Unreal City: Memoirs of a City of London vicar
Bretwalda Books £11.99
Church Times Bookshop £10.80
IN UNREAL CITY, Peter Mullen describes how he took over two practically extinct City of London churches and 14 years later, by his own account, left them flourishing. He served as Lord Mayor’s Chaplain, and offers an affectionate apologia for the traditional (and again by his account almost entirely male) institutions of the City, and an appreciation of the charitable instincts of its livery companies.
Mullen has been a prolific and outspoken writer, an absolutist adherent to the Book of Common Prayer and the Authorised Version, and a scourge of political correctness and of “the touchy-feely, you and yours, jogging for Jesus humbug that passes for worship in so many places”.
Former City clergy have a way of writing lively memoirs — Joseph McCulloch and Victor Stock come to mind — and there is undoubted value in intelligently challenging the culture of contemporary worship and the totems of liberalism, as Edward Norman did some years ago. We can also do with some good ecclesiastical satire.
Sadly, this book fails on every score. Its style is garrulous, as it rambles, with scarce coherence, from one recollection or bee in the author’s bonnet to another. Anecdotes are inconsequential, jokes are flat, and names are dropped. His language is intemperate and vulgar.
Worse than his dogmatic assertions (“the pagan myth of global warming”) is the deeply unpleasant tone that he brings to his many personal targets — the “City girls” whose speech patterns he tediously parodies, the “pale eunuchish creature” from the church outfitter, and the contempt with which he consistently refers to his bishop and former archbishop. Particular women clergy (he is an impossibilist) are “photogenic and excitable” or “all ironic and postmodern with clanking earrings”.
Unreal City ends with the author’s bitter sense of betrayal at being required by his bishop to retire at 70, like everyone else, which he refers to as his sacking or public execution, reprinting both sides of the correspondence. He does not mention that the bishop’s original invitation to the diocese brought to an end an eight-year suspension from public ministry, nor the public apology he had to make some years later for offensive comments about homosexuals on his blog.
Reading this bizarre book feels like being trapped at a party by a reactionary bore who is still trying to provoke a reaction and settle old scores — though, in weighing such a judgement, readers must bear in mind that the Church Times is, as he touchingly puts it, “a sort of ecclesiastical Pravda these days”.
The Revd Philip Welsh is a retired priest in the London diocese.