In Praise of Clerical Fiction

I am a sucker for a good, trashy novel. When I first began discerning a call to the priesthood, I went through the normal stage of grappling with what it might mean to be a woman of the cloth. On the other side of ordination, I pictured a future populated by massive tomes of the writings of Desert Fathers and Mothers, Greek primers, and liturgy manuals. I was sure that I would have to kick my fiction habit in this austere existence, and wouldn't have time to miss it amongst the praying and the studying and the being pious.

Of course, as I begin my fifth year of wearing the collar, I know that my vision of the ordained life was not a complete one. I did spend my three years of seminary puzzling out ancient alphabets and surrounded by mountains of religious texts, some more obscure than others, and I currently own more Bible commentaries than I ever thought I would, but throughout it all novels have served as faithful companions along the way. In fact, by discovering the existence of a certain sort of fiction, I was eased of some of my anxieties about taking on this particular role in God's church.

I speak of clerical fiction, the surprisingly popular genre of novels that have as their protagonists ordained ministers. Julia Spencer Fleming's The Rev. Clare Fergusson series was my gateway into this body of work, and I haven't looked back since picking up that first paperback, enticingly titled In the Bleak Midwinter. In it, and the other seven installments in the series, a feisty young Episcopal priest solves crimes in her rural New York village, investigating mysterious local deaths and flying helicopters out of exploding buildings, all while making time to read Compline and attend vestry meetings. She worries about how to explain her more fiery crime-solving exploits to her bishop, and she also worries about how to introduce a boyfriend to her congregation. The details are mostly accurate and the stories are a mix of fantastic drama and every day events of parish life. It is escapism, but it is familiar escapism!

Later I found other books that served up this combination of the sacred and the secular by an English author named Susan Howatch. Her Starbridge novels feature Anglican priests spanning generations, battling personal demons while struggling to be faithful spiritual leaders, often solving a mystery or uncovering an occult conspiracy along the way. Starting with Glittering Images, a story of a successful young archdeacon who flies too close to the sun and ultimately finds psychological integration in his burnout, I was hooked. Her initial series of novels in this vein were so popular that an ancillary character named Fr. Nicolas Darrow, a psychic priest who uses his powers for spiritual healing, was spunoff into an equally popular trilogy of his own- The Wonder Worker, The High Flyer, and The Heart Breaker. Howatch's novels were inspired by her own faith journey, and contain a heavy dose of academic theology. She has used some of the proceeds of her popular books to fund a permanent lecturer in theology and natural science at Cambridge. Her books are so dense and full of detail that I keep a shelf full to reread on snow days and sabbath time when I want a little substance with my salacious fiction.

No discussion of pastor protagonists would be complete without Fr. Tim,  a modern day country parson and the main character in Jan Karon's bestselling series The Mitford Years. Set in an idyllic mountain town in North Carolina, these popular novels see the main character through from the early days of his ministry to his retirement, when another series begins. Amidst the miracles and the mysteries of life, a few jewel thieves are thrown in for drama. This series is just one of its type that has transcended the niche appeal of church bookstores and church folks to sell millions of copies, presumably not limited to members of mainline Protestant denominations.

Clerical fiction isn't a new phenomenon. Some would say it began when George Herbert wrote The Country Parson, his highly idealized account of life as a simple parish priest. Going beyond my own affinity for Anglican clerical stories, G.K. Chesterton's Father Brown Series, written in the later 1930s, were phenomenally popular as they tracked a crime solving Roman Catholic priest who was as recognizable as Sherlock Holmes in his day. The genre isn't limited to the written word, either- those of us who grew up watching television in the late 1980s are familiar with Fr. Dowling, the lovable priest who solves crimes with his sidekick, Sister Stephanie, a young and clever nun, while Marie the housekeeper uncovers the important clue at the final moment.

All of these portrayals of ordained ministers share a common, voyeuristic attraction- people are infinitely curious about what ministers get up to in our spare time, and by providing popular characters of all clerical stripes, these authors are doing their own sort of evangelism. Whether a strident wonder worker or a crime-solving but hapless neophyte, these characters give all of us, both lay and ordained, a toehold into the miracle and mystery that is living a life of faith. Sucked in by the drama and the explosions, we find ourselves encountering the holy. Ultimately, these sometimes trashy, always insightful novels gets folks thinking about God, and that makes all of our jobs just a little bit easier.

 

 

Comments

Thanks for the suggestions!

Thank you for sharing this. As a Jewish clergy woman, I'm always delighted when female clergy takes center stage in fiction. I wanted to share a few recs of my own (about women rabbis, but I imagine you may still identify!) Jonathan Rosen's Joy Comes in the Morning and Julius Lester's Autobiography of God. There is also a great short story called "The Rabbi in the Attic." by Eileen Pollack, in her collection of the same name. Going to stock up on Fleming for my next vacation!

Thanks for the rabbinical recommendations, Leah! I am looking forward to making my fiction shelf an interfaith endeavor once I pick these up.

I LOVE the Fleming novels--mystery novels are one of my favorite escapes. I'll definitely be adding some of the other recommendations to my reading list. Thanks! Oh, and maybe too obvious to mention, but Marilynne Robinson's novels Gilead and Home are also great reads when it comes to fiction about pastors.

Let me also suggest Evenson by Gail Goodwin. I'm excited to check out some of these others. Thanks.

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