Miss Bartlett exerts power with an affectation of powerlessness, places herself centre stage with a pretence of being retiring and self-effacing. E.M. Forster’s character from A Room with a Viewprobably finds more of a resonance with many clergy than we would dare to admit.
Miss Bartlett at once came forward, and after a long preamble asked a great favour: might she go to church? Mr. Beebe and his mother had already gone, but she had refused to start until she obtained her hostess’s full sanction, for it would mean keeping the horse waiting a good ten minutes more.
“Certainly,” said the hostess wearily. “I forgot it was Friday. Let’s all go. Powell can go round to the stables.”
“No church for me, thank you.”
A sigh, and they departed. The church was invisible, but up in the darkness to the left there was a hint of colour. This was a stained window, through which some feeble light was shining, and when the door opened Lucy heard Mr. Beebe’s voice running through the litany to a minute congregation. Even their church, built upon the slope of the hill so artfully, with its beautiful raised transept and its spire of silvery shingle—even their church had lost its charm; and the thing one never talked about—religion—was fading like all the other things.
But if Miss Bartlett is recognizable, so too is Lucy, who regards prayers as an activity for a tiny minority and religion as something that is fading away.
Of course, Forster’s perception of Anglicanism was correct and it wasn’t new. A Room with a View was published in 1908, forty years after Matthew Arnold wrote the poem On Dover Beach, including the lines,
The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furl’d.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar
A century after Arnold and the fading away of the church has continued apace, but not the fading away of religion. Fundamentalist expressions of faith have become attractive to those who might once have been drawn by the discipline of Mr Beebe and his commitment to prayers even on weekdays. Stridency has replaced politeness, assertiveness has replaced accommodation.
The answer to religious radicalism, whether it be Christian or otherwise, is perhaps to reclaim our religion from the Miss Bartletts, from those for whom the church exists to meet their own emotional needs, and to endeavour to make it attractive to the 21st Century counterparts of Lucy. The church must search for charm – a journey that will take it away from internecine conflicts and intellectual flabbiness and towards something of art and beauty and transcendence.