MY HOLIDAY reading this year included Catherine Fox’s recently published Realms of Glory (Marylebone House), the third part of her affectionate satire on contemporary Church of England life in the fictional diocese of Lindchester.
I have been a fan of her writing since her debut novel, Angels and Men. She manages to be both pious and irreverent, solemn, and, at times, hysterically funny; her ear is finely tuned to the contemporary Church’s Evangelical group-think, and the odd and oh-so-human ways in which well-meaning Christians fall in and out of love, pray for guidance, drink, swear, gossip, and even, sometimes, do a bit of good in the world.
Realms of Glory chronicles the real events of the fateful year 2016 with its landmarks of the Queen’s 90th birthday and the shock of the Brexit vote. The C of E is meandering through choppy waters over sex, and struggling to reform and renew itself in the face of continuing decline. There is a new Bishop in Lindchester, Steve (short for Steve-angelical); the Dean is considering the radical, even treacherous step of sharing administration with the diocese; a new suffragan is about to be appointed; and the scandalous love-life of the cathedral lay clerk Freddie May is about to hit a new nadir.
The narrator’s voice functions as a good fairy, gathering us up as though with wand and wings as the tale swoops from spire to study, from thicket to closet. The voice is a bit camp, but basically benign, rather like the C of E itself. It is through the narrator’s voice that Fox enfolds her lovable and infuriating characters in a cloak of goodwill, urging us to encourage them in their strivings.
The Lindchester novels are in no way a modern Barchester. Trollope was incensed by clerical greed and hypocrisy, and set out to expose it as ruthlessly as he could. Fox laments the failings of her clerical cast, but is always hoping that they will do better. We meet no really evil characters in Lindchester, but there are also no real saints; even the best-intentioned are a bit flawed or weird.
But what she manages to convey brilliantly — and what makes these novels so memorable — is what it actually feels like to try to live a life of faith in the contemporary world; how our efforts are always frustrated by our own and others’ limitations; and yet how, in spite of all this, grace breaks in again and again.
Fox’s underlying theology is realistic, but not ultimately tragic; sin is redeemed, and all shall be well. We are surrounded by love, whether we know it or not, and the God we dimly see beyond the hassocks and cassocks is (thank God) much bigger than the Church.
The Revd Angela Tilby is a Canon Emeritus of Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford.