Sunday, 10 April 2016

Hello, Vicar (Bookhounds of London, Trail of Cthulhu)

I've been mainlining the Merrily Watkins, Deliverance Consultant series by Phil Rickman. I've been a fan of his ever since discovering his horror novels, donkey's years ago, and I highly recommend them if you can find them. That may be difficult; I'm not sure any of them are in print any more. However the Watkins series is still going strong, and I now discover that ITV filmed a serial which will go worldwide release this year. That's a must-see for me, and I highly recommend it to you.

It occurred to me that, since for the last few weeks I've been discussing Bookhounds, it might be interesting to talk about the Church of England, particularly since those outside the UK may not fully appreciate its position within the social fabric.

Everyone knows this bit: once upon a time, King Henry VIII decided divorce was just the thing he needed, and since the Catholics weren't about to grant it he kicked them out of the country and invented what amounted to his own Church, with him at the head of it. That's the essential problem the Church was created to solve: not any complex theological issue, but instead who was in control. Was it to be the Pope, a foreign potentate who demanded loyalty both religious and, to an extent, secular, or the King, who would brook no equals, far less superiors?

This led to a series of conflicts, on several different fronts. Politically it brought the Kingdom into direct conflict with any Catholic monarch, such as when the King of Spain sent in the Armada when Elizabeth, Henry's daughter, was on the throne. The Protestant apostasy wasn't Spain's only reason for wanting to invade, but it certainly lent a piquant spice to the invasion. On the home front, the breakup of the Catholic estate and dispossession of its landholders, led to more than a few martyrdoms. Some of them were more dramatic than others, as with the visionary Holy Maid of Kent who became the only woman to have her head displayed on a spike on London Bridge. And then, of course, there were the traitors.

Guy Fawkes is by far the most famous, mainly because the celebration of his execution has become Bonfire Night, in which the fires and fireworks were originally meant to symbolize the infernal blazes, from which Papists came. Perhaps literally; one commentator warned of Papists tunneling 'from Oxford, Rome, Hell, to Westminster, and there to blow up, if possible, the better foundations of your houses, their liberties and privileges.'  Then of course there's the fictional Popish Plot, which saw 22 people executed, or the many other schemes both real and imagined, to burn down London, kill the monarch, and bring back Catholicism. This led in turn to legal persecution of Catholics, for as legal scholar William Blackstone pointed out, Catholics continued to put the Pope above the King. 'While they acknowledge a foreign power, superior to the sovereignty of the kingdom, they cannot complain if the laws of that kingdom will not treat them upon the footing of good subjects.' It's an attitude that, to a greatly modified extent, persists today; whenever the issue of a Catholic, or Catholic-friendly, monarch ascending to the throne is discussed, constitutional scholars crawl out of the woodwork to render their judgment on the issue.

By the 19th century this attitude had been much-modified. There was no question of martyrdom by that point, and nobody was expecting Catholic sappers to emerge triumphant from the bombed-out ruins of Westminster. But by that stage the Church was a worldwide institution, for wherever the Empire went, it went too. That legacy is also still with us today, for the C of E is an international Communion, which has led to problems within the faith. When the question of gay marriage arose, for example, even though the Church leaders in the UK adopted a liberal position, elements of the Communion outside the UK were, and remain, vigorously opposed.

Within the UK, the C of E operates on the parish structure.  Each church administers to a set parish within a set geographical region. Several parishes make a diocese, under the supervision of a Bishop. The Bishops make up the church leadership, and are ultimately under the authority of the Archbishop of Canterbury, and through him, the Crown.

These churches are social centers as much as they are religious institutions; particularly in rural areas, the church is the center of day to day life. This has led to some unusual problems, not the least of which is financial. The Church owns a tremendous estate: 16,000 buildings spread over 13,000 parishes, never mind the 43 cathedrals, with a remarkable number of them protected due to their architectural and historic significance. Over 43% of the Grade 1 listed buildings in the UK are churches, Grade 1 being the most important, don't-you-dare-modify-this-ever-ever-EVER classification. Imagine the kind of income you'd need to take care of an estate that size, and then reflect that it's done mostly by donations. You can begin to see why dwindling congregation size is such an important issue for the C of E.

