Martians, Demons, Vampires, and Vicars: The Church of England in Post-War Science Fiction

By Harmes, Marcus | Journal of Religion and Popular Culture, Summer 2013 | Go to article overview

Martians, Demons, Vampires, and Vicars: The Church of England in Post-War Science Fiction


Harmes, Marcus, Journal of Religion and Popular Culture


Introduction

A number of British science fiction texts juxtapose the Church of England against science fiction settings and plots. I will examine the depiction of the Church and its clergy in three works, all landmarks of British science fiction. In John Wyndham's 1951 novel Day of the Triffids, the vicar is enfeebled: he is literally blind, but he is also metaphorically blind to the drastic changes in society recounted in the novel. (1) Second, in Quatermass and the Pit, the 1958-1959 television serial, (2) the vicar appears as a force of moral reassurance and authority, but his authority is undermined by the explanations presented in the narrative relating to the alien origin of humans. Thus in this early and popular televisual presentation of the Church's interaction with science, the moral authority of the vicar exists in tension with explanations which subvert even the most liberal interpretations of Christian creation stories. Third, the presentation of the Church in a number of Doctor Who serials consistently subverts the Church, and Doctor Who shows the Church and its clergy as challenged not only by aliens but by the parallel capacity of humans to engage in violence that makes the preaching of a faith based on love impossible.

These accounts of the Church appear in a genre which is inherently modish and in a book and in BBC television programs which were acclaimed on their first appearance for their avant-garde character or simply received as mould breaking and unusual televisual experiments (The Times 1958,3; The Guardian 2011). They are not of course the only science fiction works to include reference to the Church of England or to include clergymen as characters. A vicar and his wife appeared in another Wyndham novel, The Midwich Cuckoos, and an Anglican curate was a major character in H. G. Wells's War of the Worlds, of which there will be more later. In the futuristic world of John Christopher's Tripods series, the Church still exists, the towers of the churches ringing out the clapping peal (Christopher 1967). In the more recent Elvissey by Womack, there is still a "C of E," even if that has become the Church of Elvis (Hollinger 2005, 240).

However, Quatermass, Day of the Triffids, and Doctor Who merit analysis together because they are characterized by a number of mutual influences. In particular, Doctor Who is indebted to both Kneale's "ancient invasion" stories and Wyndham's invasions of the English Home Counties (Parkin 2006, 93). Wyndham's Day of the Triffids juxtaposes familiar trappings of English society with terrifying events which prompt a struggle for survival (Ousby 1988, 1101). The juxtaposition of the alien with the familiar would in turn inform the science fiction of both Quatermass and the Pit and Doctor Who, and especially the contrast between the trappings of the Church and the preternatural intervention of the alien. More significantly still, these stories gain impact from the fact they are discussing the established Church. Imbricated with monarchy and parliament and with its status upheld by statute, the Church of England is the State Church. Focus on its weaknesses is a highly charged way for science fiction to have suggested the high stakes of alien attack and social decay, but this impact in the fiction could only be achieved because of the reality of the Church's decline.

It is therefore significant that these fictional accounts of the Church appeared during decades when the actual Church of England was self-consciously seeking to assert its modernity. From the consecration of the landmark modernist Coventry Cathedral, to the emergence of the radical "Southbank Theology" and liturgical experiments, the Church attempted to make theological explanations of life relevant but also created self-imposed discontinuities in tradition (Newburn 1992, 20). Conservative social commentators such as Mary Whitehouse even went so far as to suggest that the Church itself was contributing to permissiveness and social decay (Newburn 1992, 20). …

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