Hewlett Johnson, dean of Canterbury, has an unique place in recent church history, having become a symbol for the kind of sympathetic engagement amongst well-meaning English churchmen with Soviet Russia in the forties and fifties. From our safe distance, works such as The Socialist Sixth of the World now appear almost comic in their naivety, and Johnson has come to be seen as a Soviet dupe. An intriguing indication of how this picture of the Red Dean has escaped from academic historical writing into the wild is Tibor Fischer’s comic novel Under the Frog. Fischer was born in 1959 to Hungarian parents, and brought up in England. His first novel, Under the Frog won a Betty Trask Award in 1992.
In the novel, Gyuri is a slightly bemused if self-absorbed observer of the popular uprising in Budapest in October 1956, which was crushed in short order by Soviet forces. In a moment of quiet before the tanks arrive, Gyuri passes a bombed-out bookshop, thinks to gather up some the kind of edifying reading that the comrade proletariat had (in Soviet mythology) been delighted to read, and decides to conduct an experiment. When next he has recourse to the bathroom, and is in need to toilet paper, the experiment begins.
We Knew How to Use Freedom by the Party ideologue Jozsef Revai failed the test, as its paper was too shiny. Others are more successful, being printed on coarser paper, notably those by Matyas Rakosi, leader of the Hungarian Communist Party, but overall Gyuri concludes that ‘[t]he Communists couldn’t even hack it as toilet paper.’ Finally:
‘The last book Gyuri turned to was in English, Eastern Europe in the Socialist World  by Hewlett Johnson, who was supposed to be the Dean of Canterbury. The book was a paean to the Socialist order. Either the book was a forgery, or else the Dean must have been …. blackmailed into writing this, thought Gyuri, because no one could be stupid enough to write things like this of their own volition.’
I note the recent passing of Ruth Etchells, theologian, teacher and ‘the best female bishop we never had’ (in the words of the Guardian). There have been various obituaries, including that in the Guardian, and from John Pritchard on Anglican Mainstream. From Durham, of which city she was a stalwart, comes a tribute from the Dean, Michael Sadgrove, and a funeral sermon from the Sub-Dean, Michael Kennedy. Also of interest is Margaret Masson’s oration at the presentation of the University of Durham Chancellor’s Medal in 2010.
Of most interest here is a little book of which I was only dimly aware, but when viewed in its context is most unusual. Michael Sadgrove found her 1969 study Unafraid to Be a profoundly influential book as an undergraduate in Oxford: ‘an important catalyst in developing cross disciplinary engagement, not least in the emerging field of theology and literature.. ’ What is most interesting about the book is the milieu from which it emerged. Evangelicals at that time were not known for their positive engagement with the contemporary arts, and so for the Inter-Varsity Press to publish such a book at that time is significant.
I’ve just finished correcting the proofs of my article on the archbishops of Canterbury and the censorship of the theatre between 1909 and 1949, which is destined to appear in Studies in Church History vol. 48 this summer. It can be pre-ordered on the Boydell and Brewer site, which has a list of the contents. Re-reading it after 18 months, I’m still pleased with it, although the re-reading has suggested some new questions to pursue, about which I’ll blog another time. There’s a brief summary of the article here.
It isn’t always that themed volumes such as these that the Ecclesiastical History Society produce are so squarely in one of my areas of interest, but this one certainly is. It can be read as a companion to SCH 28 (1992), which was on ‘The Church and the Arts’ and contains several articles which remain the most recent word on their subjects. I was at the St Andrews conference that spawned the forthcoming volume, and as one of the session chairs was involved in the EHS’s normal peer review process, and am looking forward to reading the final versions of several of the papers I heard. Judith Maltby writes on Rose Macaulay, Stuart Mews on the Lady Chatterley trial, and Crawford Gribben on rapture fiction. There are also several pieces on twentieth century representations of the medieval past, by Sarah Foot and Stella Fletcher amongst others.
James Wood has been one of the most consistently interesting critics writing about religious themes in contemporary fiction, and I note another very useful essay in the Guardian Saturday Review.
I note an interesting essay by Rachel Cusk on D.H. Lawrence’s Women and Love and The Rainbow, around the same time as the BBC were screening an adaptation of the two novels. I’m fairly sure that religious historians are not at all finished with Lawrence’s curious religion of the sensual, and his treatment of ‘religious’ characters.
What could be more Catholic than a novel set in Lourdes ? Such is Michael Arditti’s latest, Jubilate, which is reviewed in the Telegraph, the Independent, and by Peter Stanford in the Guardian
Rather belatedly, I note two obituaries of Frank Kermode in the Guardian and Independent. Both pick up on his interest in religious narrative, which issued in the The Literary Guide to the Bible (1987), co-edited with Robert Alter.
I’m delighted to report the publication of the latest Miscellany from the Church of England Record Society, which includes my own edition of and introduction to the correspondence relating to Temple’s offer of a Lambeth D.D. to Sayers, which she refused. It’s a most interesting episode, which reveals much about the position of the ‘Christan writer’ in England, and the relationship between the Church of England and the arts.
Rather belatedly, I note an interesting piece by Hermione Lee in the Guardian (April 3rd), in advance of her forthcoming biography. It gives tantalising glimpses, from Lee’s work on Fitzgerald’s library, with her engagement with religious writing, including Murder in the Cathedral and Bonhoeffer.
I note an interesting response from Rowan Williams to Philip Pullman’s recent offering, in the Guardian on April 3rd.
It is part of an interesting ongoing exchange between the two men: hear a podcast of the two in conversation in relation to His Dark Materials at the National Theatre in 2004, (and an edited transcript in the Telegraph) and an article by Williams on the same in the Guardian, March 10th 2004