Godly and Righteous, Peevish and Perverse: Clergy and Religious in Literature and Letters: An Anthology

Article excerpt

Godly and Righteous, Peevish and Perverse: Clergy and Religious in Literature and Letters: An Anthology. Compiled by Raymond Chapman. Grand Rapids, Mich, and Cambridge, UK: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2002. xvi + 267 pp. $25.00 (cloth).

The idea for this anthology seems obvious, but the surprise is that nothing quite like it has been attempted before now. The Faber Book of Church and Clergy is the closest rival, but A. N. Wilsons 1992 anthology is a random mixture of favorite pieces. We are therefore much indebted to the ingenuity of Raymond Chapman, for he has assembled a wide range of extracts from literature that illustrate religious feeling and experience. The passages range from Chaucer through the twentieth century, mainly from poetry and fiction (especially of the Victorian period), but diarists and social commentators also find a place in this well-organized, coherent, and highly readable collection.

The selections, which are mostly descriptive of English clergy of the established church, with only a few from outside the British Isles or from nonconformist traditions, are disposed into twelve chapters, each one titled with a familiar phrase from the Book of Common Prayer. These chapters describe through their excerpts, usually passages taken from longer works, the various conditions of clerical life and reputation. Thus, the book opens with "Godly, Righteous, and Sober," and the compilers statement of what we may expect in the chapter-examples of good and virtuous conduct, with Wordsworth's sonnet of an idealized Anglo-Saxon priest: "How beautiful your presence, how benign, / Servants of God!" (p. 1). This is followed by Chaucer's famous portrait of the poor parson, "rich in holy thought and work."

In contrast to these portraits, chapter 2, appropriately called "Erred and Strayed," gives accounts of those clergy who have sometimes been unfaithful to the highest principles of their calling. Milton's great "blind mouths" passage from Lycidas opens the chapter, which closes with John Greenleaf Whittier's indictment of pro-slavery clergy of all denominations (in "Clerical Oppression," 1835). The poetry is woeful, but the sentiment sincere and deeply felt; it is one of the very few selections in this anthology that has thematic merit but meager literary value.

Subsequent chapters deal with the episcopacy ("Divers Orders"); the education of the clergy ("To Instruct the People"); sermons ("Then Shall Follow the Sermon"); clerical livings, both rich and poor ("Such Things as He Possesseth"); the religious life, celibacy, and the Oxford Movement ("Forsaking All Worldly and Carnal Affections"); married and family life ("An Honourable Estate"); excellent eccentrics ("Factious, Peevish, and Perverse"); humor and parody ("Joyful in the Lord"); missions and missionaries ("In Sundry Places"); and a final chapter that contains accounts of a number of odd or unusual characters ("All Sorts and Conditions"), a miscellany of passages that might have seemed difficult to place elsewhere in the volume. …