Innocence that is less than charming

Faith & Reason: The published self-portraits of Anglican clergy are often ill-judged and embarrassing. The Rev Geoffrey Kirk deplores the disingenuousness of the average evangelical memoir.
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The Independent Online
A feature of the Anglican evangelical subculture is its unembarrassed literature of self-praise. A man - they have all so far been men - who has successfully overturned his predecessor's careful parochial regimen then tells the world what a work the Lord is doing through him. The contract with Hodder & Stoughton, it seems, is an inevitable part of the package, along with the "flexible" reordering of the church interior, the overhead projectors and the paperbacks about Cliff Richard.

It was an insubstantial volume, The Church in the Market Place, about his exploits in Durham which placed George Carey for the first time in the public gaze. Carey's book is typical of the genre. It begins as it continues, disingenuously. " 'Would you like to consider going to St Nicholas', Durham?' asked the voice on the telephone. We knew next to nothing of Durham," Carey writes, as though it were a missionary posting in far-flung parts, "except that it was a remote spot in the North-East of England."

The literary misjudgement is tragic. No rational and educated reader can from that moment take the book seriously. For they cannot reasonably suppose that a lecturer in Christian studies at St John's College, Nottingham, could credibly be unaware that Durham is the site of arguably the greatest Romanesque cathedral in Europe, the seat (since 1834) of a leading university, and the focus, in the Great Depression, of an influential working-class movement.

But, if one feature of such books is the embarrassing self-portrait of the author as heroic innocent, another common feature is an unembarrassed concern with money and the raising of it: pounds 315,000 for the remodelling of St Nicholas', Durham, for example. The moral is clear: simple faith pays dividends in hard cash. Evangelicals have always been tempted to see the hand of the Lord most clearly in the open chequebook.

Yet beside the great projects of the 19th century these contemporary reorderings seem puny and gimcrack. Between 1881 and 1911, for example, the Rev Charles Edward Brooke provided a single south London parish with a vast church (by G.E. Street), two parish halls, two day schools, a teacher training college and a nunnery. He then politely waited until a posthumous biographer sang his praises.

The wisdom of leaving posterity to write history is a lesson which the Rev Robert Warren, author of another book about his own success (at St Thomas', Crookes, in Sheffield in the Seventies and Eighties), has had to learn the hard way. Warren was the enabler, though not "the onlie begetter", of the Nine O'Clock Service. The final chapter of his book In the Crucible has now been written in the tabloid press.

Warren's own account of the early days of the Nine O'Clock Service, with its atmosphere between a night-club and a son et lumiere, makes chilling reading. He compares his own feelings of cultural alienation on a chance visit to the betting shop with the alienation of the young urban poor from the Christian church. "As I walked back to the door a wave of laughter, and tittering, swept me from the place," he writes. "I had moved out - into the world where many are at home."

What follows is hopelessly uncritical. The dazed reader scarcely has time to wonder how a parson in the inner city has allowed so commonplace an environment as a betting shop to become so daunting, before the successes of experimental worship are catalogued. Warren writes:

Close on 200 young people have now been converted to faith in Christ . . . We have seen well over 50 such people stop taking drugs . . . a staggering 40 to 50 per cent of all the women who have come to faith have at some time in their life experienced rape or sexual abuse . . .

The thought of this timorous vicar (who will no doubt be played by Derek Nimmo in the movie) having to cope with such traumas is frightening. But of the gathering storm-clouds Warren's ebullient prose style gives not the slightest hint. "The set of circumstances that brought about this service has been quite unique," he concludes, "and evidently another part of God's agenda for St Thomas's."

The innocence of clergymen has for generations supplied the popular humorists with copy. It is genuinely funny and usually charming. The strange combination of false innocence and real naivete which these books reveal is less than charming. It looks dangerous to me.

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