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Clerical mysteries

The greatest mystery is why the genre's minister-detectives are so liberal


Clerical mysteries
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Here's what I'm reading this summer: a few books about infanticide in colonial Virginia; some commentaries on the Gospel of Matthew; a history of salt; and a whole lot of mysteries.

There's something satisfying about a mystery. Wrongdoers are punished, order prevails. As J. I. Packer once observed, mysteries "would never have existed without the Christian gospel. Culturally, they are Christian fairy tales, with savior heroes and plots that end in what Tolkein called a eucatastrophe-whereby things come right after seeming to go irrevocably wrong. . . . The gospel of Christ is the archetype of all such stories. Paganism unleavened by Christianity, on the other hand, was and always will be pessimistic at heart."

My favorites are clerical mysteries. You've heard of police procedurals-mysteries where the detective is, naturally enough, a cop, who comes into contact with corpses and catches culprits as part of his regular, salaried work-week. Clerical mysteries, by contrast, are those mysteries in which the hero, the detective, is a pastor or priest. (Should the same cleric figure over and over again in a series, the author must ingeniously explain why the non-cop keeps stumbling over dead bodies . . . but, then, death dogs the clergy almost as much as it dogs cops.)

Since G.K. Chesterton gave us Father Brown, the majority of clerical mysteries have been set in Catholic or Anglican communities. There are, of course, exceptions-Charles Merrill Smith's Reverend Randolph is a Methodist, for instance-but in the main clerical detectives seem to emerge from liturgical churches: Vicar Westerham is the Anglican hero of five mysteries by V.L. Whitechurch; Margaret Scherf's Father Buell is Episcopalian, as is Isabelle Holland's Rev. Dr. Claire Aldington; H.H. Holmes' Sister Ursula, Leonard Holton's Father Bredder, Ralph McInerny's Father Dowling, Carol Anne O'Marie's Sister Mary Helen, and, of course, Ellis Peters' Brother Cadfael are all Catholic. This liturgical trend is, perhaps, understandable. Maybe the reverence for and emphasis on liturgical and theological mystery in liturgical Christianity lends itself to an interest in fictional mystery. But it is by no means a given. I'd be all over a mystery series whose lay-detective was a PCA pastor.

The last few years have seen a sudden spurt of clerical mysteries-in particular, mysteries presided over by female Episcopal priests. Just a few weeks ago, for example, To Darkness and to Death, the fourth installment of Julia Spencer-Fleming's Clare Fergusson mysteries was published. The Rev. Fergusson is an army pilot turned Episcopal priest, and she serves a small parish in Miller's Kill, New York. ("Kill" is an old Dutch term for "shallow river," but, of course, it makes a nice foreshadowing sort of pun, for an awful lot of murder befalls the small Miller's Kill community.)

I love the books in this series. They are uniformly clever, surprising, and utterly engrossing. I'm enchanted by the local color (I never thought I'd dream about moving to upstate New York, but this series has sparked a certain fantasy). I want Clare Fergusson to teach me to cook (like many clerical detectives, she's quite the gourmand), and, frankly, I think she'd be a fun friend.

But I have begun to grow tired of the theology that infuses Ms. Spencer-Fleming's novels, and many of the other contemporary clerical mysteries I read.

You should know that, in general, I do not evaluate fiction principally by theological or ideological litmus tests. I have never believed that novels have the same function as tracts or Sunday school curricula, and I have enjoyed, and been edified by, novels born in just about every ideological and theological context imaginable. But perhaps the cavalierly liberal Episcopalianism in these recent mysteries hits too close to home. Can't the Episcopal Church approach orthodoxy even in fiction?

Let's start with the observation that several Episcopal priest heroines seem to have fallen for married men. There's been no out-and-out adulterous sex (yet) in any of the mysteries I've read, but there's been some smooching, some emoting, and some fantasizing. Indeed, as Betty Smartt Carter has noted in a recent essay in the Christian Century, the female-cleric-falls-for-married-cop is becoming something of a topos in contemporary clerical mysteries.

Kathryn Koerney, rector of an Episcopal Church in New Jersey, is the heroine of Cristina Sumners' Divine Mystery series (the first, Crooked Heart, is excellent-a taut, riveting read with an utterly surprising climax and conclusion; the second, Thieves Break In, is a little less taut and riveting). Kathryn finds herself attracted to Tom, a local policeman who attends her church; for his part, Tom's marriage is desiccated, and he is totally smitten with the comely Kathryn.

"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

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