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
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
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
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
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
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