Over the centuries, priests or pastors have occupied important places in literature. Some have been beloved leaders or noble sacrificers. Others have been wealthy scoundrels or harsh disciplinarians. Many have been compelling eccentrics who enliven the tales in which they appear.
Categorizing all these types and offering literary selections representing each is the fascinating task Raymond Chapman, an Anglican priest and retired literature professor, undertook for Godly and Righteous, Peevish and Perverse: Clergy and Religious in Literature and Letters (Eerdmans, 2002; www.eerdmans.com). His commentary is as valuable as the selections themselves.
British writers whose characters include clergy go as far back as Chaucer and number such famous novelists as Charles Dickens, Charlotte Bronte, Thomas Hardy and George Eliot. Emily Dickinson, Ralph Waldo Emerson and contemporary author Barbara Kingsolver are among the American authors.
Chapman uses phrases from the Book of Common Prayer for his chapter titles. "Godly, Righteous, and Sober" is about literary figures (and some real people too) whose rectitude is without question, even if they are sometimes too staunch and stuffy. An example is Mr. Clare in Thomas Hardy's Tess of the D'Urbervilles. "Such Things as He Possesseth" describes religious characters who live in penury — or those who have accumulated a few too many possessions.
"An Honorable Estate" addresses the often put-upon figure of the clergy spouse. "Then Shall Follow the Sermon" describes both famous and infamous preachers. An example of the latter is Canon Chasuble in Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest, who gave the same sermon at "almost any occasion, whether joyful or distressing."
Because Chapman's approach is historical and looks back so far, almost all the literary characters, and most of the authors, are male. Perhaps he, or someone else, will compile a sequel looking at how the characterization of clergy has evolved as women have been admitted to the ranks.
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