After six years and dozens of posts in my series on fictional clergy, a new record has been set for the most priests in a single novel. In Unguarded Hours, by A.N. Wilson (1978), I counted some ten clergy, plus half a dozen ordinands in theological college, and a wandering bishop. It is to Mar Sylvestrius (Exarch of the Isles, Abbot of Cluny, Elector of the Holy Roman Empire, but otherwise plain Mr Skegg, retired electrician) that we owe the intervention that catapults the hapless hero into the sphere of the Church of England. But it is in the other characters that most interest lies.
Wilson’s fiction has often been likened to that of Evelyn Waugh, and our hero Norman Shotover is, like Paul Pennyfeather in Decline and Fall, knocked off his professional course by a ludicrously minor misdemeanour into a situation for which he is manifestly unsuited. But while Pennyfeather is ejected from the study of theology, Norman is instead thrust into it. Wilson himself had spent an abortive year in training for ordination at St Stephen’s House in Oxford, and we are invited to identify Norman’s experience with Wilson’s own (Norman is Wilson’s middle name). It is perhaps for the goings-on, the ‘mucking around with sex’ and more besides at St Cuthbert’s College that the novel is most remembered. Though it is not my concern here, Wilson’s portrayal of the high camp subculture of the college is of a time when the Church of England, having in 1967 supported decriminalisation of homosexuality had not yet begun to reassess its own discipline which remained conservative. The antics of Thelma, Amelia and the other St Cuthbert’s ‘bags’ were a symptom of what has recently been called the ‘undigested’ nature of the Church’s relationship with homosexuality.
St Cuthbert’s is worth pausing over for a moment, however, as a portrayal both of a particular type of college, and of the general disorientation of Anglican Catholicism in 1974, when the book is set. The Church of England was in the process of rationalising its training, and a number of the colleges that were in cathedral towns – and distant from the universities – were under threat of amalgamation or closure. St Cuthbert’s is in the Sussex cathedral town of Selchester, and exudes the whiff of decay that the reformers wished to remove. Based in two houses in the cathedral close, the college is the proud possessor of a biretta blessed by Darwell Stone, and a stole worn by Father Tooth which has taken on the character of a holy relic. Norman, however, is unable to find the library, the books having been sold off to pay for repairs to the chapel roof; instead of writing essays, the students recycle old ones from a collection kept in the Common Room. The principal, Father Fosdyke, is on ‘paid leave’ after a series of scandals the previous year, and another colleague, ‘Dahlia’ Dickens, left to get married, leaving only ‘Felicity’, the vice-principal Arthur Fogg.
Not a few of the clergy Wilson shows us are in states of decrepitude, and their churches with them. The bishop we never meet, though we learn that he is unwell. The wizened Canon Pottle has been incumbent of St Botolph Bowlegs for sixty years, and the local conservation societies can only hope that he expires before the building falls down. Felicity Fogg is another, with his stammer (which Wilson lampoons mercilessly), ‘one of those moth-eaten clergymen who look as if they are falling to bits’ (part 2, chapter 7). Fogg is happiest when recounting stories of the shrine at Walsingham in the old days, but unable to exert any influence whatever on the student body, good or bad. Little of value emerges from Wilson’s account of Fogg, St Cuthbert’s and the particular kind of Anglo-Catholicism they represent. The most fully-drawn caricature in the novel, however, is of a quite different kind.
The Very Reverend and Honourable Ronald Etherington-Hope, dean of Selchester – or just plain Ron Hope, as he preferred to be called – is an amalgam of every possible kind of liberal or radical cleric from the 1950s to the 1970s. His early career clearly evokes that of John A. T. Robinson, author of the controversial 1963 book Honest to God. A doctoral thesis on Rudolf Bultmann and a well-regarded book on early Christian texts lead to academic success in his college. A contribution to the best-selling collection of controversial essays Rumblings (a clear reference to Soundings, published in 1962), opens the way to the equally successful Room for Doubt, television appearances and articles in the newspapers.
