An ecclesiastical equivalent of the Archers written for the type of people who spend August Bank Holiday tweeting about the depth of the mud at Greenbelt. That's how I described Acts and Omissions by CatherineFox. This description could equally apply to the sequel Unseen Things Above, which has just been published by Marylebone House, the new fiction arm of SPCK.
This book whilst just as well observed as it’s forerunner is slightly more reflective in tone. There somehow seems more depth to it now Bishop Paul has been dispatched to the other side of the world and the focus falls more onto the other clergy in the fictional diocese of Lindchester together with one or two newcomers.
Whether you have read Acts and Omissions or this is your first visit to this fictional diocese you will warm to characters such as Dominic and Wendy – clergy who have a parish ministry and whose portrayal by the writer displays an affection clearly rooted in her own experience of meeting such people as the wife of the dean of Liverpool's Anglican cathedral.
One does wonder at points if Matt, the Archdeacon, is based upon her own husband as he at various points is referred to as “our hero” for no discernible reason. This would fit with him being the man who wins the heart of Janey, the feminist academic.
The book is fiction but with an almost ethnographic quality. As with Jeffrey Archer’s The Fourth Estate one is left wondering exactly how much is fact and how much is fiction.
This novel continues to focus on relationships but looks at them in an even more nuanced way. It highlights the CofE’s double standards which mean a heterosexual couple must marry whilst a same sex couples are barred from doing so. However the debate around equal marriage is not approached in a simplistic or polemic way. Rather this book, as with the first, is that it looks at the debate in a way which is sensitive to the complexities of a variety of positions and highlights the humanity of those involved. It shows perhaps most clearly how, in seeking to follow right practice many good people are put in positions where they find themselves having to go against their own consciences and have conversations they have no wish to. Fox appears to have shifted off the fence in this volume, I would say she provides as good an explanation of the situation in the CofE and why one way or another it must change as you could find anywhere and in a much more readable form.
Without giving the plot away it also shows the problems that overzealous activists and allies who may want to use the campaign for their own, self-centred, reasons can reek. In this case we are told early on by the narrator that the person in question is the villain of this piece. However, often similar problems are caused by allies of good character who seek to advance the cause of equality without a knowledge of what LGBT people themselves have been doing to slowly build up good will and cause change through relationship or more subtle lobbying.
The book also guides you through the system for choosing bishops in the CofE which is enlightening.
The book is again a highly readable one which will lift a wry smile from many within the church and no doubt yet again give the reaction of “I’d never have believed it if it weren’t written by the wife of a dean” from those outside. There are insider jokes but these will not distract from the enjoyment of those who are not aware of them.
My only niggle is that the reader does not need to be told by the narrator who is the villain and who is the hero, rather it is better that they be left to make up their own mind. It felt a bit like being at the pantomime and having it spelt out who to boo and who to cheer before the characters came on stage.
This is the type of read which can be read on a train, beach or indeed anywhere else. Personally I found it the perfect end of term read to be enjoyed with a glass of good wine with something soothing on the stereo. Would I recommend it? Of course I would although I would recommend the newcomer read Acts and Omissions first.
Unseen Things Above by Catherine Fox is published by Marylebone House