Wednesday, 30 March 2016

The writer as theologian:
the novels of Catherine Fox

Catherine Fox on her visit to the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, with her husband, Dean Peter Wilcox (left), and Canon Patrick Comerford and the Revd Dr Maurice Elliott

Patrick Comerford

In our tutorial group over the past few weeks we have been looking at writers that have influenced our spirituality and our theological thin king. They have included CS Lewis (1898-1963), Corrie ten Boom (1892-1983), Giovannino Guareschi (1908-1968), author of the ‘Don Camillo’ novels, and GK Chesteron (1874-1936) and his ‘Father Brown’ novels.

This morning I want to introduce the author, theologian and columnist, Dr Catherine Fox, who has written a challenging trilogy about ordinands and young curates, and who is now working on her new trilogy, the Lindchester Chronicles.

Catherine Fox was educated at Durham University and London University and has a degree in English and a PhD in Theology. She is a lecturer in Manchester Metropolitan University and lives in the Cathedral Close in Liverpool, where her husband, the Very Revd Peter Wilcox, succeeded Archbishop Justin Welby as the Dean of Liverpool Cathedral.

I first got to know her work through her first three novels that explore the themes of the spiritual and the physical with insight and humour: Angels and Men, The Benefits of Passion and Love for the Lost.

Her three latest novels are set in the fictional diocese of Lindchester. These novels have been compared by many reviewers to Anthony Trollope’s Barchester chronicles. The first two are Acts and Omissions (2014) and Unseen Things Above (2015). Since January 2016, she has been blogging Volume 3 of the Lindchester Chronicles: Realms of Glory.

I first got to know Cathy and Pete when they were living in the Cathedral Close, after he became the Canon Chancellor of Lichfield Cathedral in 2006. Dean Wilcox has preached in the chapel at CITI and Catherine Fox lectured here in February 2010 on “the writer as theologian.”

While she was researching and writing her novels, Catherine Fox closely consulted Tom Wright, who was then the Dean of Lichfield Cathedral. Despite their strong language and graphic sex, these novels wrestle with the deepest theological questions, including the existence of God, the nature of sin, religious obsessions and psychological health, call and vocation, self-sacrifice, passion, death and resurrection.

She makes an insider’s criticism of evangelical dogmatism and charismatic extremes, and is not afraid to tackle topical debates, such as the ordination of women and the Church’s attitude to sexuality.

Some of the questions she says she is asked all the time include:

“Should I have heard of you?”

“Where do you get your ideas from?”

“Have you always wanted to be a writer?”

She often answers as follows:

“Yes” (frostily).

“I steal them.”

“No, there was a brief phase when I wanted to be a ballerina.”

Having dealt with those hardy perennials of the question-and-answer session, then faces down the tricky question most fiction writers are asked: “Do you base your characters on real people?” The answer to this one is “No.” To which people generally reply, she admits: “HA HA HA HA HA! Yeah, right.”

When she is asked whether “real life people recognise themselves” in her characters, she replies “Sometimes people think they spot other people in my books, but they are wrong about that. I don’t put real people in. Still, I hope the characters seem real.”

She says:

“Readers seriously underestimate how mad novelists are. I spend half my life in places that don’t exist, in the company of people who aren’t real. I don’t need to base my characters on real people. My head teems with imaginary friends. To be honest, I have almost zero interest in writing about real people. If I had I’d be a journalist, or a biographer. That would be terrible, as I’d then have a responsibility to get the facts right. There’s a sense in which you have to get the facts right in fiction, of course. It has to ring true, even though it’s made up. It needs to feel real in its own terms.”

She admits that in the case of her early novels, “the impression of reality is compounded by the fact that I set them in readily identifiable places. This lured people into reading them as a roman à clef and thinking that if they just knew a bit more about the circles I moved in, they’d be able to crack the code and work out who the characters were.”

She goes on to say:

“With my two recent novels, Acts and Omissions and Unseen Things Above, the setting is fictional, as well as the characters. You’d think this would simplify things. But no, people just want to know which diocese Lindchester is based on. I feel I should do a Whistler here, and say it is based on ‘a lifetime of experience.’ A lifetime of lurking in churches and cathedrals, of observing people and nature, of brooding and daydreaming.”

“My method in these books is to identify situations, processes and predicaments in the current church, and to abstract them from their real life settings. I then experiment to see how they play out in my fiction laboratory (called The Diocese of Lindchester) through the medium of my fictional characters. There is a lot of waiting and listening involved. I am trying the whole time to take the temperature of the [Church of England] to read it correctly, and to resist the urge to impose on Lindchester my own views of how things should be.”

“We live, as they say, in interesting times in the Anglican Communion. I set out at the beginning of 2013 to blog a larky cathedral sit-com, but seem to have ended up chronicling the Church in a period of upheaval and change. Now and then it feels as though I’m sailing close to the wind on some very dark seas indeed.”

