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Far from those dark, satanic mills

09 January 2015

Fictional clerical role-models, from Mr Casaubon to the Vicar of Dibley, may be contributing to recruitment difficulties in the north of England, suggests Rachel Mann

THERE is a crisis in the Church of England. Not - as is usual - over sex, or women. This time, the crisis concerns where clergy serve, the nature of ordained ministry, and indeed the very continuation of the C of E as a "national" Church.

The Church is seemingly trapped in its very own north-south divide, in which northern parishes are struggling to fill posts. I want to examine this problem through a literary lens. In short, I want to argue that part of the problem - and the solution - lies in the Anglican imagination, an imagination shaped by our literary images of the Church.

The Church has never quite known how to be in the north well. Its literary DNA is located somewhere south of Birmingham. If the Church of England is to remain a vibrant, nationally connected institution, nothing short of reimagining its meaning will be required.

IT IS hard to argue with the fact that there are problems filling clergy posts in northern England. Recently, in response to press coverage suggesting that some clergy may not even consider moving north, several dioceses in the north west launched a campaign in which talented priests "bigged up" the north, encouraging southern clerics to head for the wild mission fields of Blackpool, Liverpool, and even Manchester.

The Bishop of Blackburn, the Rt Revd Julian Henderson, claimed that, without radical change, his diocese might disappear in 30 years. The Archdeacon of Blackburn, the Ven. John Hawley, said that, if decline continued at the present rate, "there will be no Church of England in Lancashire by 2050."

Many recent comments on the problem of "recruitment" have been sociological. For example, the Revd Ian Paul notes that the diocese of London generates twice as many ordinands per churchgoer as the second most "productive" diocese. He suggests that the Church needs a national strategy to get ministers to move north. He says: "The lack of movement from south to north is not just because ordained ministers are a bunch of 'southern softies'; there are often good reasons for them to stay where they are. Any encouragement to move will have to be deliberate and intentional." He suggests developing "strategic partnerships", such as the one that the Bishop of Lincoln has established with the HTB network for church-planting in Lincoln.

I want to suggest, however, that, if there is something rotten in the state of the C of E, it lies in part in our imagination - that is, in the ways we represent ourselves to others, and to each other. For, if there are ways of reading the C of E according to economic or sociological models, the C of E can also helpfully be read through a "literary" lens; and we underestimate the literary at our peril. 

REPRESENTATIONS of the C of E - in novels, TV, and so on - offer imaginative possibilities to live by, aspire to, or avoid. Many of the examples we have of "the cleric" and "the church" are relatively venerable, and yet they continue to exercise a potent hold over the Anglican imagination. They form a deep substrate of images and ideas not easily shaken off, even in our post-modern times.

It's worth rehearsing a few of those literary images, if only to remind ourselves that the C of E's literary DNA is located in class privilege, and the south. For brevity's sake, I concentrate on a quick survey of classic literary representations.

THE 19th century supplies the classic images of Anglican identity. From Jane Austen's Mr Collins and Mr Elton, through to George Eliot's Mr Casaubon, Anglican identity is firmly fixed in a pre-industrial world of privilege and class-values. Of course, our defining literary images of clerical character come from Anthony Trollope's Barsetshire Chronicles. His collection of warring clerics has haunted the Anglican imagination for 150 years. Trollope's grotesques, from Archdeacon Grantly to Bishop Proudie and his dreadful wife, are caught up in internecine battles located in the privileges of southern England.

The northern cleric is barely represented. Oliver Goldsmith's 18th-century The Vicar of Wakefield is set in the north, but according to a pre-industrial pattern. This is a rural England yet to be torn apart by the Industrial Revolution, where Dr Charles Primrose lives an idyllic life (temporarily disrupted by poverty) in a country parish.

Significantly, the great 19th- century novelist of the north, Elizabeth Gaskell - a Unitarian, who moved to Manchester with her husband, the minister of Cross Street Chapel - makes limited reference to the Established Church. Indeed, in Mrs Gaskell's North and South, the heroine Margaret Hale's life is turned upside down when her father, a vicar, leaves the Church of England to become a Dissenter, and moves to Milton-Northern, a centre of cotton manufacture in Darkshire.

