Thursday, August 2, 2018

REVIEW: Unguarded Hours by AN Wilson

Some readers of this blog may not be very scandalized by the misdeeds committed by one Mr Theodore McCarrick and the ensuing media circus. In fact some may have been positively unphased by the revelation that a hierarch of the American Church is a predatory homosexual. The gay cabal is alive and well in Germany and America, and even seem to have gained enough currency with their man in Rome that no matter how badly they embarrass him, he will continue their agenda in gratitude for his election. The solution may well be to do what people did when John XII and Benedict IX were pope: ignore Rome and let it pay for its sins.

He was pope thrice, but
you may have missed him.
American Catholics are accustomed to the slightly effete parish priest who gets on more with female parishioners than men. This priest may occasionally mention how some doctrines may need some updating and how he cannot fathom why anyone wants to go back to that Latin Mass. During his Masses he always interrupts the rites with some commentary and invitation to community, which more often than not entails children unwillingly participating in a charade. We American Catholics rightly associate gay clergy with liberalism, narcissism, and the degradation of the liturgy. Traditional clergy, by contrast, are given poor assignments in poor parishes and must be robust men to deal with large families, convince people to improve the liturgy, and make changes to bad situations for the better; they may not always be the best men, but more often than not they are proper men.

In England, however, the paradigm is entirely inverted. Conservative environs, particularly liturgical environs, are nigh impossible to divorce from homosexual clergy. Latin Masses are especially the domain of aesthetes, aficionados of theater and music who may believe in large swatches of Catholic teaching and who see the Mass as the ultimate in dramatic enactment. They teach orthodox matter that they do not particular follow and which they have difficulty convincing others to follow.

In the span of four days in England four separate individuals pointed out this shambles of an affair and I asked each of them how such came to be, especially given that Catholicism in England before the turn of the 20th century was very poor, ethnic, ill-equipped, and un-glamorous. No one had a firm answer, but two of the four conversants recommended AN Wilson's Unguarded Hours.

"Had the Dean's daughter worn a bra that afternoon, Norman Shotover might never have found out about the Church of England; still less about how to fly," begins this very secular take on right wing religion in the Anglican Church. The author, Andrew Norman Wilson, wrote this thinly disguised memoir of his time as a student at St. Stephen's House, Oxford ("Staggers") in the '70s. The story begins and develops like an early work of Evelyn Waugh: a character of interest befalls a great misfortune and finds himself navigating stranger and stranger paths to security. Norman Shotever could easily exist in Scoop or Decline and Fall.

In the story Norman Shotover notices the Dean of Selchester's daughter, a sexual miscreant, at an art gallery and ends up tardy for work. Some confusion finds Shotover fired and living in Selchester with his irreligious extended family. The only thing is that Gussy (an aunt?) has taken a boarder named Mr. Skegg, an alcoholic, taxi driver, and episcopus vagans, the sort of leader of a petite eglise which prevailed in Anglo-Catholicism throughout the 20th century: archbishops with congregations of two, self-styled canons with congegations of none, and all the necessary kit for a pontifical Mass at the Throne in Notre Dame de Paris. Norman's girlfriend, the Dean's daughter, cheats on him and in a moment of indiscretion he accepts priestly ordination from this indisputably valid bishop of nothing.

After accepted ordination from Mr Skegg, or "Mar Sylvestrius" as he prefers, Norman is encouraged to go into the Church of England's clergy, which is presented to him as a fallback plan for men who cannot make their way in the world. The local Anglo-Catholic parson, Fr. Crisp, introduces Norman to a St. Cuthbert's College, where he will study for one year before exercising ministry in the Anglican Church, for he is a priest, but not a licensed minister.

St. Cuthbert's opens a window to a new world of Benediction services, gay nights, witch craft, cottas, and anatomical devotions. His first day at the College Norman is given the name Sheila by Thelma Thinn. The head of the College was Fr. Felicity Finn and among the other students were Dahlia Dickens and Beryl Bottomley. The students of St. Stephen's Cuthbert's took "names in religion" upon entering this lugubrious bugger-factory. The only student without a "name in religion" wore a full morning suit daily.

At St. Cuthbert Norman is exposed to fuss over putting emblems of the Immaculate Heart of Mary on cottas, the need for liturgical propriety and doing incensations right, and the opportunity to spend the night with a "girl"—provided she is a man. Norman never accepts this offer, preferring to go to bed with his mistress, the Dean's other daughter, instead.

The Dean, with whom Norman must often bargain during the bishop's convalescence, is a more modern, mainstream Anglican cleric: he writes books advocating agnosticism, he does not believe in any conventional religious doctrine of any kind, he wishes for revolution, and he sees no better use of seminarians' time than rallying union employees. His daughters do not believe in marriage, but they do believe in open relationships.

