My husband is a convert from Anglo-Catholicism, that tendency in Anglicanism towards Catholic theology and worship, to the Roman Catholic Church, and he retains fond memories of the religious practices of his youth. He was rejected for the Anglican seminary by no less a personage than the wife of a now-famous Anglican bishop, and after reading A.N. Wilson’s 1978 novel Unguarded Hours, I am happier than ever about that.
A.N. Wilson is a prolific writer, celebrated in England for his scholarship and wit. He is also an on-again, off-again Christian; I believe he is currently “on.” Born in 1950, he entered an Anglican seminary during the early 1970s and discovered that most of his fellow ordinands were engaging in sexual relations with each other.
He exploits the homo-erotic atmosphere of his seminary in his comedy Unguarded Hours, and I do not recommend this book to the sensitive or the very young. Indeed, I felt rather old as I read its most shocking scenes, for I suddenly remembered that there was a time I would have felt dirtied by reading such stuff. And yet the book is a comedy, and Wilson succeeds in being very funny in a style that recalls the early novels of Evelyn Waugh.
That said, godless modern society, not the Church of England, was the object of Waugh’s satire. Wilson skewers both the “ritualists”, whom he depicts as being entirely homo-social even when not actively homosexual, and the “progressives”, whom he depicts as functional atheists interested only in socialist dogma and self-promotion. His hero, who is ordained by accident, seems to have no Christian belief, and goes to the seminary only because he can think of no other career path.
“Had the Dean’s daughter worn a bra that afternoon, Norman Shotover might never have found out about the Church of England; still less about how to fly”, begins the novel, and the breezy, irreverent tone continues to the end of the book.
The only hint that English religious practices might have anything to do with true faith in God, as opposed to dressing up in finery or possessing curious titles or singing stirring songs that remind one of one’s Old School, occurs in the very Anglo-Catholic St. Willibrord’s Church. The hero, who is terrified of drifting into an aimless life like his father’s, is there touched by a sermon beginning “One day in thy courts is better than a thousand. So we sang in our introit, brethern and so we devoutly believe. For one day in the holy and Catholic church, one day in the presence of Our Lord in the most holy sacrament, one day in the sacramental life of prayer and penance which holy church enjoins, is better than a thousand faithless days committed to nothingness and despair in a faithless world.”
As the novel’s characters go, Father Crisp is the best of the bunch although his ultra-Catholic language, like his upper middle-class assumptions, is played for laughs. Neither Waugh nor Roman Catholics would find Father Crisp’s devotion to Our Lady and the saints particularly funny, though I can easily imagine former members of the Church of England roaring with laughter.
The Roman Catholic Church has not been spared satire, of course; I seem to recall reading about a mean little nun-hating play from the 1970s called “Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You.” And I shudder to think how a talented Catholic might exploit any homo-eroticism in his own seminary days for laughs. Come to think of it, for Ceremony of Innocence I wrote a rather damning scene about liturgical dance.
“I wrote about sexual sins, too, but at least my character is ashamed of hers,” I complained to my husband. As you might guess from the opening line of the novel, much of the humour revolves around sexual sin and the hero’s descent from innocence to decadence.
Having read this novel, I’m not sure A.N. Wilson was as ashamed of the mortal sins of his fellow seminarians as he was amused by them. And he certainly did the Anglo-Catholic wing of the Church of England no favours. “What a pack of outrageous hypocrites and weirdos,” would be the natural reaction of anyone reading this book.
This is not the assumption I would want anyone to make of Roman Catholics after reading a novel about Roman Catholics. Or, even if he did, I would not want him to think that Roman Catholic Christianity itself was a crock. Even if all the Roman Catholic characters were sinful or vague or silly, I would want the Bride of Christ herself to be acknowledged as above mockery. But Wilson does not spare the Anglican Church, softening his barbs only for the sincere faith of a few elderly people.
I would not characterize A.N. Wilson’s Unguarded Hours as an Anglican novel. It is an agnostic’s novel about Anglicans. Indeed, I wonder how much the youthful author identified with the hero’s sense that he must grab onto something—the Church of England, ordained ministry, anything—lest he drift into nothingness and despair. Clearly he had been disappointed, and the Anglican seminary having handed him lemons, he attempted literary lemonade.
April 16, 2014 at 11:00 am
Sounds like a disturbing, hilarious book with insight into the state of modern agnosticism, including the contributions of religious people to this problem. Not a book I would care to read but an interesting review.
April 16, 2014 at 1:26 pm
This was an excellent review – thoughtful, informative, and enlightening. I am disappointed to see that certain humorless parties have seen fit to criticize it on your Facebook page. It seems to me that a truly fearless Catholicism must confront the dark side of spirituality as well as the light – particularly when it comes to the contemporary fashions of sin that the reviewed book addresses. This review does not glamorize or celebrate the sins examined in the book, but neither does it dismiss or ignore the power of the satirical critique that the book presents. It is to the credit of this website that it is willing to present reviews of such controversial matters. It would be appalling if the scrupulosity and illiberality of an outspoken few were to prelude the presentation of such thoughts in this venue.