In fiction of the Trail of Cthulhu period, whenever C of E churchmen are encountered it almost never seems to be in their capacity as vicar, dealing with a spiritual problem. They might be persecuted by supernatural entities in M R James, or a body might have turned up in the vicarage courtesy of Agatha Christie, or some muscular Christian might be presiding over a Wodehouse village fete. Whatever their role is, it's almost always a secular issue; even in the Stalls of Barchester, James' protagonist is in the soup because he murdered someone for their living. But it's left to Catholics like Father Brown to point out that someone "who does next to nothing but hear men's real sins is not likely to be wholly unaware of human evil," connecting his spiritual role with his role in the plot.

If you're looking for a free resource that may provide scenario inspiration, I recommend Sabine Baring-Gould. If you recognize the name it's almost certainly because of his book on werewolves, but Baring-Gould was a priest and antiquarian as well as a novelist, and his books on country life and the role of the village parson in the community are well worth a look.

Closing out, let's consider what role a C of E vicar might play in Bookhounds.

The church is almost certainly a relic of times past, updated more recently. There was a spate of church renovations in the Victorian and Edwardian period, tossing out many of the old pews, carvings and other relics in favor of a more open, modern church, and the characters are more likely to encounter this in London than they are in rural areas. The roof may leak and the bill for repairs may be heavy, but the congregation is likely to be enthusiastic and involved; this isn't yet the dwindling period of scanty congregations and empty donation platters.

The vicar is likely to be involved in many areas beyond what might be considered his spiritual remit. If the parish is populated mainly by the working class and the urban poor, for instance, the vicar will be at least interested in union politics and poor relief. However the vicar is very much of his class, and that is likely to mean middle or upper middle class. Consequently although he may sympathize with the working class, he is not of the working class, and that is likely to make a difference in the way he is treated as well as how he treats others.

The vicar is an educated man, and may even have been to Oxford. Though there are no female vicars in period there are plenty of female lay readers, some of whom may have led their churches in wartime, when the men were at the Front. Moreover C of E vicars are allowed to marry, and their spouses are often central figures in the local community. In period it's usually one vicar, one church; in the modern era, when pay packets are small as is the number of candidates, never mind the congregation, one vicar often serves multiple parishes.

However unless the vicar is very high church he's unlikely to be that interested in mysticism. C of E vicars tend towards practicality and liberalism, rather than ritual. In the typical Trail period the vicar is also likely to have served in the Commonwealth in some capacity, and that can mean anywhere from Africa to Asia and beyond. Perfect for picking up the odd bit of occult lore, or even texts and artifacts, particularly since many vicars tended towards antiquarianism.  

With all that in mind, consider:

The Church of St Clement, in East London, was originally built in 1088, burnt twice over the next few hundred years, and rebuilt each time. The current Church was built in 1789, and extensively modified in 1882. Bomb damage in the War scars the steeple, but the damage was never filled in. It's remarkable for its stained glass window depicting Clement's martyrdom, as well as a much more modern Wartime stained glass memorial dedicated to the RFC. During the war, the then lay reader, Winnifred Jones, was an enthusiastic backer of air power, and as a result of her fundraising and tireless effort the parish donated enough money and material to build five aircraft for No 59 Squadron RFC, now RAF. The current incumbent is Michael Cunliffe-Scott, a high churchman who wants to bring back many of the old rituals and near-Catholic practices, an attitude that puts him at odds with a substantial number of his congregation as well as his lay readers.

From a Megalapolisamantic point of view, St Clement is an interesting and potentially powerful lever. However the Bookhounds may be more interested in Cunliffe-Scott as a potential customer; he fancies himself an antiquarian and amateur ghost-hunter, in the style of Harry Price, and is a keen seeker after book bargains.

That's it for now! Enjoy.

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