I will refrain from revealing any further details of Unguarded Hours. I will not tell you that Mar Sylvestrius eloped with a seminarian and returned from his honeymoon as a mufti. I will not tell you that Norman's aunt leaves the petite eglise and embraces the Dean's revolutionary agnosticism. Nor will I tell you that two or three seminarians held witchcraft rites in various stages of undress to curse the aforementioned Dean, who they view as inimical to their desires for were described as the more risible elements of Roman Catholicism. Some of this novel is fiction, but not all of it.

The novel is worth a read and a contains more than a few good laughs. One thing is missing, though, that prevents Wilson from rising to the level of a young Waugh: there is no sense of innocence or goodness in the novel which is contained within Waugh's generally clueless and innocent characters. There are no good Christians in Unguarded Hours, just good men like Fr. Crisp and Fr. "Felicity" Fogg, who are good old souls that happen to be Christians. The ending is amusing enough that I will not unwind the denouement for any who may want to read it.

Perhaps most startling, at least within the context of Unguarded Hours, is how liturgically prissy the seminarians are, discussing cottas and the sufficiency of a service's style. When Norman arrives at St. Cuthbert's he finds the seminarians immensely interested in liturgical paraphernalia, not unlike Willis from Newman's Loss and Gain. Unlike Willis—who converts, becomes a Passionist priest, and speaks to Reding about how all is grace—the characters of Unguarded Hours remain focused on the accidentals of religion with absolutely no interest in the substance of the thing.

Such is the way of Sodom, which has many descendants, but no sons.


  1. Wilson, of course, is relaying his own experiences, very thinly disguised by fiction, and improved by his style. I've always found the agnostic, if not nihilistic, ritualism of that milieu deeply distressing.

    Novusordoites, in triumphantly gloating tones, would always point to the camp young men who could never make up their minds between the Anglo-Catholic party in the CofE and the Roman Church as proof of the moral corruption, which according to them, almost invariably accompanies interest in the traditional liturgy.

    I've always felt there was a continuum between a certain chorister culture in the varsity colleges (and choir schools of cathedrals) and the Staggers type (and other types as well)- where the dogmatic and spiritual content of Christianity was held to be of little worth while the aesthetic heritage was cultivated with gusto, and dare I say, talent.

    It is a strange thing when a man goes to college chapel and hears Allegri's Miserere being sung by choristers, undergoes some sort of spiritual conversion, and then overhears the same choristers touting their cubicular prowesses in the pub next door.

  2. "American Catholics are accustomed to the slightly effete parish priest who gets on more with female parishioners than men." -- I heartily recommend to any reader who has not yet done so, to pick up Lee Podles' book-length scholarly treatment of this phenomenon and of the general emasculation of western Christianity, which way predates the American church (or the discovery of the Americas by Christians, for that matter). His 1999 book, "The Church Impotent," is now available for free online:

    1. Podles is well worth reading, since few others have approached this unfortunate subject seriously. Some of what he writes must be read in a larger context of which I am not sure the author is aware. For example he attributes a feminizing element to St Bernard because of his theology of the mystical kiss of Christ, but a kiss was, not unlike a hug today, a sign of affectionate greeting between friends from Roman times through the Enlightenment; men even held arms while walking until the 19th century without sexual suggestion to it.

      He is right, however, that a very feminine piety prevailed throughout Christianity by the dawn of modern scandals, scandals which he catalogs with startling detail, including one right here at St. Luke's in Irving, TX.

  3. This same traditionalism wed to homosexualism can be seen in the stories of the seminary in the diocese of Lincoln. You can read them at 1Peter5.

    1. Marissa,

      I’m not sure the two are really comparable. The story of St Stephen’s House is that of aesthetics and prissiness attracting out and out gays, whereas Lincoln’s disgrace is more predatory grooming and what has widely happened in American and Irish dioceses.

  4. Not quite understand the connection. You seem to start with the current situation among the traditional Catholics in England and then switch to a novel about ritualist Anglicans. Maybe Dr. Shaw could chime in about this, but all the notorious cases in traditional institutes I've read of happened on the Western hemisphere (Soc. St. John, a case in ICK).

  5. I hadn't heard of this novel until I read your post. I picked up the Kindle version and have been reading it nightly -- it is rip-roaring hilarious! One needs all the laughter one can get these days. Thanks for the tip.

  6. I have bought several copies of the book over the years for friends entering Anglican theological colleges. I first read it (in hardback) when it was new out, having been lent it by a friend at Cambridge who imparted his knowledge as to the real identities of the characters. I can remember only one of them.