisals of Archbishops of Canterbury […] this new study shows an Archbishop of Canterbury of greater stature, especially in this case politically, than many have previously thought. Ramsey was perhaps overall the greatest Archbishop of Canterbury of the twentieth century’

It is published by Routledge at £25 in paperback; read other reviews of it here.

The archbishop, crime and sin: the Sexual Offences Act at 50

In July it will be fifty years since the passing of the Sexual Offences Act, which partly decriminalised sex between consenting adult men in private, in England and Wales. Various articles have started to appear, reflecting on the Act and the time since: some celebratory, some rather less so such as Gregory Woods in the TLS on the partial nature of the Act, a ‘discriminatory insult’.

Woods mentions Michael Ramsey in particular, and there is a place for assessing the legacy of the Act and how far it did (and did not) go. But reflecting on the limitations of the Act risks obscuring how significant a move it was in its context, and how difficult to achieve. This extract from my 2015 book on Ramsey takes up the story. In contrast to the more recent history of the Church of England and sexuality, it shows that the Church was not always behind public opinion, and was indeed sometimes ahead of it.

Hugh McLeod has made the salutary point that, despite their chronological closeness, the several amendments of the moral law in the 1960s ought not to be seen as the result of a concerted campaign, but rather as a series of related but distinct movements. At large, if the public were broadly in favour of liberalisation in the cases of divorce and abortion law, this was less the case when it came to homosexuality. The law criminalised sexual activity between men of any age in public or private, and a significant section of public opinion wished it to remain that way. As with capital punishment, the support of the institution of the Church of England for reform put it at odds with considerable sections of the public, both affiliated with the Church and not.

It was during Geoffrey Fisher’s time at Lambeth that the issue had pressed itself into public consciousness with the publication of the Wolfenden Report in 1957. If Fisher was mostly supportive of reform, but with some ambivalence, Ramsey had made his support for a change in the law clear; change that was to come in 1967, with the passing of the Sexual Offences Act. The Homosexual Law Reform Society numbered several of the bishops amongst its members, including Ramsey, who had joined before coming to Lambeth.

The law on homosexuality is a paradigm case of the proper relation between crime and sin in a post-Christian society. The Christian churches were united in regarding homosexual practice as sinful, and this had been in alignment for centuries with the general moral sense of the public. But there were many things which the Church thought were sins but which were not crimes, including adultery; and there were other matters which were both sins and crimes but which the public regarded as neither. Ramsey knew that the connection between crime and sin that many of the public felt very keenly, and which they expected the Church to preserve, was not sustainable.

It is worth pausing over what it was that Anglican campaigners for reform in the law were arguing, and its limits. Almost all the churches were united in regarding the condition of homosexuality as intrinsically disordered, a state at odds with nature, and homosexual intercourse as the sinful outworking of that state. Some thought that as a condition it might be cured; others were less sure. But most knew that there was no possibility of help for unfortunate and unhappy men while their condition was the object of the criminal law. There were also the first signs of a reassessment of homosexual relationships as having a positive, indeed even equivalent moral status as heterosexual ones, particularly among the Quakers, but it was in no way the mainstream of Christian thought.

In this, Ramsey’s own thought was in line with the more advanced in his and the other churches in relation to the law; but not with regard to the moral status of the act. As he told the House of Lords, ‘homosexual acts are always wrong in the sense that they use in a wrong way human organs for which the right use is intercourse between men and women within marriage.’ As such, despite talk of the ‘new morality’ there could be no wavering in the Church’s own discipline: as he told the wife of the peer Lord Brocket, ‘As to the wrongness of the sins in question and all other serious sins, we have to be perfectly plain in our teaching.’

Some wondered, though, whether that moral teaching could remain plain if a change in the law opened the door to openly homosexual clergy. The Conservative Lord Chancellor Viscount Dilhorne, famously abrasive and one of Ramsey’s chief antagonists in the Lords, considered tabling an amendment to the Bill excluding clergy (of the established Church) from its provisions. ‘I can imagine nothing more damaging to the prestige of our Church’, Dilhorne argued, ‘than for it to be thought that parsons and other clergy of the Church of England will be free to engage in homosexual activities.’ Did the public support from the bishops for the Bill not foster such an impression? In this case, Ramsey was able to reassure his noble colleague, since the recent Ecclesiastical Jurisdiction Measure (1963) contained powers with statutory force to discipline clergy for moral offences that were not criminal.

Insofar as it is possible to recover Ramsey’s own feelings, they would seem to have been mixed. In private he was able to describe homosexual sex as ‘disgusting’, but this, when coupled to his concern with the law, issued in a desire to help; to provide for the rescue of the homosexual from his wretched state, and to set him on the right path. As to the causes of the homosexual state, he was agnostic. He wondered in the Lords whether it was possible in some cases ‘to change the direction of the sexual impulses from the homosexual to the normal’. In other cases, there was the need, as there was for all Christians in one regard or another, for ‘greater conscience or self-control’; this was important for ‘those who believe seriously in the means of Divine Grace’.

