Barbara Pym’s priests

So far in my series on the Anglican clergy in British fiction, we have encountered just one clergyman in each novel, or two at the most; in Barbara Pym’s Some Tame Gazelle (published in 1950 but substantially complete by 1936), there are no fewer than four, two of which at least take a substantial part in the narrative as a whole. Set in an unnamed English village, it is the Archdeacon, Henry Hoccleve who features most prominently. The Archdeacon in different hands could have been an entirely unsympathetic character: cantankerous, vain, condescending and inhospitable to guests and parishioners alike. Like many clergy a devotee of poetry, he was susceptible to a literary allusion ‘and was delighted, in the way children and scholars sometimes are, if it was one that the majority of his parishioners did not understand.’ He is only saved from monstrosity by the subtle puncturing of his pomposity that Pym administers at every turn, and the unrequited devotion of years of Miss Belinda Bede, the spinster who, with her sister Harriet, are the heart of the book. (More than one writer has suggested that Belinda and Harriet are Pym’s imagining of her sister and herself in later life.) Even then, Belinda in a moment of reflection notes that ‘he had very few of the obvious virtues that one somehow expected of one’s parish priest’ (chapter 1) There is, however, more to dear Henry than mere social conformity and protectiveness of his status, as we see him contemplating mortality amongst the gravestones in the churchyard. For all its subtle criticism of the gap between expectation and reality in Hoccleve’s ministry, Pym’s portrayal has none of the hostility of that of Robert Tressell. .

The three other clergymen have less fictive work to do but are still better developed than many stock characters. Mr Donne the new curate is blank and pale and, though often present, makes little impression. Father Edward Plowman is the rather ‘Romish’ rector of the neighbouring parish: he wears a biretta, uses incense, and dislikes the Archdeacon as much as he is disliked in turn. Harriet, though, would rather like to attend his church if it were not so far to walk, since he preaches sermons that people can understand, and is ‘such a fine-looking man too, like Cardinal Newman’ (chapter 2) This competitive churchmanship recalls Orwell’s A Clergyman’s Daughter, written at a similar time.

Rather more of a rarity is Theo Grote, the colonial archbishop of Mbawawa, no longer the beautiful willowy curate that Belinda had known as a student, who is accommodated at the vicarage in as uncomfortable a fashion as the archdeacon can decently arrange. The novel predates both the growing to independence of the Anglican provinces in Africa and the growth of any real knowledge of the colonial churches amongst lay Anglicans in England, and so the bishop regales the parish with lantern slides of his flock and their curious dress and customs (chapter 16). Also rather rare in English fiction is the set piece in chapter 18 where all four men are at supper at the vicarage, in which one of Pym’s most devastating criticisms is delivered in characteristically oblique way.

‘Miss Aspinall was radiant .. glittering with beads and chains and agreeing rapturously with everything that everybody said. This was rather difficult with four clergymen present, as with the exception of the curate who hardly ventured an opinion on anything, they tended to disagree with each other wherever they could…. It was such a pity, Belinda reflected, that clergymen were so apt to bring out the worst in each other… as a species they did not get on, and being in a small country village made things even more difficult. These embarrassments would not arise in London where the clergy kept themselves to themselves in their own little sets, High, Broad and Low, as it were.’

A neater skewering of the partisan spirit in the inter-war Church of England I have yet to find.

After having tried several publishers, Pym succeeded in having this, her first novel, published by Jonathan Cape in 1950. It was the first of six in a similar vein before she was unceremoniously cut adrift by Cape, after which she could find no publisher until the late 1970s. The ODNB puts this abrupt descent into obscurity down to an increased appetite for fashionability (and thus profitability) at Cape under editor Tom Maschler. It may be that part of this unfashionability was the volatile mood of English Christianity in the early 1960s, in which such delicate miniatures, celebrations of the stasis of English village life, were increasingly out of place. Iris Murdoch’s atheist priest in The Time of the Angels was perhaps a closer reflection of the crisis of confidence into which the Church of England had talked itself. Pym’s portrait is also from the inside, a portrait of the Church of England by one who loved it as Belinda loved the Archdeacon. A reception history of Pym might well show that over time, fewer and fewer writers and readers could receive a book like Some Tame Gazelle, imaginatively complete in the 1930s, as a reflection of their own social reality; the vogue that Pym belatedly experienced after 1977 was surely in a different, more distanced mode. (For just such a recovery of the rural religion of the 1930s and 1940s as emblematic of a lost world, see John Fowles’ Daniel Martin.)

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.]

The Church, law, and politics, 1958–1974

I’m delighted to be able to say that an article of mine is to be part of a volume now under contract with Boydell and Brewer. Edited by Thomas Rodger and Philip Williamson, it has the title Church and State. The Church of England and British politics in the twentieth century, and should be published in 2019.


The ‘Long Sixties’ (1958-74) saw a series of changes in the relationship between the Church of England and the law: some spectacular, others rather less so. Most prominent was the series of reforms in the ‘moral law’, such as in relation to divorce, abortion, capital punishment and male homosexuality. Valuable work has been done on these episodes as they implicated the Church of England, such as that by Matthew Grimley on the Sexual Offences Act 1967. However, the focus of this scholarship on particular issues and episodes has tended to obscure a longer-term and more fundamental shift in the relationship between the established Church and the law at large, of which these spectacular moments were but component parts.

