BOOK REVIEW / Pretence of fellowship and loving kindness: 'Serpent on the Rock' - Alice Thomas Ellis: Hodder & Stoughton, 17.99 pounds

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The Independent Online
LUNCH with Alice Thomas Ellis could be more dangerous than sauntering across the M25. She is, she says, given to attacks of people-poisoning, and there are many people she dislikes: feminists, modern nuns, charismatics, people who smile at her in church, people who hug her, Quakers, some editors, contemporary architects, married couples and most priests, for a start. Yet her latest book is a catalogue of the lunches she has offered such people, menu and recipes often proudly included. Although they all seem to have survived the ordeal, some of her guests will read her accounts of these meals with dismay.

Her technique was to invite them to offer her their views of the modern church, tape- record their remarks and then reproduce them, interspersed with her subsequent, generally derisive comments, such as 'it was admirable of me not to clout him with the bottle'.

A succession of guests do their best to explain to her that the church is not necessarily in terminal decline, but she is certain that it is. Many of these people are impressive - articulate, knowledgeable and informative - but the proverbial brick wall would have been more prepared to listen. 'I try to be openminded and receptive,' she says towards the end. Well, she certainly doesn't seem to try very hard.

Ellis became a Catholic in her late teens and spent some months in a convent as a postulant before leaving because of illness. She wishes intensely that the Second Vatican Council had never happened and deplores all the changes it brought about. Her language is forceful and extreme. Quakers, for example, lack charity; couples are boring; feminism has been a terrible waste of time and energy; Vatican II let in, not a breath of fresh air, but 'a tide of sewage'.

The trouble is that there are important issues at stake here - questions of authority, direction and practice - but her approach is worse than useless. When she went to her local presbytery she thought it necessary to 'demand' of the priest why there was a carpet in church. She mentions leaving Mass early, because 'it was doing nothing for me', and sees in the simple, companionable ritual of the kiss of peace only a 'rictus' and a 'smirk' accompanying the 'hand-wringing'. Hunting through Ireland to find someone who will condemn Bishop Casey with her, she can find only a mixture of compassion, ribaldry and regret. It clearly irritates her.

Ellis is a fine novelist, but on this evidence she should stick to fiction. At least she might follow her own favourite dictum: 'Be still, and know that I am God.' Her furious book contradicts that, and her whole stand is undermined by the basic flaw in her argument: diverse, broad and often confusing as the contemporary church is, she still calls herself a member of it, yet seems incapable of accepting that God inspires that church today. All she sees in it is 'the pretence of fellowship and loving kindness, schmaltz, self-conceit and heresy'.

Of course, she particularly loathes modern church architecture, comparing Liverpool Cathedral to a food-processor. Among the fatuous photographs in this book is one of the interior of Armagh Cathedral alongside a challenge to her readers, repeated in the text, to explain the presence of a sculpture near the altar. It took only a telephone call. A gentle young priest explained to me that some people see it as a representation of arms uplifted in prayer. He himself preferred to think of it as an echo of the pelican, classic Christian image of self-sacrifice, which is depicted in the huge stained- glass window above. And its purpose? It is a tabernacle.

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