The Bishop’s Mantle is a novel by Agnes Sligh Turnbull about the grandson of an American Episcopal bishop in New York City in the early years of World War II.
Hilary Laurens, young Episcopal priest, about 1939, has recently returned to his hometown, somewhere in the American heartland (it isn’t known quite where), upon receiving sudden word that his grandfather, the Bishop of that diocese, and the only father he’s known, has suddenly taken ill and is dying, and after pressuring the taxi driver to make haste, Hilary arrives just in time to talk briefly with „Grandy“ just before the Bishop’s death. But Hilary is able to give the Bishop some good news on his deathbed: Hilary has just been „called“ (appointed vicar of) St. Matthews, a large church in a „great eastern city“, and thus can perpetuate the Bishop’s calling.
In course of the book, Hilary, at a time when the United States was, for the time being, neutral in the World War II raging in Europe, needs first to cope with the multiple challenges of becoming a vicar of a major church himself just at the moment his grandfather dies (the Bishop’s Mantle has fallen to him), dealing with the twin callings of a priest to keep his church financially viable, up to date, and yet in keeping of his duty to serve the poor, falling in love with the daughter of a wealthy church patron, and yet provide pastoral service to women in his flock, not all of whom want a priest so much as male company, and then finally deal with the odious consequences of the events of December 1941. The book was clearly written during the war but not published until shortly afterwards.
The book offers a sublime combination of religious piety combined with realism of the church’s place in modern society rarely found in American literature, and which perhaps only the recent books by Jan Karon about an Episcopal priest’s life in modern-day North Carolina can match.
At the same time, one or two things about the book show just how much the world has changed in the relatively short time since the book was written; for instance parishioners at that time needed to rent pews, and that was a major source of income for the church, and a bit of intrigue over that in the book is very puzzling until that point is grasped.
Hilary struggles to be a worthy replacement of his High Church predecessor, yet bring new meaning to his ministry, and cope with a persistent attempt of various persons to involve him in scandal, owing to the prominence of Lex’s family. At one point he delivers a striking mid-week sermon to young men (who could not ordinarily attend services on Sunday since they have not rented pews!), and begins to read the following passage from Proverbs Chapter 7 (selective, some verses left out):
This passage, which seems to say there is a place, after all, for romance in the life of a pious man, was revolutionary to read aloud, even though it is straight from the King James Bible.
While Hilary deals with his pastoral issues at home, events on the world stage are darkening by the hour. His brother Dick, in particular, even though the American involvement has not started, volunteers for ambulance service in Europe, and late in the novel four fateful things come together
But few readers today will be able to sustain that attitude: it a moment of consummate sadness, not only for Hilary but for a whole generation of men.
The novel, although it has a plot, and is written by a woman (and women were not permitted be Episcopal priests at the time the book was written), is something of an exploration of inner and outer life and moral conflicts of a dedicated Episcopal priest (no existential crises of faith as in books by non-religious authors, but many shadows of the temptations of the world, to which Hilary never permanently succumbs). However, Hilary is conflicted by the number of poor working-class people in his parish in desperate need of his care, despite the presence in his own vestry (church governing body/board) of powerful men who may be responsible for some of that misery.
1947, USA, MacMillan Company, Pub date 1947, hardcover (First edition)