Clerical mysteries

"Clerical mysteries" Continued...

Issue: "Summer Books 2005," July 2, 2005

"Why do writers think readers will accept as a hero a female priest who flirts with a married man?" asks Mrs. Carter perspicaciously. "Some may respond that priests are real people, after all, and real people have complicated desires and longings. Grace often comes through our frailties, and even sinful relationships can be redeeming. But however we might try to rationalize it, a strange dynamic seems to be afoot. It's as though the moral rules are different for female clergy. What if Kathryn Koerney were a married male priest flirting with a woman in his congregation? What if Clare Fergusson were a single male pastor (say, a Southern Baptist) having regular lunch dates with a married woman in his church and whispering double-entendres into the telephone? We'd hardly accept such a hero. Indeed, we'd probably figure that he was the prime suspect in the case."

Massachusetts-based mystery novelist Michelle Blake has created yet another Episcopal priest heroine, Lily Turner. (Her cop-beau is blessedly single.) Lily is a self-described "spiritual nomad." She liked "the elasticity of Episcopal doctrine. . . . At seminary, she had studied Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism"-when, one wonders, did she have time to study the gospel?-"and her faith now contained elements from all those religions. So she had ended up as an ordained Episcopal minister . . . teaching the acceptance of all religions, all beliefs, all people."

The third installment of the series, The Book of Light, finds Lily serving as an interim chaplain at a Boston college. She admits to a conservative Christian student that she "respect[s] the fundamental[ist] wing of the Protestant community in this country, because I think that you guys are, often, less hypocritical than we are. I actually believe in a close and literal reading of Biblical texts-within reason. And I think the liberal wing of the church doesn't do enough of that, doesn't check in with the Bible often enough." Ah, the Episcopal Church! If only we would check in with the Bible as often as we checked in with, say, our inner child.

Clare Fergusson, too, embodies a caricature of liberal Episcopalianism, although she herself doesn't think so. In To Darkness and to Death, a diocesan representative confronts Clare about rumors he's heard: not, as Clare fears, rumors that she's fallen for a married man, but rather equally true rumors that she performed a ceremony blessing the union of two gay men. When Clare defends her actions, the diocesan representative asks whether she believes in basic Christian doctrine, such as the Incarnation and Resurrection of Christ. Give me some credit, avers Clare; I may be a liberal, but that doesn't mean I've signed up with the heterodox agenda of Bishop Spong. Oh, really? You could have fooled me.

In presenting a less-than-orthodox version of Christianity, Ms. Blake and Ms. Spencer-Fleming are following well-established conventions of the genre. A survey of clerical mysteries reveals that-except for Chesterton's Father Brown -most fictional clerics-cum-detectives have little patience for classical Christian doctrine. For example, Mr. Smith's Reverend Randolph, first introduced in the 1974 novel Reverend Randolph and the Wages of Sin, has no patience for "conventional pious attitudes": The Trinity is "trivial," the Bible recherché, the Great Commission unnecessary, and Paul's proclamation of the resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15 "glorious sounding, sublimely phrased nonsense" and "lilting literalistic goop." Even Brother Cadfael, the generally orthodox (and ironically Calvinistic) medieval monk created by English novelist Ellis Peters, occasionally slides into a vague universalism.

What bothers me about the recent bumper crop of clerical mysteries is not the mere fact that they feature female clerics. What ticks me off is the irresponsible liberalism of these clerics.

-Lauren F. Winner is the author of Girl Meets God and Real Sex: The Naked Truth about Chastity

Lauren F. Winner
Lauren F. Winner


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