THIS is a funny, affectionate, and devastatingly accurate portrayal of the Church of England today. Intended as a 21st-century homage to Trollope and Barchester Towers, it also traces its apostolic descent from Dickens, since it originally appeared in weekly instalments — albeit on a blog rather than in a periodical — and the 2000-word chapters give the novel considerable pace.
In fact, its literary heritage is altogether impeccable, but with a twist. C. S. Lewis is referenced, wittily but unexpectedly (a priest is described as “so far back in the closet he’s in Narnia. Always winter and never Christmas”) — as is Jane Austen: “It is a fact universally acknowledged that a single priest in possession of a modest stipend must be in want of approximately seven tons of pastry goods.”
From this, the author draws liturgical inspiration: “We do genuinely love one another, even though we find the Peace an awkward business. Ah, how much easier Holy Communion would be if the priest said, ‘Let us offer one another a piece of flan’!”
Catherine Fox, a novelist and clergy wife (her husband is the Dean of Liverpool), once memorably defined a deanery synod as “a group of people waiting to go home”, and she brings a sharp and exceptionally well-informed eye to bear on the foibles of the C of E: “Today, as everyone in the parish of St John’s, Renfold, acknowledges when they ring him on Friday, is Father Dominic’s day off.”
She describes Acts and Omissions as “a window into the weird world of Anglicanism, as experienced on a Cathedral Close. Has anything much happened since Trollope’s Barchester Chronicles? You will still see the ‘canon in residence’ hurrying across to choral Evensong, robes flapping, as the late bell chimes. But look carefully and you will notice he is checking the football score on his iPhone as he runs.”
The liturgical calendar rolls round against a background of secular rituals (before Christmas is “the week of the Amazon box”) and the changing seasons; the author’s descriptions of the natural world are as vivid as her ecclesiastical aperçus: “Bright sky lies in tractor ruts as if the earth were charged with light from below.”
The plot is, however, driven by her wickedly observed characters, operating within a framework that will be immediately familiar to Anglican readers, but whose mysteries are skilfully explained for others — for example, in relation to the workings of the Crown Nominations Commission: “And what of our friend X? I will simply say this: he has thought and prayed, and he has not ruled himself out. (Let the reader understand. And if the reader does not quite understand, I have successfully conveyed the semi-transparency of the process.)”
Reflecting on the prayer habits of another bishop, “the lovely Bishop of Barcup, Bob (Can he bless it? Yes, he can!)”, the author observes that he is not a conservative Evangelical, so “is inclined to think that God is probably already up to speed on the biographical details. And not being a Charismatic Evangelical either, he hesitates to give the Almighty matey advice in the subjunctive mood.”
She perfectly captures the upward inflection of the Evangelical lilt, as well as the frustrations of “the single person’s flatpack hell. ‘IT IS ADVISORY TO BE TWO PERSONS DURING ASSEMBLY’, say the instructions. Why is there no flatpack Grindr, where frustrated chaps with Allen keys can help one another out?”
Her characters include a convincing portrayal of a furiously unhappy child, as well as a canon resisting the suggestion that he might computerise his Christmas cards: “I prefer my old address book. It has more dead people in it.” And her asides made me laugh even as I winced in recognition (“Ah, how motherhood and menopause lay waste to the memory!”).
Her setting, in the cathedral city of Lindchester, is a world that is both fictional and familiar. Her narrative incorporates snatches of favourite hymns; unexpected theological revelations catch at the back of the throat as they bring a Bible passage movingly to life — as in a comparison with the parable of the Prodigal Son: “Not found out. Found.”
Underlying the racy and eminently plausible storyline, however, is a profound exploration of the big themes of judgement and mercy; above all, of love. As the author herself puts it: “None of it is real. That doesn’t mean it’s not true, though.”
TWO health warnings: the publishers have produced the book in a horribly small font (read it on Kindle if you can, and adjust the type size to suit yourself).
And the language — as befits some of what it describes — is, er, vernacular. But, mostly, that adds to the fun, even if it also makes for a mind-broadening read.
Acts and Omissions by Catherine Fox is published by SPCK at £9.99 (CT Bookshop £9); 978-0-281-07234-7.
ACTS AND OMISSIONS — SOME QUESTIONS
In an interview in 2014, Catherine Fox said: “It’s the big themes of salvation, sin, and forgiveness that absorb me.” How far is this true of Acts and Omissions?
The narrator of Acts and Omissions takes the reader “on the eagle wings of Anglicanism”. Did you enjoy this panoramic perspective?
What is the place of music and poetry in the book?
How sympathetic did you find Freddie May?
Acts and Omissions started life as a blog, written in weekly instalments. What effect do you think that this has had on the story?
“Let’s be nosey”: what did you think of the novel’s narrative voice?
“I should not have told you any of that”: to what extent is this novel about “taming the tongue”?
Do you agree with Acts and Omissions’ presentation of “Planet Church”? Would you recommend it to a non-Christian reader?
IN OUR next reading-groups page, on 4 September, we will print extra information about the next book. This is The Way of Tea and Justice by Becca Stevens. It is published by Canterbury Press at £12.99 (CT Bookshop £11.70); 978-1-84825-784-9.
“Drink tea: change the world.” The Way of Tea and Justice tells the story of the Thistle Stop Café, set up by the Revd Becca Stevens, and run by women recovering from abuse.
Their tale is intertwined with an exploration of the parts — both benign and oppressive — played by tea in world cultures, past and present. The book’s subtitle is Rescuing the world’s favourite beverage from its violent history, and it describes the café’s efforts to help win freedom and fair wages for tea labourers. The author also reflects on the spirituality of tea, interspersing the narrative with recipes for blends to try at home.
The Revd Becca Stevens is an Episcopalian and Chaplain of Vanderbilt University, Tennessee. In 1997, she founded Magdalene, a residential community of women who have survived prostitution, trafficking, and addiction. This was followed by Thistle Farms and, in 2013, the Thistle Stop Café. In 2011, the White House named her a Champion of Change for her work in combating violence against women. She lives in Nashville with her husband and their three sons.
Books for the next two months:
October: Reunion by Fred Uhlman
November: David and Goliath by Malcolm Gladwell