More recent clerical novels have been located, at least psychologically, in the South. Susan Howatch's C of E novels are set primarily in the fictional West-country diocese of Starbridge (based on Salisbury). Catherine Fox's first novel Angels & Men is, admittedly, set in Durham - the only city in the north that in any way apes Oxbridge. Her most recent church novel, Acts and Omissions - set in the fictional diocese of Lindchester, between Lichfield and Chester - is a delicious work, which nonetheless deploys characters as classic as Trollope's: gossipy Anglo-Catholics; the "in-the-closet" Evangelical bishop, obsessed with propriety, and so on. It's telling that perhaps the most significant modern northern clerical icon is Postman Pat's Reverend Timms, plying his trade in rural Cumbrian Greendale.

In both traditional and contemporary literary pictures of Anglican clerics, there are common themes. The Anglican cleric is drawn from, or aspires to, the morés and tastes of the higher echelons of society. Middlemarch's Mr Fairbrother exemplifies the best of his type: urbane, and at ease in the company of both high and lowly. Privilege is normative, though: ideally, the cleric is educated privately and at one of the two "classic" English universities. If poverty enters this picture, it is genteel poverty. The voice of the Anglican cleric is cultivated and orientated towards the privileged, because that is either the class he comes from, or from which he takes his cue. 

THE Church we find depicted in literary representations is one that makes sense primarily in non-industrial and pre-industrial settings - in southern market towns and cathedral cities; in suburbia, and villages. This is a Church in whose natural imaginative world (located somewhere in southern England) industry is essentially concealed. Literary representations of vicars are defined almost exclusively by their freedom from industry and commerce.

In the late 18th century, a place such as Manchester - then still a modest county town - fitted the model in which the C of E was formed. The expansion of cities on an unprecedented scale created environments in which the structures of Anglicanism were inadequate, and for which they were imaginatively incommensurate. Methodism, the Baptists, the Unitarians, and so on, all flourished. It's not clear that Anglicanism did.

The literary world sketched above won't work for our current situation, not least because many Anglican clerics are now women. The dominant icon of female priesthood is derived from television rather than literature. This is the comedy figure of The Vicar of Dibley. While Dawn French's portrayal of the jolly and only too human Geraldine Grainger was arguably significant in shifting public perceptions of "the vicar" away from the bumbling, upper-middle-class likes of Derek Nimmo's Mervyn Noot, it also created a new trope: the jolly, middle-class, southern woman vicar type. Thanks to the paucity of role-models, all women clergy run the risk of being read through this literary lens.

AND what of the TV series Rev? Adam Smallbone is an Anglican priest who works in the "socially disunited" St Saviour-in-the-Marshes in Hackney. It is a show that, in the words of Tom Hollander (who plays Smallbone), defines itself "in opposition to the cliché of a country vicar". Rev tries to define itself in contradistinction to established C of E tropes, and yet, despite achieving a quality of realism not seen in Dibley, it still almost unthinkingly locates itself in the south.

THERE is a multiplicity of reasons why there might be a "staffing crisis" in the north. It may seem ridiculous to suggest that literary icons have any kind of impact on this situation, especially in an age when many people don't read either classic or modern "clerical" novels. But popular literary discourses about the C of E present visions of the Church located neither physically nor intellectually in the north. Some might argue that this is simply a reflection of the background and experience of the individual writers. But these representations have also been determinative in shaping the Anglican Imagination. It is not that they simply reflect "reality", but that they have come to constitute reality.

Christian identity is always located in actual, as well as imaginative, space. It is clear that Anglicanism lacks literary myths for the north. Even if the "southern" myths of Anglican priestly identity are often derived from satire, they help to shape our view, and, by being initiated into them, we are inclined - with appropriate self-deprecation - to enact them. A literary vision of a northern Anglicanism has yet to be written. Have we left it too late even to attempt it?

The Revd Rachel Mann is Priest-in-Charge of St Nicholas's, Burnage, and Resident Poet and Minor Canon at Manchester Cathedral.

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