The Parson's Progress

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Category: Classic
Date Published: 1958
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Before reading The Parson’s Progress I was unfamiliar with Anglo-Catholicism, a movement originating with a group of Oxford professors in the 1830’s that attempts to re-introduce more Catholic practices and beliefs into Britain’s Anglican churches in recognition of Anglicism’s Catholic heritage. In particular, Anglo-Catholicism emphasizes the sacramental life of the church, the importance of doctrine such as the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, and the return to an episcopal form of church governance, with local authority held by a Bishop.

By the early 20th century, the time frame in which this book is set, the movement is well established, with priests gradually introducing a variety of pre-reformation customs and practices into their parishes. Every parish is different, however, depending upon the local Vicar’s inclinations and the mood of the congregation.

The story begins with the main character, a soon-to-be-ordained priest named Mark Lidderdale, taking up his first posting at St. Luke’s, a country parish in Galton. Almost immediately, the reader realizes that a clash between Mark and Reverend Shuter, the Vicar at St. Luke’s, is inevitable.

Eager to introduce more Catholic elements into religious services, Lidderdale is frustrated by his superior’s insistence that a gradual process of incremental change is best. He sees the older man as a bit of a “nervous Nelly,” always fretting about upsetting parishioners. Mark’s attitude is somewhat unfair: the Vicar has legitimate cause to worry, since dissatisfied parishioners always have the option of attending services at a neighbouring Anglican church. (While the Roman Catholic Mass has been celebrated uniformly throughout the world since the 16th century, Anglo-Catholics are free to pick and choose among differing styles of Anglo-Catholic worship.)

Still, the reader’s sympathies lie with Mark more often than not, as he clashes with the older man over everything from the content of his sermons to whether to institute a program giving children special religious stamps for attending Sunday school. One telling incident takes place when Mark asks the Vicar to look over his first sermon. The older man is too worried about how the congregation will react to seeing him wearing the cope for the first time to give it his full attention. “…I don’t want to alienate those who are just beginning to appreciate the idea of lending greater dignity to the worship of Almighty God,” the Vicar confides in Mark…“I do hope there won’t be a great deal of opposition.”

Soon, Lidderdale concludes that the only way to get through his diaconate year is to suppress any original ideas, preach banal sermons, and keep his opinions to himself. He begins spending as much time as possible with the parish’s poorer residents in Oaktown, to the point where the Vicar accuses him of setting up “a parish within a parish.”

Matters come to a head when an unmarried woman who works at the church becomes pregnant and refuses to name the father. Concerned that the girl feels little shame for what she has done, Reverend Shuter feels the only option is to turn her out onto the street; Lidderdale, on the other hand, wants to give her time to work things out with the young man. Even though the situation ends happily with a wedding, it becomes obvious that the two men can’t work together any longer. The Vicar asks Lidderdale to resign his curacy at St. Luke’s.

Throughout the remainder of the novel, Lidderdale (now ordained) moves from one parish to another, trying to find a spiritual home. His next posting is at St. Cuthbert’s, a wealthy parish in the highbrow central London neighbourhood of Chelsea. Lidderdale is dismayed by the overly theatrical, exaggerated Sarum style of the services, meant to satisfy a congregation of artists, minor celebrities and members of the British aristocracy. “I’m not saying that we have neglected morality or spiritual fervour,” he writes in a letter, “but we do judge everything and everybody by aesthetic standards…”

Mark’s next assignment, at a parish in the poorer district of Pimlico, promises to be a better fit, until he runs afoul of a local man who objects to “Roman abuses” such as the procession of the Host through the streets on the Feast of Corpus Christi. The Bishop becomes involved, forbidding any similar celebrations in the future, and following up with placing the Benediction under an episcopal interdict. Lidderdale receives an additional shock when two of his fellow priests leave to join the Roman Catholic Church.

From Pimlico, Mark moves to St. Cyprian’s, another wealthy parish in London’s upscale Kensington district. But although the head priest, Mortemer, keeps a French chef, he assures Mark that his earnest, humble style is just what they are looking for. “…I should not like you to make the least change in your methods of teaching and preaching the Catholic faith,’” he tells Mark. “..One doesn’t suggest that you should try to emulate Father Bernard Vaughan, still less Savonarola, but a little hell-fire, my dear man, just a flicker of hell-fire would be, I feel really convinced, most advantageous to the movement.”

Ultimately, however, Lidderdale concludes that “The rich might require missionary attention, but he was not the missioner to give it.” Although this means another move, the novel ends on a hopeful note, with Lidderdale becoming Vicar at a poorer parish in the Cornwall village where he spent the happiest days of his childhood.

I enjoyed the first third of this book immensely, as Lidderdale struggles to adapt to life at St. Luke’s. The characters are well drawn, from Reverend Shuter to the housekeeper, Mrs. Middleditch, who sees religion as “some hydra-headed monster that went about upsetting the order and comfort of a household.” The character and flavor of Oaktown is convincingly portrayed; the reader understands why Lidderdale wishes to expend his efforts there.

The remainder of the novel, however, is less satisfying. Part of the problem is that the author, Compton Mackenzie, originally wrote a single, 1000-page manuscript, which was subsequently published in three installments. Characters are introduced seemingly out of the blue, although the reader is clearly expected to be familiar with them, as when Mark makes an awkward proposal of marriage to a former girlfriend (her acceptance would have required Lidderdale to give up the priesthood and become a clergyman).

The plot also seems a little forced at times. While Mark’s movement from parish to parish allows the author to explore and critique the various liturgical strands within Anglo-Catholicism, it makes for a rather jumpy storyline.

It’s hard to sum up my feelings about this book. It lacks a firm conclusion – although I had a sense of God working behind the scenes, gradually leading Mark toward a different spiritual path, the story ends without this being resolved. Readers who were moved by Mark’s story in The Altar Steps will probably want to read both The Parson’s Progress and The Heavenly Ladder, the final book in the trilogy, to find out how matters end. Otherwise, while this book is a valuable resource for anyone interested in learning more about the history and development of Anglo-Catholicism, I think it will have limited appeal for a more general Catholic reading audience.

Original Language: English
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Rhonda Parkinson is an aspiring fiction writer who lives with her husband and son in Calgary, Alberta. Before turning to fiction she wrote articles on food and politics for various print and online publications; she has also published several cookbooks. Currently, she is combining her love of food and fiction to write a culinary murder mystery set in a small Rocky Mountain town. A convert to Catholicism, she joined the church through RCIA in 1987.

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