What was certain was that neither this help, nor the open and unhindered medical and psychological investigation that Ramsey thought necessary, were possible under the law as it stood. Those laws ‘do not help morality, and give a good deal of hindrance to the promotion of what is right.’, and fostered nothing more than a ‘sense of injustice and bitterness.’ The case for change was on grounds of ‘reason and justice, and on considerations of the good of the community.’ Ramsey spoke and voted in 1965 in favour of the Bill introduced by Lord Arran, and again in 1966 for the later Bill that was later to issue in the Act of 1967.

The letters that Ramsey received were often expressive of strong feelings, whether it be on abortion, or on relations with Rome, or about race relations in England, but those which he received about homosexuality were in no few cases indicative of visceral feeling: of homophobia in its literal sense. One thought it a ‘filthy business’ and Ramsey ‘a damned disgrace’; another asked ‘Is there no longer such a thing as sin?’

For many, the fact of the changes in the law was less shocking than the apparent abdication of responsibility by the established Church in failing to oppose them. As Hera Cook has argued, that a previously uniform standard of sexual behaviour was openly debated amongst the elite was itself instrumental in promoting change. In the eyes of some observers the Church, however carefully it tried to distinguish between the law and its own discipline, was culpable. Lady Brocket, the daughter of a clergyman, declared herself and her husband ‘truly and genuinely shattered by your support of the Bill, as are our many friends in every walk of life.’ For her and for ‘many good Church people’ it simply passed understanding that Ramsey should collaborate in the passing of laws that both contradicted Christian morality, and threatened to undermine some of the basic building blocks of a stable society.

But there was an opening up of a gap between crime and sin, which Ramsey knew was both inevitable and right, even if many his correspondents could not begin to tolerate or even understand it. For Ramsey, Wolfenden had been right to argue that ‘not all sins are properly given the status of crimes … to say this is not to condone the wrongness of the acts, but to put them in the realm of private moral responsibility.’ To address that was the task of the Church on its own account, and not of the law. Ramsey knew that the relationship between the established Church and the British people was changing. There were great tasks of re-evangelising the nation; of pastoral ministry to all, including men forced to work out their sexuality in fear. These were no longer aided, and indeed were hindered, by the law as it stood.

Archbishop Ramsey: the shape of the Church is published by Routledge, priced at £25.

The Rector, the Village and the Aerodrome

Previously in this series on the clergy in British fiction, I looked at the Reverend Habbakkuk Bosher in Robert Tressell’s The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, possibly the most one-dimensional and least sympathetic of all such characters. Bosher is pure cypher, a blank canvas onto which Tressell can project his condemnation of the complicity of the established Church in the oppression of the proletariat. Where Tressell is crude, several other authors are more subtle; but relatively rare is the clerical character who is allowed room to be more than a mouthpiece for the attitudes of his profession and class. One particularly interesting example of the clerical character as pure symbol is in The Aerodrome by Rex Warner, first published in 1941.

The contemporary reputation of George Orwell’s 1984 is so weighty that it has tended to obscure other attempts to understand the phenomenon of authoritarian politics by means of the novel. As Anthony Burgess observed in the introduction to the 1982 edition from Oxford University Press, The Aerodrome preceded 1984 and in many ways is more complex and more interesting in its avoidance of overt brutality and the shades of grey that it reveals. Warner opposes two different visions of society, the Village and the Aerodrome. The former is sensual, muddled, corrupt, uncontrolled; it is in thrall both to its natural environment and to its history. The latter is a model of order, efficiency, cleanliness; it exists to subdue nature and to transcend the past. Warner’s achievement is showing the appeal of the Aerodrome to Roy, the principal character, and the degree of ambivalence it provokes; there is no such doubt for Winston Smith, no reluctant attraction.

There is no theology proper in Warner’s novel, no reflection on the nature of the claims to truth that the Rector’s church makes; indeed, they are not mentioned. The church, as represented by the Rector, is nothing but a social fact; part of the fabric of the Village as is the pub. (The character of the Squire, also never named, serves a similar function). The casual murder of the Rector, his replacement in the pulpit by the Flight Lieutenant and its annexation as a propaganda channel shows the degree to which authoritarian regimes recognise the threat that unrestrained religion might pose.

