Search online for ‘revenge fiction’ and you’ll find examples of novels in which a desire for revenge drives the plot: The Count of Monte Cristo, Frankenstein, True Grit, Murder on the Orient Express, Gone Girl, Wuthering Heights…
This story concerns a different type of revenge fiction, where writing a novel is itself an act of revenge – fiction that portrays a real-life person known to the writer in an unfavourable or compromised way. Think revenge porn, but with better syntax.
This year I finally read a revenge novel written about me 16 years ago by a disgruntled parishioner, in which a lightly fictionalised version of me is a character. When the book was first published, a family member skimmed it and advised me not to read it because it would be too upsetting; so I didn’t. For 16 years, it lurked at the back of my mind, waving a skeletal hand.
I found used copies online, including the option of paying more for a copy signed by the author. (A little strychnine with that madeleine, Mr Proust?)
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A Church in the Suburbs
This story begins in the early 2000s, when I was licensed as vicar of a leafy parish in the suburbs. It was my second incumbency, a stark contrast from my previous inner-city parish. The Bishop warned me the church was in crisis. Attendance was low; the building felt dark, cluttered and neglected. I later discovered local residents would routinely greet new people moving into the area with a cheery, ‘It’s a fabulous place to live – but whatever you do, don’t go to the church’.
A trickle of new people started to arrive. One was an academic who lectured in media. We hit it off, in part because I had been a radio journalist before ordination. This academic was sparky, media-savvy, worldly – and a writer of crime novels.
For three years or so, changes to the life and fabric of the church were relatively minor. We rebuilt links with the primary school next door, and invited families to special services; we threw out decades of junk. The church grew a little, then stubbornly stayed at that level. Maybe, after three years, I had done all I could do; maybe the legacy of my time would be a tidier, slightly more functional version of what I inherited, with a few more people.
The problem was that other church members, as well as non-churchgoers, could spot reasons we weren’t growing, and pointed them out. I could see them too, as well as obstacles the public never saw. I felt that a moment of decision was approaching. Would I move on, or stay and address head-on factors that were hindering growth, and commit to seeing the changes through?
There was a related decision. Could I face upsetting the core of the existing congregation? Was I strong enough to face any backlash? The honest answer: probably not. I’m wired to avoid conflict, and nobody in their right mind wants to be hated. But the main reason I’d been appointed to that parish was to help facilitate new growth.
With support from part of the congregation, and fierce opposition from another part, the church made some far-reaching changes. We pressed the nuclear button. When the dust started to settle a few months later, I heard rumours that the novelist was writing a new murder mystery – in which a lovely local church is thrown into turmoil when a hot-headed, superficially charming but ultimately shallow and pastorally inept young priest arrives.
There is no doubt the fictional priest is based on me. So many details of the character and narrative are instantly recognisable to anybody who lived through that time. In my reading, the end acknowledgements reveal the story was based on real events, with dates given and several of the real-life participants named. Several members of the congregation were invited to the launch.
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A Dish Best Served Cold
In the words of the French novelist Eugène Sue, revenge is a dish best served cold. The notion of making somebody a dodgy character in one of your novels is clever and hilarious. It is also fairly brutal. The point is controlling the narrative.
Last week I finally met the fictionalised me. There’s little point scrutinising every detail of the cleric in the novel. After all, the writer could plausibly say any given detail is fiction. In broad-brush terms, he’s an impetuous character who will happily sacrifice even the most cherished church tradition in pursuing his goal of attracting new young families. Kindly traditionalists become victims of an ecclesiastical equivalent of the Highland Clearances, as the vicar callously weighs up who should stay and who should leave.
I cheerfully concede that there is a grain of truth behind this caricature. I did start to shape the life of the church around young families, in a fairly determined way. After all, young families were the greater part of the local community, as well as the demographic most conspicuously missing from church – despite there being a linked primary school next door.
I won’t obsess over the portrait of myself as panto villain. But I do want to reflect on the experience of seeing oneself in the distorting mirror of another’s rage. In particular, I’m fascinated at how two people can have looked at the same events and seen something quite so different. In the words of the novelist Anaïs Nin, we see things not as they are, but as we are.
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Cults and Choirs
It is a truth universally acknowledged that church members see their church as friendly and welcoming. Members of the most eye-meltingly toxic church will tell you in all sincerity they are friendly and welcome newcomers. When a new incumbent arrives, the true dysfunction of the situation and the urgency of change may well be communicated to the new vicar by the bishop or archdeacon. In my experience, this is rarely communicated to congregation members.
There were features of my new church that troubled me. One was its links to an esoteric group that observers of new religious movements described as a cult. A formal inquiry years later found the group had criminally assaulted children in the schools it ran. Out-of-court settlements were paid to dozens of people who said they had experienced extreme cruelty at its hands. This group held regular services and ceremonies in church, its fee-paying schools were promoted in church, and the head of its local school was a church member.
Another issue was the choir. There were issues to do with musical repertoire, moth-eaten robes, and a tendency to scowl through services. But my main concern was about power dynamics. In the end I gritted my teeth, asked the cult to leave, and shut down the choir. Everything exploded.
Would I do the same again today? Without hesitation, yes in the case of the cult. But the choir? I genuinely don’t know. On the one hand, something was unlocked in terms of mission. We grew significantly, and the core of the congregation was now young families.
On the other hand, the pastor in me found the process of alienating and upsetting some church members traumatic. Unlike my calculating fictionalised counterpart, every moment of conflict affected me viscerally. In hindsight it was the start of a trajectory leading to a breakdown that lasted two years, with recovery taking much longer. Years the locust has eaten, the prophet Joel would call them. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. The church grew significantly; I began to unravel.
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Conversation With My Younger Self
My recent Proustian immersion in the emotional drama of those times, and the distorting mirror of the novel, got me thinking. Would the older me today want to say anything to the younger self starting out in that leafy suburban parish? I think I’d share four thoughts:
1) You can’t keep everyone happy. You assume if you smile and don’t scare the horses you’ll keep everybody happy. But you won’t. Some will love you and some will hate you. You’ll meet countless clergy down the years who can identify the changes needed for growth but are like rabbits in headlights, paralysed by fear of the anger and disappointment of others. Do what you feel called to do. Do what you think is right. And don’t agonise about it for years afterwards.
2) Value coffee and chat. You assume if you get the theology and mission strategy right, people will see the wisdom of the plan and get on board. That’s not how it works. Coffee and chat is nearly always time well spent – not just pastorally, but for mission and in facilitating change.
3) Be aware of mental health. You hear people talking about burnout, and assume that it looks like tiredness and feeling low. What you don’t know is that there’s a kind of breakdown that comes after years of running on empty. It feels like a switch finally being flipped, or a computer operating system crashing. You won’t be able to pull yourself out of it, no matter how hard you try. Recovery takes years. The best inoculation against this is regular doses of joy and fun.
4) Share the journey. Facilitating change in a local church can be a lonely task. One determined person can change a lot – more than you imagine. But, if you want to embed changes, and you don’t want to crash and burn in the process, share the journey and the burdens with others.
One thing I do know. After confronting my fictional self, the long-term resident with the skeletal hand is finally exorcised.
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© Mike Starkey 2023
A version of this article appeared in the Church Times, 27 Oct 2023
Pic: Samantha Hurley, under licence from Burst