A few years ago I returned from the Bodleian to find a small parcel in my college pigeon hole, placed there by the Senior Tutor. It contained a small framed picture with the subscription “The Right Reverend Arthur Crawshay Alliston Hall, DD.” I chuckled all the way back to my rooms, where it remains to this day.
My friend and colleague knew that I had recently written about Hall, who was chosen to lead the American Anglican diocese of Vermont in 1893; also that I was also familiar with the decades-old classified advertisement that underpinned the joke on which his gift was based.
Evangelical vicar in want Of a portable second-hand font, Would dispose of the same For a portrait (in frame) Of the Bishop-Elect of Vermont.
The ad was long ago exposed as a spoof, slipped past a hapless editor who missed the limerick it contained and was in any case probably unattuned to the highs and lows of life in the Anglican Communion at the time. The finger of responsibility for the mischief has historically been pointed at the convert-célèbre Ronald Arbuthnott Knox; given its style, wit and solid grasp of the ecclesiastical polities of the day, it is not an unreasonable attribution.
I have been thinking a lot about the polymath Knox recently. Presumably this is partly because my recent lockdown reading has included The Knox Brothers – Penelope Fitzgerald’s retrospective of her father and uncles –and his biography by Evelyn Waugh, and partly because of my thoughts about university chaplaincy, about which I wrote in these pages in April, Knox having been chaplain to Oxford in the years before the Second World War.
Perhaps inevitably, my strongest affinity with Knox is as an author. That said, it is challenging to engage with his literary legacy and not come away tainted by a touch of envy, plus a lingering feeling of inadequacy and a sense of life misspent. Theology, satire, history, pastoralia, broadcasts, detective novels, parodies, apologetics, pithy verses: Knox mastered them all, and then used the fluency in Latin which he had acquired in childhood to crown his life’s work with a new translation of the Vulgate Bible.
Alongside all this achievement, Knox also exercised a quasi-national chaplaincy to the great and the good. He was as comfortable at the dining table as he was at his writing desk, which allowed him to maintain a ministry far beyond the parameters of that to which he had been officially appointed.
While being treated for the cancer which killed him in 1957, he stayed with the Macmillans at 10 Downing Street; he died at Mells, where he had done so much of his writing, in the care of the Oxford and Asquiths.
What would Knox have written, had he survived another ten years: through the papacy of John XXIII and into that of Paul VI? What would he have had to say about the Second Vatican Council and its constitutions? He would, surely, have smiled on the efforts of some of the English-speaking bishops to mediate the tedium of Council sessions by composing limericks of their own.
Those limericks appeared last year as A Limerickal Commentary on the Second Vatican Council, edited by Dom Hugh Somerville-Knapman of Douai Abbey (Arouca Press, 2020); had he lived, Knox might even have dealt with them himself. He might also have made the leap from radio to television and become an English Fulton Sheen; that, too, was not to be. We are left, instead, with a corpus of work that is as varied as it is huge; a daunting mountain to climb.
He is well worth rediscovering, however; the trick is to dip in and out, and to start small. For all the millions of words, my favourite bit of Knox has always been another of his limericks, “God in the Quad”, which I first encountered as a teenager. It presents an engagement with Berkeleian ontology – about which I then knew nothing – in the form of an imagined exchange involving George Berkeley and the Almighty.
There was a young man who said, “God Must find it exceedingly odd To think that the tree Should continue to be When there’s no one about in the Quad.”
“Dear Sir: Your astonishment’s odd; I am always about in the Quad. And that’s why the tree Will continue to be Since observed by, Yours faithfully, God.”
High time, I think, that my portrait (in frame) was joined by one of Ronnie Knox.
Serenhedd James is a contributing editor of the Catholic Herald.
This article first appeared in the July 2021 issue of the Catholic Herald. Subscribe today.
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