“I may question the infallibility of the teachers, but I hope that I shall not therefore be accused of doubt as to the things to be taught.”Anthony Trollope, Barchester Towers
In my Austen book club, someone suggested that we read Anthony Trollope’s book, Barchester Towers. Since my attention span is shot to hell after so many years of scrolling Twitter and clickbait about gross pictures from history, I found a 1982 adaptation of the book and its prequel, The Warden, on YouTube (starring a REALLY young Alan Rickman as Obadiah Slope–wow), and I quickly devoured all seven episodes in a Saturday, despite the poor production values. I am still only a few chapters into the book, but I am confident I can bluff my way through our next meeting. After all, I have a degree in English and therefore lots of practice.
Trollope wrote about the evangelical reformations that were happening in the Victorian Church of England, and like Austen, his characters are the real draw, in all their perfectly-captured imperfections. It was impossible to avoid recognizing the types of people we find in our own Church, even though we don’t have a professional, paid clergy (*cough* *stipends* *cough*). While the offices and forms may differ, the attitudes and foibles are the same. The chief villain of the book is Mr. Obadiah Slope (played by a twenty-something Alan Rickman), the chaplain to the new Bishop, Dr. Proudie. Mr. Slope is an evangelical and wants to modernize and reform the Church by prohibiting Sunday travel, establishing evangelical-interpretation-based Sunday Schools to indoctrinate the children, and eliminating a lot of the choral singing which he believes “obscures” the plain truths .
Mr. Harding: a kindly clergyman who is given a job based on nepotism that overpays him and has no requirements, but hurts no one. He resigns when he is criticized in the newspaper due to a lawsuit against the Church, although his son-in-law, the Archdeacon wants him to fight against this lawsuit and assures him unsuccessfully that he was chosen on merit.
Dr. Grantly, the Archdeacon: Mr. Harding’s ambitious, canny son-in-law who wants the Bishopric, but doesn’t get it. He has a wealthy position in the Church, but would like more power. He is highly opinionated and ready to fight for his ideals. He dislikes evangelicals and church reform, preferring instead the old, high church traditions.
Mr. Proudie, the Bishop of Barchester: a completely ineffectual leader who barely speaks a word and lets his judgmental, high-minded wife make all decisions and speak for him. He becomes the Bishop when Dr. Grantly’s father dies. Or rather, we should say his wife and chaplain become the Bishop of Barchester.
Mr. Obadiah Slope: an ambitious, maneuvering chaplain who works for Mr. Proudie. Like Mrs. Proudie, he is an evangelical with an agenda to enforce obedience and to control the diocese by surrounding himself with biddable “yes men.” He is on the lookout for a wealthy wife, a higher position in the Church, and a bigger income and scope of power.
Mrs. Proudie: She is a wealthy, judgmental evangelical woman who makes all decisions for the bishop and speaks on his behalf. She only wants to surround herself with people she can control, and will eviscerate anyone who crosses her. She wants to do what’s right, and she doesn’t care who she has to destroy to do it. She disapproves of Mr. Slope’s flirtation with the local women, partly on the basis of “propriety,” partly because she despises his main object who has slighted her, and partly because she can’t control Mr. Slope, and that’s unacceptable to her.
The Jupiter: A newspaper that reports a lot of gossip about the clergy and others in the parish, including criticism of the Church of England. The paper is usually pro-reform, even citing specific changes the Church should make to duties and salaries of various positions and gossiping about individuals who hold Church office. (Maybe like the Trib or the bloggernacle?)
The characters resonate so much with what we see in Mormonism, and frankly, what’s going on with doubling down again and again on worthiness interviews and our war on LGBT people. The novel is just delightful and terrible all at once in its insights.
Dr. Proudie is the new Bishop of Barchester. He is a weak man whose evangelical-leaning wife rules the roost, both at home and in the bishopric. He also has a chaplain, the ambitious Mr. Slope, (a lower ranking clergyman) who does the sermons for him and conducts all business so he can sit back in his comfort and wealth from his London home usually. Idealogically, both Mr. Slope and Mrs. Proudie (who are competing for control of the diocese) are strict sabbatarians, enforcing rules for the congregants about sabbath day observance, and seeking to tear down the ceremonial “high church” practices that are in place in the Cathedral (such as too much music in the service rather than “plain spoken preaching” that he favors).