Such theologically radical and media-friendly clergy also appear in the work of Iris Murdoch and A.S. Byatt. Ron Hope’s journey, however, was not yet finished, and Wilson gives to him more markers of a kind of politicised cleric of the early 1970s. As the angry young of the 1950s became older, the new generation of the late 1960s had less appetite for Hope’s writing, and so ‘jauntier, and yet more aggressive, tones had to be adopted.’ Unlimited abortion and the abolition of the age of consent are causes he adopts, along with government aid to guerrilla movements (the World Council of Churches had in 1970 begun to aid certain southern African groups, and it was not quite clear that the money had not been used for arms). Newly arrived in Selchester in the early 1970s, his projects include hospitality to just such a group of African freedom fighters, and raising money to support striking car workers. His solution to the disorder at St Cuthbert’s is a course of lectures on ‘The Church in the Modern World’; the ordinands are packed off to experience ‘real life’ in factories, mental hospitals and immigration centres.
Leaving aside the implausibility of his career path – such a figure was a highly unlikely candidate for a deanery – Wilson’s Dean is a stereotype of an earlier period updated for the Seventies. What is more unusual is Wilson’s depiction of Ron Hope’s family life. Of his seven daughters, several seem to have achieved the kind of enlightenment that he might have desired: one is experimenting with communal living near Glastonbury; another is travelling to Kathmandu; Cleopatra – whom we meet – runs a natural food store in Selchester which has displaced the old tea room and its doilies, after returning from a squat in south London. Only the eldest – respectably married to an MP with three privately-educated children – is a disappointment. The reader is however, invited, I think, to compare them with the clergymens’ daughters in Orwell, Barbara Pym and others, and not quite favourably; it is not only in St Cuthbert’s that people are ‘mucking around with sex’, but the Dean’s daughters too. The expectations most readers would have had of a clergyman’s home life are further confounded by the fact that the Dean’s wife has taken what is tactfully described as an ‘extended holiday’ in South Africa with Hope’s elder brother, an embarrassment in Cambridge which he has come to Selchester to escape.
Wilson’s acidulous and well-informed picture of the Church of England would seem to leave nothing unscathed. But there are two priests with whom, though very different from each other, Norman/Wilson seems to appreciate rather more, and who in their shambolic and somewhat ridiculous way still seem to point towards a faith and practice that have something of value. The worship at St Willibrord’s, the ‘highest’ in Selchester, with its (to Norman) inexplicable smells, costumes and gestures, and its chant, ‘half like the mysterious music of an oriental temple and half like a cat caught in a mangle’ is both ridiculous and in some vague way moving. And it is as curate to Father Crisp that Norman feels that his unwonted vocation might be worked out. Crisp is cheerfully dismissive of the Dean (a ‘silly donkey’), and pragmatic about the youthful indiscretions at St Cuthbert’s. Mucking about with sex is to be expected; the question was whether or not they would, in time, make good priests. And Norman is impressed by Crisp’s own sense of vocation, which had pressed itself on him despite his doubts, and through his simply carrying on had lasted forty years. It is to Crisp that Wilson gives the only opportunity to speak at length in his own voice (part 1 chapter 5). It was simply by obedience to the Divine Will, he tells his congregation, that Christians could hope to stand in the same company as the saints, however inscrutable that will might seem.
Norman’s prescribed dose of ‘real life’ after the scandal in the college was to be taken in a parish in an obscure part of the Surrey commuter belt, all mock Tudor houses with neat little gardens. Mr Dumble is, as the students had thought, rather ‘low’: communion only once a month, no list of times for confessions, and Mr Dumble preaches in just a surplice and scarf. Instead of a fug of wax and incense, the church smells of polish, flowers and damp. Norman preaches his first sermon, on neighbourliness, which seems to be appreciated, and visits the hospital. And the parishioners who host him every day to lunch or tea seem kind, and speak of their family and their pets. Like the Dumbles, with their garden and with Nationwide or Dr Finlay on the television, they are unglamorous, conscientious and happy. Though the vicarage was not full of nice things, and the Dumbles’ talk did not scintillate, Norman resolves to be as much like Mr Dumble as he can. ‘How much good Mr Dumble is doing by stealth’, says another character: ‘if we only had half the goodness of some of those pathetic little clergymen.’ (part 3 chapter 2) For all its comedy, the Church of England still seems to Norman/Wilson a force for good.
If you’ve enjoyed this post, why not support the blog on Patreon? For only £2 a month, get advance access to new writing, and unlimited access to the archive.