Betjeman and the Anglican imagination

Betjeman and the Anglican imagination

Kevin J. Gardner
SPCK, 2010, £14.99, Pbk., 244p, ISBN 9780281063444

Kevin J. Gardner is Associate Professor of English at Baylor University, Waco, Texas, and a Betjeman enthusiast. The five chapters of his scholarly and well researched book deal with the various manifestations, meanings and paradoxes of Betjeman’s Anglicanism; his doubts, particularly his recurring anxieties about death and the absence of God; the manifestations of belief in Betjeman’s writings; his work as a campaigner for the preservation of England’s heritage, showing how his Anglican faith informed and guided his social conscience; and the implications of his social faith. The author’s points are illustrated throughout by relevant extracts from Betjeman’s verse

The author describes Betjeman as a poet of Anglicanism as distinct from his contemporaries Auden, Eliot and Thomas, who were poets and Anglicans. It was Betjeman, he argues, who most dramatically intoned the culture of the church, who most consistently celebrated its beauty and mystery, and who unfailingly voiced its potency as the unifying source of English culture.

Eliot had taught Betjeman at Highgate Junior School in London and they became personal friends. Another Anglican, C.S. Lewis, was Betjeman’s tutor at Oxford but they were far from friendly. Betjeman described Lewis as “St. C.S. Lewis”. Lord David Cecil said that “the very idea of believing in the Church but making fun of it” would have been “distasteful” and “bewildering” to Lewis but was central to Betjeman’s character.

Betjeman’s Anglicanism was very Catholic, but he welcomed the diversity of liturgical style within the Church of England and its toleration of high church, broad church and low church. He had great respect for Billy Graham in spite of the fact that, as he wrote in The Spectator, he was an Anglo-Catholic to whom the revivalist approach was unattractive. He felt that Dr. Graham “has the great Evangelical love of Our Lord as Man. Jesus as a person is vivid to him … his message is that people should return to their particular churches.” He hoped that Dr. Graham’s evangelism would help to fill Anglican as well as Nonconformist churches. He also admired the Olney Hymns by the Evangelicals William Cowper and John Newton.

Betjeman’s Catholicism was not good enough for his friend Evelyn Waugh, who felt that his failure to follow his wife‘s example and convert to Rome ruined his chances of salvation. Betjeman believed that “our dear old C of E” was “the true Catholic church in this country.”

Betjeman described himself as an “Agnostic Christian” but he wrote in The Spectator that the only practical way to face “the dreaded lonely journey into Eternity” seemed to be the Christian one. “I therefore try to believe that Christ was God, made Man and gives eternal life, and that I may be confirmed in this belief by clinging to the sacraments and by prayer.”

The book concludes with an impressive bibliography and a less impressive index which has too many entries lacking sub-headings and too many omissions such as Bath, bell-ringing, Olney Hymns, railways, sacraments, Slough, Swindon and town planning.

Contributed by: Kenneth G.B. Bakewell, MA, FCLIP, MCMI, FSocInd, who is Emeritus Professor of Information and Library Management at the Liverpool John Moores University and a Life Vice-President of CLIS.