Although we see little of him, the Rector is broadly a sympathetic character: kindly, an affectionate father to Roy and both respected and loved in the Village.  While his confession of past guilt in chapter 2 may well be the most baroquely unrealistic portrayal of prayer ever set to paper, it shows a sensitive conscience in dialogue with its God, a fallen sinful man trying to live rightly. But it is perhaps this very weakness, the degree to which the Rector (and by implication the Church) is embroiled in, indeed sullied by the imperfect world in which it must minister, that explains the brutal appeal of the Aerodrome. Roy, who had been brought up as the Rector’s son now gradually transfers his obedience and his admiration to the Air Vice-Marshal, commander of the Aerodrome and a new father figure; a symbolic replacement of one kind of moral leadership with another. Religion had for centuries had an ‘ennobling, if a misleading effect’, said the Air Vice-Marshal; now that had come to an end, and so it was for the Aerodrome to discipline the Village, to raise it from its torpor: ‘earthbound … incapable of envisaging a distant objective, tied up forever in their miserable and unimportant histories’ (chapter 15). The Rector is a symbol of the English and indeed European society that fascism sought to refashion.

Utopia, dystopia and Christian ethics in the history of the Web

[First posted May 10th, updated 19 June after the event]

As part of the 2017 conference of the IIPC and the Research Infrastructure for the Study of Archived Web Materials (ReSAW), I shall be giving not one but two papers. The abstract for one of them is below.

The full programme for the conference (in London, June 14th-16th) and booking details are now available.

Utopia, dystopia and Christian ethics in the history of the Web

It has been noted more than once that both the Internet and the Web have been the subject of overarching projections of cultural and social aspirations and fears, utopian and dystopian. The Internet has been feted as a great disruptor: a solvent of established privilege and the outlet for previously marginal opinions; a liberator of suppressed creative energy, in politics, commerce and the arts. It has equally well been denounced as the harbour of criminality, the accelerator of falsehood, the destroyer of traditional industries, communities, languages and cultures. But both positive and negative discourses of the Web have often been expressed in both implicit and explicit theological or (at the very least) ethical and philosophical terms.

Using a combination of the archived Web itself as it evolved over time, and offline commentary that accompanied, applauded, criticised and indeed preceded it, this paper examines the several analytical categories by means of which Christian commentators in Europe and North America have sought to understand the online experience: the nature and capabilities of the human person; apppropriate forms of human interaction and the nature of community; and the economic and social effects on industries, countries and individuals. It will show that these concerns went beyond simple Luddism or concern about particular kinds of content such as pornography. It will show the continuity of these debates with earlier theological and ethical writing about early computing, and how they changed over the history of the Web. Finally, it will explore the degree to which secular utopian and dystopian writing about the Web owed its conceptual vocabulary to these older religious traditions.

The Church of England and learning disability, 1945-1990

[20 July: now updated to include a recording of the paper as delivered]

My paper for this year’s Ecclesiastical History Society conference has been accepted. I publish the abstract below. This is (I believe) the first attempt to open up an almost entirely obscure aspect of recent religious history, and I would be delighted to hear comments or reflections from readers.

The Church of England and learning disability, 1945 – 1990

The second half of the twentieth century saw far-reaching changes in the circumstances of people with learning disabilities in the UK. Advances in the scientific understanding of conditions such as Down’s Syndrome and autism were accompanied with a shift at national level away from institutional living to integration within local communities.

This paper examines the reactions of the Church of England to these several developments, as they played out amongst the leadership and central institutions of the church. How far was the church engaged in the legislative change that went through Parliament, and with which messages did its public voice sound? In relation to the conference theme, the educational needs of those with learning disabilities were forced upon the churches in a new way. How did the leaders of the Church of England understand the needs of these people both in religious education in schools, and as members of local congregations?

[Note: in the recording I inadvertently stated that the bishop of Portsmouth was the nephew of a child with a learning disability. What I meant to say was the the bishop was the *uncle* of the disabled child.]

Theology and crisis in the 60s: Michael Ramsey and E.L. Mascall

[Listen to the lecture in full, via the Pusey House website:


Title: Responses to theological crisis in the 1960s: Michael Ramsey and E.L. Mascall
Venue: Pusey House, St Giles, Oxford
Date and Time: Wednesday 17 May, 4pm (tea from 3.30)

Abstract: Rightly or wrongly, the long 1960s are often viewed in terms of religious crises. Responses to these pressures were many, and varied radically within churches, and indeed within constituencies within individual churches. This lecture outlines some of the contours of Anglican Catholic reactions by means of a comparison of two theologians and teachers; Michael Ramsey, archbishop of Canterbury, and Eric Mascall. It focusses in particular on two themes: the impact of the theology of the ‘death of God’ most personified by John A.T. Robinson; and the ecumenical movement, particularly the unsuccessful Anglican-Methodist unity scheme. Although alike in background, Ramsey and Mascall dealt with these issues in radically different ways. The issues were of faith and certainty, ambiguity and precision, optimism and pessimism, and the relationship between theology, pastoral care and the workings of an institution.

The lecture draws on my 2015 book on Michael Ramsey.