MOST READERS IMAGINE A typical Anglican novel to be a little Barbara Pymesque melange of Holy Communion, and acid gossip, with a little light romance thrown in. But in these days of "urban renewal" and L800 million debts it seems redundant for writers to resort to parody.
So how should one write a modern Anglican novel, one that combines the peculiarly modern joys and agonies of being a believer in a non-believer's world. One answer is to write about a nice bunch of theology students in a nice Cathedral city (Durham), while remembering to set it in a modern context. Add a dollop of spiritual juice and a few angels and you have the Modern Anglican Novel.
After all, it may be a national pastime to hold the Church of England in contempt, but writers like Joanna Trolloppe, Susan Howatch and AN Wilson elicit continual interest. There is a residual interest in the old Church of England; look at the television programmes that are transmitted daily, from The Choir to The Rector's Wife. In a world of 1000 pound bombs,there is something uniquely charming about a cathedral cloister at dusk.
Stepping into this clerical cauldron is Catherine Fox, whose novel Angels and Men was recently published by Hamish Hamilton.
The story is pretty straightforward. Mara, the traumatised daughter of an Anglican vicar, has come to the Cathedral to write her dissertation on women in evangelical cults.
She lodges a step away from the local theological college, which contains an assortment of dishy trainee priests. All of them fancy Mara; she in turn spends her time developing anorexia, agonising about her family and studying far too hard.
Catherine Fox (real name Wilcox), is keen not to be seen as the archetypal vicar's wife. Married with two children, she lives in the heart of Tyneside, rather than a Gloucester countryside with barking collies and rolling acres.
She read History at Durham and then did a theology doctorate at London university, which she makes sound more interesting than the earnest title of Women's Ministry in Early Quakerism suggests. Now in her early-thirties, her husband trained for the ministry at Ridley Hall, Durham and then studied theology at Cambridge.It was, she says "challenging to feel ignorant".
The book, which was written over four years, presented her with a great opportunity to "create a spare world, where the characters become so real it was devastating to say goodbye when it was all over".
She is driven, she says, by the desire to write for " for pleasure and profit". "One needs to be terribly disciplined; and absolutely obsessed with writing; there is a real tension against something else when you are creating". She sees her writing primarily as entertainment; in her eyes, "performance presupposes an audience".
She hopes that it will reach a wider audience; "even if people aren't really churchy, there are wider themes reaching out for something, looking for a spiritual dimension to their lives: levels of goodwill plotting story with romantic element".
She believes that the Church "is bad about sex and puritanical and it arouses interest: she has signed up for her second book. The Church lays down the law, but often fails to keep the standards".
"Vicars are less sheltered than anyone else and always dealing with people at their bad moments", she tells me. She also underwent a charismatic experience, which, although not to compare with the one in the book, appears to have left its mark.
On publication, a local newspaper attempted to whip up a storm over the vicar's wife trying to write a "saucy" novel about the Church images of a clerical Shirley Conran de nos jours came to mind.
But the truth is more prosaic; Angels and Men is a clever, illustrative novel about belief and unhappiness and friendship.
Well worth reading.