This paper surveys these changes in the moral law, but also the longer-range renegotiation of the relationship between the Church, Parliament and the law that was instigated shortly after the Second World War by archbishop Fisher in pursuit of a reformed code of canon law. This process culminated in the Worship and Doctrine Measure of 1974, under which the Church gained the power to settle its own doctrine and practice of worship without recourse to Parliament, thus removing one of the key causes of tension in earlier periods. This raft of reforms, small and large, touched upon almost every aspect of the Church’s life, internal and external – the relationship with Parliament, the representation of the voice of the laity, the ordering of worship, the settlement of doctrine, the discipline of clergy, the organisation of parishes and the finances of the Church as a whole.

Examining all these changes in aggregate, and the various debates within and outside the Church that they provoked, the chapter will argue that when taken together they constitute a significant widening of the gap between established church and state. The process also coincided (and interacted) with a profound reconsideration among some within the Church of its right relation with the other Christian churches and with the nation as a whole. Some, notably Michael Ramsey, saw an opportunity for the Church to take a more detached and prophetic role as the distance between Church and State widened. That the opportunity was not taken in later years is the subject for a different study.

Michael Ramsey and Anglican evangelicals: new article

[Now available as a free PDF download.]

The pleasure of picking a new book up off the doormat never seems to diminish, and so it is with this new book on Anglican evangelicalism in the twentieth century, in which I have a chapter on Michael Ramsey and evangelicals in the Church of England. Here’s a summary of my argument, which runs as follows:Maiden Atherstone - cover

(i) that although Ramsey was no evangelical, his time as archbishop was also a crucial period of transition in evangelicals’ view of themselves and of how they should relate to the wider church;

(ii) that Ramsey has too often been assumed to have either indifferent or actively hostile to evangelical concerns, mainly because of a reputation fostered by one episode, the “fundamentalism controversy” of the mid-1950s;

(iii) that this understanding of Ramsey was a product of a wider relationship of tension between evangelicals and the wider church, a story which has since been told in terms of dogged evangelical persistence in the face of calculated marginalisation from the hierarchy;

(iv) that despite all this, Ramsey in fact enjoyed good working relationships and indeed friendships with many within the liberal or centrist parts of the evangelical constituency, including men such as Max Warren;

(v) that early contact with conservative evangelicals was tentative, but that there was a marked change in atmosphere after the safe passage through Parliament of the Vesture of Ministers Measure in 1964 (of which more here);

(vi) that despite evangelical wariness of Ramsey in relation to the more ‘political’ aspects of the church, he was nonetheless viewed as clearly orthodox in his theology; and that there were several points of sympathetic contact between Ramsey and evangelical theology, in relation to the Cross, his concern for evangelism, and his emphasis on personal holiness. Much of this was connected to Ramsey’s own Congregational background;

(vii) that there was a difference of emphasis in relation to method, in that what some evangelicals saw as doctrinal ‘clarity’ and a willingness to contend for the truth was to Ramsey evidence of intellectual rigidity and an unwilingness really to engage openly with anyone holding an opposing view;

(viii) that an examination of the Ramsey Papers shows clearly that, even if there was mutual distrust between wings of the church, there is no evidence of deliberate efforts by the central institutions of the Church to keep evangelicals from positions of influence. This was the case with the appointment of bishops (a favourite bone of contention) and membership of the Church Assembly, as well as with the memberships of the many commissions and working groups set up to consider difficult issues. It was also the case in relation to the failed scheme for Anglican-Methodist unity.

The article concludes that the persistent story in evangelical folklore of exclusion from the corridors of power in this period cannot be grounded in fact. The continued existence of this explanatory myth tells us as much about (some) evangelicals’ view of themselves as it does about the actual workings of the Church of England.

Anglican clergy in twentieth century British fiction: an open notebook

Regular readers may have seen a series of occasional posts on clergy in fiction. I thought it worth noting what this series is, and is not designed to achieve.

Firstly, and importantly, I am no literary critic. There is little here in the way of criticism of the text as text; I’m in no way qualified to place these in the context of a writer’s works, or comment on style. I am an historian, and I want to collect examples of clergy of the twentieth century Church of England that appear in British literary fiction. While care is needed in reading fiction as a primary source, fictional clergy are nonetheless an important source in assessing the religious temper of the period in which they were written, and in which the narrative is set.

This is nothing like a research project; but more like a collection of notes, out of which something more formal might evolve. And this notebook is an open one, and suggestions from readers of examples to include would be very welcome. It is in part inspired by Luke McKernan’s admirable

Some notes on scope:

1. Which period ?
My initial definition of the twentieth century is quite broad. For example, H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds was published in 1897 but in its sensibility looks forward, and so is included. It may be that, over time, 1914 proves a more significant date.

Note also that both character and text must be within the century. So, historical fiction written in the twentieth century but set in an earlier period is not included.

2. Which clergy ?
I’ve restricted myself to the Church of England, for several reasons. One is that the number of depictions of ministers from the Methodist, Baptist and other Protestant churches is very small. More importantly, the clergy of the established church have many more meanings projected onto them than those of other denominations, and I am concerned with these broader representations of the Church of England and its social and political importance.

I’ve also excluded the Roman Catholic clergy, for some of the same reasons and for others. Priests of the Roman obedience often serve quite distinctive symbolic functions in fiction of this period, which needs its own treatment. And there are also many more of them, from Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh and David Lodge amongst others, and with a specific critical literature around them.

They may also be real – that is, fictional representations of historical figures are included.

To read the posts so far, look for the clergy in fiction tag.