BOOK REVIEW / More true confessions: Revelations: The Clergy Questioned - by Mary Loudon, Hamish Hamilton pounds 9.99

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The Independent Culture
MARY LOUDON has done it again. Her first book of interviews, Unveiled: Nuns Talking, was a tribute to her skill at getting people who seldom talk about themselves to reveal their inner lives. This second book is equally enthralling. Now that less than 2.5 per cent of the British population go to church on Sundays, it might be thought that the clergy were an endangered species, but these interviews demonstrate that they are alive and kicking. They also seem more interesting than ordinary people, perhaps because, like creative artists, they are dedicated to something beyond the personal, something which has little to do with conventional success.

The 12 interviewees include the director of a support group for Aids patients who is himself HIV positive, a woman who is the vicar of an Oxfordshire parish and another who is a tutor in theology, a black minister, both archbishops, and Graham Leonard, the former Bishop of London, who left the Church of England for Rome because of his objection to the ordination of women.

The only disappointing interview is the one with the Archbishop of Canterbury. There is a great deal to admire in the story of the working- class lad who made it to the top job in the Church of England, but his religious convictions are less in evidence than his qualities as an administrator. For example, he thought that the ordination of women was going to be the Church's greatest problem; but, now that this is settled, he says that the most important challenge facing himself and the Church is the fact that the Church Commissioners have been financially maladroit. The decline in church-going (and in religious belief) hardly seems to worry him, since he claims that 'more people go to church on a Sunday than go to Association football'.

Hugh Montefiore, formerly the Bishop of Birmingham, abandoned Judaism for Christianity when he was still at school. As a result, he became alienated from the Jewish community of which his family were leading lights, and has never entirely resolved the problems with which this left him. He gives a touching account of caring for his wife, who has Alzheimer's disease. I had previously thought Dr Montefiore too much a Prince of the Church, but Loudon's interview reveals him as vulnerable, generous and loving, perhaps the most sheerly likeable of all her subjects.

It is fascinating to discover that what really makes the Archbishop of York tick is poetry - R S Thomas, Browning, T S Eliot. He was once a research physiologist, and his scientific training and intellectual gifts ensure that his remarks on controversial doctrines such as the Virgin Birth and the Resurrection can help even hardened sceptics appreciate their meaning.

Susan Cole-King, Vicar of Drayton, left England to be trained and ordained in America, and gained a great deal of unwanted publicity by doing so. Her father was Leonard Wilson, the Bishop of Singapore, who was captured and tortured by the Japanese. Like some other men of notable courage, he was an extremely difficult, irritable husband and father. Before becoming a priest, Susan Cole-King was a doctor who worked in Malawi and Ethiopia. After an adventurous life in troubled areas of the world, she feels that being a parish priest is the biggest challenge she has ever faced; anyone interested in the position

of women in the church will find her comments particularly rewarding.

Many of those interviewed believe that, in spite of Tory objections, the Church should be more outspoken about social problems. The Bishop of Oxford thinks that the English are less concerned with religion than most nations, and that the clergy are in danger of becoming obsolete, but this book gives a vivid picture of dedicated men and women doing difficult and valuable work in the face of formidable difficulties.

Whom will Mary Loudon interview next? Politicians, actors, psychiatrists? Every profession has its peculiarities, and she's so good at the job I think she might even be able to make us feel that accountants are fascinating.