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Book Review: The Vicar's FAQ

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The Vicar's FAQ by Caroline Symcox

So, say you’re an American who likes to read English cosy mysteries who finds the universe in which they are set as alien as a fantasy novel…

Or say you’re a writer who wants to work in that universe.

Or say you’re a person who takes religion – not just theology or spirituality, but the actual practice of religion – seriously, and you want want to understand more about how it works in a nuts-and-bolts way….

Or who wants to write about people practicing a religion in the universe of your novel…

Or say you’re someone who practices as an Anglican and wants to understand better how it works.

Or say you’re just someone looking to enjoy an odd moment now and again with a gentle, comforting voice speaking with quiet enthusiasm about a topic she finds particularly interesting.

I wasn’t sure what to expect when I picked up The Vicar’s FAQ. The only reason I started reading it, of course, was that I had met the author, Caroline Symcox, a couple of times and I had enjoyed her company.

She describes herself in the book: “I’m a female, middle-class, southern English thirty-something Christian who also happens to be an ordained member of the Church of England…” Later, describing the life of a typical vicar, she writes, “It’s almost expected that vicars will have at least one quirky thing that makes them unique. It might be a love of science fiction. It might be getting dressed in Dark Age armour and re-enacting major battles of the period. It might be practising martial arts. It might be collecting Japanese anime and manga. It might be playing bass in a rhythm and blues band. Or in my case, it might be all of those things.”

(Some readers here may recognize Caroline Symcox as an author in the Dr. Who universe. I’m told she wrote a story where Dr. Who goes to the Council of Nicaea and deals with that evil arch-villain, Athanasius. Actually, St. Athanasius is a minor hero of mine… though I can see where the evil arch-villain bit comes from, too! That wouldn’t be the only place that she and I disagree. And have fun doing so.)

What surprised me the most was how readable the book was. I found that her voice comes through wonderfully, so that spending time in the book feels like spending time with the person.

The details of her explanations are fascinating, in the way that (I have discovered) most geeks like myself find the actual functioning of any complex system to be fascinating. She conveys a lot of this material in easily-digested bits, with stories and examples, such that the first half was surprisingly a page-turner.

I found the second part of the book where she engages in the theology of Anglicanism to be even more rewarding; but here I would read a few pages about how she believes Christianity, and then set the book aside to consider and think about what she was saying, and how I might have said it from my own perspective. Reading these parts was (I am saying this deliberately to embarrass her!) a spiritual experience for me.

Her description of the call to a religious life fits exactly my own experience of discerning my own vocation to be a Jesuit. Though we have different vocations and different churches, the points of similarity are striking. Not only did they make me chuckle with recognition, but they let me reflect from a slightly different angle about my own experience.

Her perspective on being an Anglican I found fascinating, precisely because I am not one. The Church of England had always seemed to me to combine the worst traits of Roman Catholicism’s heavy overhead (also known as, the structure that’s big enough to support me and my work) with the worst traits of Protestantism’s unfocused theology. But having read her description, I can at least understand where she’s come from even if I don’t find myself there.

The nits I would pick are not matters where I think she’s wrong but only places where I think she could have gone further in her descriptions – and made the book twice as long, and half as readable, I am sure.

And so to whom would I recommend this book? It is not a book of apologetics, though I could see it as a gentle companion to Francis Spufford’s Unapologetic. It’s much more a reference book than a cozy read, except that I did read it from start to finish in just a few days (and felt sad to come to the end). I thoroughly enjoyed it; does that reflect on the book or on my odd tastes?

At the very least, I wish that every author who tries to “invent” a religion for their fantasy universe, or includes vicars in their cosy English novels, would have this book to hand to remind them of all the details that need to go into a religion that actually functions in a real society.

It’s an odd little book. It’s impossible to categorize. But I really enjoyed it.

Comments

( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
wldrose
Dec. 26th, 2013 07:11 pm (UTC)
Thats fascinating not because of writing but because anything that clearly explains the complexity of human relations seems worth while. I am also a fan of writing that has a voice.

Thank you I hope you had a good Christmas

ash
klwilliams
Dec. 28th, 2013 04:45 pm (UTC)
I just bought a copy. It sounds like a very useful book. Now what I want is a book that explains horror movie options. For example, if there's a spirit that is wandering around killing people because his body was buried in unconsecrated ground, instead of digging up the body and reburying it in unconsecrated ground, what's the quickest way of having the ground consecrated around his grave? You know, useful information to save lives in a horror movie. (My priest answered that problem for me already, but there are so many more out there.)
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