God, church, priests, prayer, faith – they all started off strong in my life but few kept up. Prayer and priests fell away first. I had been baptized into the Roman Catholic Church but some years on my father rather bravely stopped being Catholic. I, all of 8 and with no better reason than that he had, stopped too. At boarding school I allowed myself to be confirmed C of E. I caught teenage religious ardour, and at Cambridge was stretched by the contrary pulls of King’s College Chapel music and intellectual doubt. Very little religious has happened in the forty years since, but – probably because of all this – churches have hung on. In fact, I have something like an addiction.
The more you see of churches the more you can read the signs of what went on in, around, despite or because of them. The history of the Church of England is 500 years of English society biffing itself, and then biffing itself back, with every conceivable feature of human behaviour and emotion displayed. Most books that cover this sort of thing tend towards the weighty, the fusty, the pompous and the pietistic. But once in a while, in real-life testimonies like those of Parson Woodforde, Sydney Smith, George Herbert and William Cowper, and in several fictional lives – Archdeacon Grantly, Mr Collins, Parson Adams, the Vicar of Wakefield – you find something that shows an aspect of the ecclesiastical past as it was, with living people and heaven a long way off.
Ten years ago I found myself glancing through a shelf of Canto paperbacks (in Cambridge, where the University Press publishes them), all nicely and cleanly produced, with an appealing colour picture on the front cover, and many within my preferred limit of a couple of hundred pages. Wishing I had time to read all of them and wit to take them in – Anne Boleyn’s life, the impact of Darwin, the Knights Templar – I picked out Victorian Miniature. It turned out to be a nice example of the kind of book I a
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