Sage, sagacious, sagacity, the wisdom of priests in the pages of novels; the gentle unworldliness of worldly-wise men. Classically educated, an eye for art, appreciative of music, a discerning palate, marks of gentlemen who sit in old leather chairs beside log fires burning with the scent of pine wood, drinking aged wines, or dark ports, or smoky whiskies. Silver haired, craggy, deep facial lines telling tales of past decades.
Reading Salley Vickers’ “The Cleaner of Chartres”, Abbé Paul, dean of the great cathedral, is such a man. Wise words, well chosen, a sense of grace and a graciousness, a capacity to respond appropriately in each situation; the very model of novel priestliness.
The vicars in countless English detective stories are warm, gentle, welcoming, frequently the victim of crime, led to vulnerability by humility, rarely raising voices that are carefully modulated and impeccably accented. They preach on virtue and hope to attentive congregations among whom the only discordant presences are those of the police officers observing the gathering. They are scholarly, respected, people of substance.
Perhaps the clergy of the Church of England are all people of such calibre, learned in both classical and New Testament Greek, able to translate Latin as they read inscriptions, encyclopaedic in their knowledge of the history of the world and, more particularly, the history of their parish; well informed on every matter and keenly aware of every dispute and tension among their flock. Wise as serpents and innocent as doves. Perhaps.
If art imitates life, then the clerical life imitated by the novelists seems a far remove from that represented in the pages of the “Church Times”, and part of world entirely removed from that of Anglican clergy in Ireland. The ideal of the Church of Ireland cleric, the character worthy of comparison with Abbé Paul or the vicars of the detective stories, is to be found in the pages of William Trevor, it is Grattan Fitzmaurice in “Of the Cloth” or Canon Moran in “Autumn Sunshine”, they might lack the worldliness and sophistication of Abbé Paul, but they are possessed of a great sanctity.
In three decades of experience of parishes, no more than a handful of clergy have approximated to Trevor’s ideal, most of us have fallen very far short of it; that novelists can still feel able to depict clergy in such a positive light says much more about their charity of judgement and generosity of spirit than it does about the reality of the church.
Sometimes it feels that one might be more likely to encounter saintliness by reading fictional depictions of ecclesiastical life than by attending worship on a Sunday morning.