By Richard J. Mammana
In my four decades, I have been the grateful recipient of six clerical libraries as the gifts of one bishop, four Episcopal priests, and one (pre-United Church of Christ) German Reformed pastor. They came to me because I was young and keen and interested, and because the children of clergy can be sometimes as disinterested as widows and widowers in dispersing such libraries. There have been 8,000 books, each of which I have read and catalogued. Most of them are gone from me now, at a seminary in Malawi, another in Chelsea, another in Wisconsin, and a parish library in Detroit and another in Illinois. A core of 500 remains with me — more than any medieval monastery ever held.
The books were the cream of the previous owners’ generations: the Chadwicks, the Underhills, Ramsey, Terwilliger, Heber, Dix, Temple, Moberly, Frere, Demant, Figgis, Wand, Gore, Scott Holland, Maurice, Kirk, Mascall, Mozley, Teilhard, Bernanos, Lewis, Buber, Quick, Vidler, Scudder, and Westcott.
The only book all six libraries had in common was one of the 20th century’s great sleeper hits: E.M. Green’s brief and brilliant novel The Archbishop’s Test. The book is easy to find today because it was so popular after its first English publication in 1914 and first American printing in 1915 — followed by many reprints and a new edition as recent as 1965. It is that rarest of birds — a novel about prayer book revision — and its cheery approach is that the Book of Common Prayer need not so much be changed as used.
The Archbishop’s Test is 107 pages short in its longest edition. The plot hinges on early 20th-century schemes for revision of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, presaging the failed 1928 English edition (not to be confused with the 1928 American edition).
In Miss Green’s fiction, a new Archbishop of Canterbury has just been elected. A mountain of correspondence awaits him, and a solicitous chaplain aims to help him in responding to a multitude of requests for patronage of ecclesiastical organizations. The new archbishop fixes his gaze on a framed portrait of Jesus Christ wearing the crown of thorns, and he hits on a different idea: “for two years the Prayer Book shall be obeyed, and for those two years all the good societies which try to supplement the present laxity shall cease their work.”
The chaplain is filled with “blank dismay,” and predicts an explosion of discontent.
The new archbishop responds, like an Edwardian Rachel Platten: “An explosion is better than indifference.”
The next 100 pages are an idyll of archiepiscopal program, brought about by a “calm voice,” “deep gray eyes,” and “that manner of his which disarms hostility.” The primate intends that special-interest groups should rest — creating “in many lives an unwonted amount of leisure” — and that each rubric of the Book of Common Prayer should be followed precisely for 24 months.
The posters and newspapers of London revolt:
“Archbishop’s Radical Reforms”
“Archbishop’s Condemnation of Societies”
“Archbishop’s High Church Movement”
“Archbishop Offends the Bench”
“Archbishop’s Novel Programme”
“For a few days newspaper columns were flooded with correspondence. Then a millionaire committed suicide, and there was a great railway accident, which called away the interest of the public, so that the word ‘Archbishop’ was no longer kept in large type for daily use, and posters told of other things.”
On comes a national observance of Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer in every parish church; a rubrical Lenten abstinence, a flurry of sick Communions, a raft of persons seeking confirmation before receiving Communion, and an increased study of the prayer book’s text.
“England had never looked more beautiful than it was this April, with its wealth of flowering trees and its days of cloudless beauty succeeding each other, almost as if the clouds had become a thing of the past.” The archbishop’s test made rubrics a refreshment of the country’s beauty and health as children learned “the Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, and the Ten Commandments in the vulgar tongue.”
The two years pass “with extraordinary rapidity,” and
favorable conditions were coming back, acknowledged and welcomed even by those outside of Church. … Leisure had come not only to pray, but to think and to develop as God meant man to develop. No one could see visions or dream dreams if he were incessantly running from committee to meeting, and fighting with engagements too numerous to keep. …
They were coming at last, from the busy factories and the crowded streets; from the wealthy homes and the public schools, over the moorland hills and through the country lanes—all the thousands in our land were discovering that they were children of God, and that He had a place for each in His Church. They had been convinced of this truth because they had seen in the undershepherds the reflection of the life of the One Great Shepherd.
The archbishop’s test is a success beyond his own expectations, and the prayer book remains unchanged even as many are brought and conformed into the new life.
The Archbishop’s Test is an ecclesiastical fantasy novel that could probably not have been written after the social and religious revolutions of the First World War — and yet its popularity persisted for more than half of the 20th century. The first American edition flags its significance in a forenote:
The Archbishop’s Test is not a new piece of fiction: it appeared first in London in 1914, and a year later in New York, but Anglicans ever since have been discovering it and have been amazed at its timeless relevance. In recent months various periodicals have mentioned it or have quoted from it, and so sent people on fruitless searches for the book in libraries and second-hand bookstores, both in America and in England. A reprinting of The Archbishop’s Test may not be justified because people are talking about the book or cannot get a copy, nor because it recalls a day long past and a country and a Church now somewhat changed, but rather because it speaks to a present condition and with a voice longing to be heard in our own time and place.
And despite the novel’s firm place as an ecclesiastical fantasy, the author’s clean prose is pushing at a theme Mahatma Gandhi, G.K. Chesterton, and C.S. Lewis will make later in the blood-stained 20th century: that Christianity has not so much been found wanting as it has been seldom attempted as thoroughly as it might be.
The author, Edith Mary Green (1858-1924), was the daughter of a priest whose ministry was an archetype of Victorian church stability: He was vicar of St. George’s Church, Modbury, in the Diocese of Exeter from 1859 until his death in 1909, prominent as a local historian, an ornithologist, a summer chaplain in France, and an encourager of his child’s wide-ranging work in fiction. Green’s other works are long-forgotten, but The Archbishop’s Test stands the test of time. It is a gentle call to observance over revision, to appreciation rather than accommodation, to thoroughness instead of modification, and to the hard work of prayer over the easier labor of proposals.
Richard Mammana is archivist of the Living Church Foundation and a member of the Connecticut Academy of Arts and Sciences.