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.