I recently completed Susan Howatch's Absolute Truths, the sixth and final installment in her Church of England series, focusing on a fictional parish named Starbridge in the English countryside and in particular the lives of a couple of bishops, a dean, a formerly cloistered monk and others whose lives weave through each other. I first read the opening book in the series Glittering Images, during my first year at Princeton Seminary as part of my unofficial field education/mentoring with a former pastor in NJ, now serving in Texas. It was a great book and it was so moving that I jumped on the rest of the series, reading all that the Princeton public library had and then ordering the entire series online when I couldn't get any more at the library.
What Howatch does in each one of these books, is to take the theology and writings of a real member of the Church of England and infuse these into the mind and heart of a fictional character in this fictional parish. Then, she weaves a story of catastrophe-examination-redemption that is powerful on both a psychological and spiritual level. This last book in the series, coming full circle to deal with the "hero" from the first novel, now bishop of Starbridge, is no different. What makes these books so powerful is not simply the excellent story-telling, but the way in which it holds a mirror up and helps us examine ourselves. I think these books are particularly helpful for minsters and clergy, especially those of us who have what might be considered a slightly too exalted view of ministers and ministry. I think the following quote from the very first chapter sums it up pretty well:
“God stood by and watched me for some time. Then in 1965 he saw the chance to act, and seizing me by the scruff of the neck he began to shake me loose from the suffocating folds of my self-satisfaction, my arrogance and my pride.”
This book and this series is the kind of thing that should be required reading for all future ministers. But whether you're in church ministry or not, this book and this series is both worthy of a read and intoxicating enough to hold your attention through all it's 600 plus pages...