Sunday, 19 March 2017

'A Question of Upbringing': Reading Jeffrey John through Anthony Powell

It may surprise some of the readers of this blog that I’m very fond of Anthony Powell’s Dance to the Music of Time sequence. Surprising because Powell’s twelve book sequence constructs an essentially conservative, upper/upper-middle class representation of British (or more specifically English) life between 1920 and 1970. Equally, stylistically, its use of an observer ‘everyman’ figure, Nick Jenkins, who mediates every relationship is hardly fashionable.

However, given that the C of E and the wider church is, so often, rather behind the curve, I see in Powell’s funny, sometimes supercilious and internecine representations of upper-middle class life some telling remarks on current church issues.

The Dean of St Albans Jeffrey John has gone public about his rejection as the next Bishop of Llandaff in the Church in Wales. For those who forget, John is an out gay man in a celibate civil partnership with another male priest. He has been in the running for bishop posts on several occasions in the past fifteen or so years, including the notorious incident when the protests of nine conservative bishops led to his not taking the position of Bishop of Reading.

John has alleged that he has been the victim of homophobia regarding the Bishop of Llandaff post; in essence, he has been discounted from the process because he is likely to bring ‘unwelcome and unsettling publicity’ to the diocese. It would seem that he has been discounted from a position for which he is arguably very suitable because he will be a bit embarrassing for some.

It’s bewildering that in our present culture that this might be adduced as sufficient evidence to discount an obviously talented and called human being. Yet it reflects something deeply problematic in our church culture.

Here Powell is helpful. Dance to the Music of Time is not especially interested in the Church (though it has a significant subplot about spirituality, the occult and destiny); it is concerned with class, art and what it means to belong.

However, the sequence skilfully indicates how privileged mid-20th century British culture negotiated and ordered itself around tropes of what was considered outré and, more or less, successfully reformed itself.

Powell indicates something significant about upper middle-class culture at mid-20th century that arguably hangs over into church culture at this late point: it rather doesn’t matter what one gets up to as long as one is an ‘insider’ (as a result of breeding, birth, artistic skill, recognition) and/or one doesn’t cause too much scandal.

In Powell’s world, flouting many of the middle-middle and lower-middle class mores and self-representations doesn’t prevent people from ‘getting on’ or being recognized as long as one isn’t too obvious in one’s quirks and ‘deviations’. People have affairs, get divorced and remarried, are gay and it’s no great issue. What matters is discretion or belonging to right class group.

John clearly belongs - from the point of view of the traditional ideas about suitability for these sort of things - to the right kind of group to be considered bishop. He's a man. He studied at Oxford and classics at that. He was Dean at Magdalen and so on. (That he is also Welsh might reasonably be said to fit him to be a bishop in Wales.)

Yet, his sin is that he has not hidden who is he is. He has not fit the strange mid-20th century class overhang in the church that says that, to be a bishop and gay, one must be discreet or even worse, in the closet. The Bishop of Grantham, Nicholas Chamberlain, is also in a civil partnership, but kept very quiet about it until he felt under great pressure to come out. I’m often told, by people better connected and informed than the bog-standard parish priest I am, that there are a goodly number of other bishops who are gay, bi etc. But they have played the old game of discretion and secrecy. They have ‘chosen’ to live in Powell’s world, perhaps because – at some level - they still think they’re living in the old world of privilege and discretion.

Now I’m not suggesting that, as long as one is discreet, anything goes in the church. However, the institution's seeming approval of 'closeting' as well as its ‘we all know that x is y, but no one talks about it’ pseudo-sophistication comes across as an anachronistic echo of Powell’s world where the rich, privileged and the bohemian often acted in private with little reference to their public personas and pronouncements.

Thankfully there is a greater level of congruence in wider culture now. Closeting is not a healthy place to be. The world where 'you can be LGBTI in the church and get on as long as you're discreet' needs to die. Yes, we all need to negotiate distinctions between public and private, but a culture which rewards those who keep their significant identities ‘discreet’ for the sake of form or getting on while punishing those who are congruent is hardly healthy. This is not the 1950s, no matter what some in the church might hope.