1, Angels and Men (1995)

Her debut novel, Angels and Men was published to critical acclaim in 1995. When it first appeared, Catherine Fox’s local paper published stories about the vicar’s wife who wrote dirty books. Then, in a double-page feature in the Church Times, she spoke frankly about her Baptist childhood and her growing feelings of marginalisation from mainstream evangelicalism with the rise of movements such as Reform.

This is a novel about the lives and loves of students in a theological college in Durham University. Mara Johns, the heroine and narrator, is an angry and intelligent young woman who undertakes a theology degree to explore her unresolved relationship with her father, a vicar, and her sister, who died mysteriously in an extreme religious community.

The name Mara means bitter and is the name taken by Naomi in the story of Ruth after the death of her husband effectively leaves her a beggar in a strange land. It may be a strange name to give a child, especially when her father is a priest, but it is an appropriate name for Mara at the time in her life dealt with in Angels and Men.

Mara is an English graduate who has moved to Jesus, a theological college of a northern university, not named but presumably Saint John’s College, Durham. She is engaged in post-graduate research on women and religious fanaticism in the 17th century, with reference to early Quakerism – the subject of Catherine Fox’s own PhD research – and so we can see how she draws on many of her own personal experiences.

The book follows Mara through her college life, as she makes friends despite a desire to keep to herself, and she earns the nickname Princess. She has a turbulent background, having rejected the mild Anglicanism of her father for an extreme charismatic cult. She then rejects them, in turn, and is cut off from her twin sister Hester, who remains with the cult.

Angels and Men is simply but effectively structured, with each chapter bringing in a new revelation about Mara’s background and character, so that by the end we have a well-drawn study.

2, The Benefits of Passion (1997):

Her second novel, The Benefits of Passion, is a book I should recommend to all ordinands with its consideration of questions about vocation, training and ministry, even if some of you may find the sex scenes too detailed. It is set in Coverdale, an Anglican theological college in Durham that could be Cranmer Hall. Although it is now 10 years later, little has changed.

Annie Brown (31) is an ordinand who is more interested in the novel she is secretly writing than in her theological studies. She is confused and unsettled trying to sort out her ambivalent feelings for Will, a friend of one of the other ordinands, and towards her vocation.

Her severe childhood has left her far too anxious to please and she escapes into fantasy. As her mind wanders during theological discussions, and as doubts emerge about her vocation, she secretly writes a highly-charged novel about an Anglican priest and his flighty girlfriend. Annie puts her real feelings into her novel, her characters act in ways she wants to act but does not dare to, and her characters are drawn from the people around her. However, her characters run away from her as her life is derailed.

But this book is also funny and Annie develops and grows as a character. We are also brought up-to-date with Johnny and Mara from Angels and Men.

3, Love for the Lost (2000):

In her third novel, Love for the Lost (2000), Catherine Fox tells an engaging story of faith, forgiveness, love and loss. This is the story of Isobel Knox, who was a minor character in The Benefits of Passion, where she was an ordinand in the same year as Annie Brown. The Revd Isobel Knox is now a 33-year-old, attractive, single Evangelical priest who is the curate in a small Teeside parish and who is trying to juggle work and personal life.

This book follows Isobel through two years as a curate, when she learns a lot about herself and those around her. At first, Isobel is content and confident in her new job, enjoys her simple, single life, stifles her feelings and buries painful memories. Openness is too painful. Then her calm, yet fragile world faces two threats: Davy and Johnny. Davy is a young policeman who falls in love with Isobel despite her aloofness.

But Isobel starts to fall for Johnny, a charming priest with a troubled marriage. Her heart begins to open, reminding her of the past and the pain. The experiences of loss that have haunted her psyche since childhood manifest themselves physically when she discovers the washed-up body of a child on the beach. The body vanishes with the next wave – did she imagine it?

The tone of this third book is darker than the two previous novels, yet continues to combine humour and drama and it is more dramatic and more theological in style, and provides true insights into how Church of England works at parish and diocesan levels.

4, Acts and Omissions (2014):

Catherine Fox first blogged Acts and Omissions in weekly instalments in 2013 on her blog. She introduces us to the fictional Diocese of Lindchester, where we are taken on a journey through the year in the diocese, in the company of bishops, priests and lay people, from life in the Cathedral Close to life in ordinary parishes, both urban and rural.

The Bishop of Lindchester, Paul Henderson, is happily married with four daughters. But does he have a secret? Archdeacon Matt Tyler is inclined to think not. But Bishop Paul has something about the brilliant but troubled chorister Freddie May. Acts and Omissions shows us the Church of England in all its mess and all its glory. It is a world shot through with grace, but one where even those with the best intentions err and stray – and occasionally do those things which they ought not to have done.