April 16, 2014 at 2:17 pm
Thanks for the review! Always good to know what’s out there and what others are reading, even if one isn’t particularly inclined to read it oneself. I appreciate you doing the sifting work. It’s a shame that religious characters are often made silly – which isn’t the same as sinful. All the best literature has lots of sinful characters (for they must be human to be interesting and believable!) but the good ones aren’t ridiculous.
Dorothy Cummings McLean
April 16, 2014 at 3:00 pm
Yes, “Unguarded Hours” is mostly very silly–and I think it is silly about sin. Given what has happened since 1978–and what was happening in 1978–I don’t think seminarians giving each other female nicknames, adopting camp mannerisms and/or acting out sexually is all that funny.
I suppose the humour is supposed to be, really, the contrast between what one expects to find among Christian seminarians and clergymen, and what one might find instead. It may be all very interesting to the befuddled hero, who had no real expectations and no real faith, but that sort of thing is absolutely devastating to innocent boys who go into the seminary expecting to find models of masculine holiness–spiritual fathers–and the straight and narrow path.
Such a situation is not at all comic; I wonder what Waugh would have made of it all. There was lots of homosexual horsing around in his undergrad days, but I think he would have been grieved to think such horsing around might happen in a seminary.
April 16, 2014 at 4:11 pm
A great review! Thank you!
April 16, 2014 at 6:45 pm
Sounds like a terribly interesting glimpse at how identity and sexuality are constructed within a context shaped by power and cultural forces as much as religious beliefs. As devout Catholics I suspect it’s worthwhile to engage with such experiences (fictional or not) analytically and critically, rather than approach them with crippling shame or pretend they don’t exist.
April 16, 2014 at 10:51 pm
Thank you for your wonderful review of what sounds like a very disturbing book! It seems to me that this book does more to reveal how the world sees religious people than how religious people are themselves. Everywhere I look, religious people are portrayed in the media as insincere and (often) arrogant. At best, they’re hypocrites who often talk about their religion but fail to live up to it. At worst, they use their religion to make others feel badly about themselves. While it’s true that living up to our religion is something we are continually striving and failing to do, I find it sad that the world cannot conceive of a kind and sincere religious person. I guess part of being a follower of Christ is that the world does not understand us.
April 17, 2014 at 6:02 am
Thank you for an excellent review which has encouraged me to read the novel (which I’d intended to do for years and never quite got round to). About half way through, and the high camp of the theological college seems merely one part of an exotic, Waughian menagerie peopled by a succession of freelance bishops, sexually rampant toffs, Oxford Trots etc etc.
My favourite comic Anglo-Catholic literary creation remains Father Chantry-Pigg in The Towers of Trebizond.
Dorothy Cummings McLean
April 17, 2014 at 7:09 am
Dear old Father Chantry-Pigg! Now “Towers of Trebizond” (Rose Macaulay) everyone was a REAL Anglo-Catholic novel–not just about Anglo-Catholics, but about real Christian life, the wages of sin and the mercy and justice of God. One of my favourite novels ever, actually.
Dorothy Cummings McLean
April 17, 2014 at 7:19 am
Ellie, I quite agree with you. Betsy, it’s not that bad. Indeed, I think it fair comment on some British Christians in the 1970s who ought to have known and done better. (Unfortunately the “seminary gay sub-culture” scenes ring all too true.) And it does present three or four people whose Christian faith is genuine and non-hypocritical. However, it ultimately preaches a Gospel of despair, and this disqualifies it from being a Christian novel.
April 17, 2014 at 8:55 pm
Dorothy, I am happy to hear that! I think I may be one of those more sensitive readers you mentioned. :-)
April 18, 2014 at 2:36 am
Reading too many books and blogs about writing has probably jaded me beyond reason, but the opening line you quote is precisely the sort of thing to make me huff and slam a book shut. It’s far too obviously a carefully-perfected attention-grabber.
Granted, if I’d picked up the book by happenstance in a local shop, and the cover said “comedy,” I might have given the author a second sentence to redeem himself–although if the cover said nothing but “comedy,” I probably would never have picked it up in the first place.
At the risk of making my life sound more interesting than it actually is: agnosticism, I understand. Homoeroticism, I understand. Combining the two to poke fun at a religion–well, if someone’s been hurt or disappointed by religion, I sort of understand. But religion has always been packed with sincerity for me, and my fellow religionists regularly run as sincere as I am or better, so I have never understood depictions of religion that portray it, and us, as entirely or primarily or even significantly insincere. On account of which, I tend to shrug away from such depictions. I like sympathy.
Fantastic review, anyway. I’d love to see you review more fiction; I appreciate your insight on both the intellectual and spiritual levels.
Also, I thought the Temple Dance Priest scene in Ceremony of Innocence was hilarious.
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