“The ‘desecration of the Sabbath’ as he delights to call it, is to him meat and drink: he thrives upon that as policemen do on the general evil habits of the community.”Anthony Trollope, Barchester Towers
After his particularly heated sermon in which he criticizes the use of music, the gentle Mr. Harding (who previously published a popular hymnal for Anglican choirs) is so offended that he won’t speak to the man until forced. Mr. Harding is a humble clergyman, one who leaves a lucrative position when he’s been criticized as benefiting from nepotism (a charge that is obviously true–his son-in-law is the Archdeacon, and his son-in-law’s father is the now deceased Bishop who appointed Mr. Harding as the Warden). Mr. Harding is devoted to gardening, music, and enjoying his time with others in his care. He is a pastoral leader, through and through, not interested in power or pursuing his own plans, thinking the best of everyone. He is a stark contrast to Mr. Slope who is highly ambitious and combative:
“He regards the greater part of the world as being too bad for his care. As he walks through the streets his very face denotes his horror of the world’s wickedness. . . .To him the mercies of our Savior speak in vain . . . To him the New Testament is comparatively of little moment, for from it can he draw no fresh authority for that dominion which he loves to exercise over at least a seventh part of man’s allotted time here below.””He intends to be, if not their master, at least the chief among them. He intends to lead and to have followers; he intends to hold the purse-strings of the diocese and draw around him an obedient herd of his poor and hungry brethren.”Anthony Trollope, Barchester Towers (description of Mr. Obadiah Slope)
When Mr. Harding visits “members of the flock” it is to enjoy their company, to support them, and to share beauty with them through music and gardening. There is a quiet joy in the man that reminds me of leaders like E. Uchtdorf or Pres. Hunter. By contrast, Mr. Slope visits others to gain power and control over them for his own ambitions and because he sees them all as inferior:
He conceives it to be his duty to know all the private doings and desires of the flock entrusted to his care. From the poorer classes, he exacts an unconditional obedience to set rules of conduct, and if disobeyed, he has recourse.Anthony Trollope, Barchester Towers (description of Mr. Obadiah Slope)
Dr. Grantly (the wealthy Archdeacon and son-in-law to Mr. Harding) is no saint and has his own ambitions, but I ultimately found his character much less reprehensible, and he reminds me more of leaders like Monson (on a good day) or Hinckley:
Dr. Grantly interfered very little with the worldly doings of those who were in any way subject to him. I do not mean to say that he omitted to notice misconduct among his clergy, immorality in his parish, or omissions in his family, but he was not anxious to do so where the necessity could be avoided. He was not troubled with a propensity to be curious.Anthony Trollope, Barchester Towers
Despite this, he was also not a boat-rocker in any real sense, instead deferring to the office while hating its inhabitant.
He was well aware of all Dr. Proudie’s abominable opinions as regarded dissenters, church reform, the hebdominal council, and such like; though he disliked the man, and hated the doctrines, still he was prepared to show respect to the station of the bishop.Anthony Trollope, Barchester Towers
Because the author is portraying church leaders (albeit fictional ones) in all their imperfections, including deceitfulness, greed, and ambition, he feels it necessary to soften his writing by pointing out that his criticisms are solely of human foibles, not the gospel itself. The author wants it known that he is still a Christian, just not one who is blind to the flawed manipulations of the ambitious clergy, whether reformers or not.
The Archdeacon Dr. Grantly is from the old school, high church group, and while he also has ambitions, he doesn’t like these reformists one bit. Neither do I, and yet, in reading the book it occurs to me that Mormons were more aligned with reformists than with the high church, and the reformists, while controlling and intolerant in the book, were also inclined to do charitable works, although the motive they have in the book seems to be to obligate the poor to the Church. Like the Mormon church, we have leaders who are controlling, who encourage tattling and interrogating others’ beliefs and actions, focusing on orthodoxy and conformity to get to heaven. Unlike Mormonism, the progressive reforms being sought tend to be more high church / live and let live rather than the evangelical ideals espoused by Slope and Proudie.
What I found particularly surprising is just how much these characters, their perspectives, and their plotting resembled attitudes and actions in our own church, both at the local and institutional level. Here are several “types” and behaviors that I found in the novel that seem as true for our current, modern church as for the Victorian era Church of England.
- The ambitious drive out the humble. You can really get things done in the Church, so long as you don’t let humility or your desire to be Christ-like get in the way. Self-doubt is the enemy of power.
- Those who revere the office if not the man still may be unwilling to check others’ power, even if the one in power is doing things with which they disagree.
- Many are easily manipulated by those who seek to control them to increase the scope of their influence.
- In a marriage, a weaker spouse may be dominated by one who is harsher; sometimes a strong-willed spouse will usurp a weaker spouse’s calling in the Church.
- There are those who see the gospel as being oriented around forgiveness and private devotion, and there are others for whom the gospel is about policing others and enforcing behaviors; some prefer to preach from a standpoint of fear and rules, while others prefer to inspire, love and support from afar and stay out of people’s heads. These two “types” will always be locked in secret combat, with the congregational experience depending entirely on who has more power at a given time.
This is what I love about fiction. In reading fiction, the human experience is portrayed in a way that allows greater insight through reflection. We find “types” of human behavior that are familiar, and through the plot, we can see how the interactions change the outcomes. It reveals humanity to us, in all its flaws and beauty.
- Do any of these character descriptions resonate for you?
- Have you seen characters like these in your local ward or in higher levels in the Church?
- Do you consider yourself more like a “low Church reformer” who thinks it right to evaluate the quality of others’ beliefs or a “high Church” person who considers it none of their business to know others’ beliefs?
 Plain and precious truths, maybe?