5, Unseen Things Above (2015):

With Unseen Things Above (2015), we are back again in the life of Lindchester and the surrounding towns and villages. The main characters are back there too, including Dean Marion Randall, her husband Gene, ‘Father Wendy,’ the Revd Geoff Morley and Barbara Blatherwick, and there are a few new people too.

Bishop Paul Henderson’s resignation at the end of Acts and Omissions was unexpected. He has resigned in haste and in a whiff of scandal. Now everyone is asking who is going to be the next Bishop of Lindchester. With Unseen Things Above, we are back in the diocese watching the unfolding of the labyrinthine process of appointing his replacement. Rumours are rife and everyone has their preferred candidate as we are given insights into the intricate workings of the Church of England today.

But moral dilemmas abound, and there are questions too of love and marriage: Should Jane Rossiter compromise her feminist principles and marry the archdeacon? Is Father Ed Baily going to defy the House of Bishops and marry Neil Ferguson? Who is going to discover the holes in the CV of the troubled university chaplain Veronica da Silva? Are the Cathedral Close and the choir capable of coping with the return of Freddie May?

We journey with them from Easter to Advent, until the book ends with the O Antiphons being sung in preparation for Christmas.

6, Realms of Glory:

The third instalment of the Lindchester Chronicles began earlier this year [January 2016], and Chapter 13 went up online last Sunday [27 March 2016]. The new bishop, Steve Pennington, has a Growth Agenda for the diocese.

But how will this manifestation of HTB PLC play out in Lindchester? Who will be the next suffragan Bishop of Barcup now that Bishop Bob Hooty has retired? Who will be the wife of the new Bishop of Barcup? Surely not Dr Jane Rossiter? What of the love-lorn Freddie May?

Catherine Fox is now blogging Realms of Glory She blogged the latest chapter, Chapter 13, on Sunday morning, describing Holy Week and Easter Morning in Lindchester.

The Cathedral Close in Lichfield … inspiration for the Cathedral Close in Lindchester? (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Some other books by Catherine Fox:

Some other backs by Catherine Fox include:

1, Scenes from Vicarage Life, or, The Joy of Sexagesima (2001):

This book is a collection of Catherine Fox’s weekly columns in the Church of England Newspaper. It features the bizarre and moving incidents that befall a vicar and his family.

2, The Little Book of Vicarage Wisdom (2002):

Intended as a spoof on The Little Book of Calm and its successors, here are Catherine Fox’s hard-won tips for living well, if not admirably, wrung from her years on the vicarage front lines. When you are stressed, seek out the company of calm, wise people. There is always a chance you will wind them up too.

Her observations may not bring you to a state of grace – if someone is annoying you, why not make a soothing anagram out of their name? (Archdeacon = acned roach). However, her grasp of the practical will keep you out of trouble.

3, How to Be Perfect: A Treasury of Tips from a Vicarage Goddess (2003):

This guide to the acts needed for perfect living in a vicarage includes such tips as the etiquette for other people’s bathrooms – don’t write you name in the dust on the window sill, and how to make a bed perfectly – follow the instructions from IKEA.

4, Extreme Anglicanism: A Liturgical Guide to the Sporting Year (2005):

This book offers a completely new liturgical year, starting with the Season of Football, then passing through Rugby, Cricket, and Wimbledon. High days include the Feast of the Blessed Jonny Wilkinson, and Billabong Sunday with its unique liturgy (“yeah, with you too, awesome priest dude”). She identifies several biblical sporting heroes, including Jonah, who took swimming with dolphins a whole step further.

5, Fight the Good Fight: From Vicar's Wife to Killing Machine (2007):

In Fight the Good Fight: From Vicar’s Wife to Killing Machine, Catherine Fox describes how she set out to gain a black belt in Judo. She was introduced to judo in the Tunnel Cement Works in Pitstone, Buckinghamshire. She set herself a challenge to earn a black belt before turning 45. Here she asks what lessons judo can teach us about life. But this is also a touching, surprising take on the spiritual struggle.

Further reading:

The novels of Catherine Fox.
Patrick Comerford, ‘An Irishman’s Diary,’ The Irish Times, 19 April 1993.
Patrick Comerford, ‘Two novel ways of approaching God,’ The Irish Times, 25 March 1997.
Paul Handley, ‘Not exactly making it all up,’ The Church Times, pp 14-15, 31 January 1997.
DT Myers, ‘Forgiven Sinners: Susan Howatch’s Church Novels,’ Anglican Theological Review, Winter 1998.

(Revd Canon Professor) Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism, Liturgy and Church History, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This essay is based on notes prepared for a seminar in a tutorial group with M.Th. students on Wednesday 30 March 2016.

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