Some books are fun to read. Some are worth reading, fun or not. Some are not worth reading. And finally some are worse than that.
Last weekend I was reading Oliver Barclay’s From Cambridge to the World, a fine description of the work of God through student ministry in Britain over the last 120 years. I was myself a member of the Oxford Intercollegiate Christian Union (OICCU) when I was a student, so it is a world that is familiar to me. It’s not a long book, but it is full of interest.
I noticed that the author used extracts from the official Story of the Student Christian Movement by Tissington Tatlow, published in 1933, and this reminded me that I wanted to read this. Now the SCM was an early attempt by the Cambridge intercollegiate CU (CICCU) to create an inter-university link for the Christian Unions, but it went badly off the rails into heresy, ran into trouble after WW1, and collapsed more or less finally – I think it still exists in name – during the 1960s. Tissington Tatlow was the secretary of The Movement – they spoke of it in capitals, curiously – for much of its life, so his book has an official character. Anyway I found a copy for sale for a few dollars, and ordered it.
I was leaving my house this morning, and to my surprise the postman called to me from up the road that he had a parcel for me. So he did; and inside a thin plastic wrapper was Tatlow’s opus. It’s almost a thousand pages long and three inches thick.
But the content! Oh my goodness. Even after a lifetime of reading corporate communications, the prose style is impenetrable. Did anyone ever read this? The author seems to feel that his work must glorify The Movement at all costs, and any hint of dissent or difficulty might scare people away. But of course this means that most of the interesting episodes of the history of the SCM are omitted. That leaves only paper-shuffling. It is the work of a bureaucrat.
A characteristic passage occurs early on, as early as page seven. Dwight L. Moody ran a mission in the 1890s at Cambridge, which met violent opposition. There were many striking scenes, of the highest interest to any reader. Barclay tells the story at some length. Tatlow, however, dismisses it in half-a-sentence; that “the first meeting was broken up”. It’s not a good moment for the reader. That’s when he discovers that anything interesting is not likely to be described.
It’s not a very honest Story either, in that it misleads the reader. The basic facts are that the SCM was created by men from the CICCU. Over time the SCM drifted away from these roots into the theological liberalism prevalent in the Edwardian period. The CICCU found it difficult to remain part of an organisation that believed in a different God and a different religion, and – not without great heart-burnings – disaffiliated. But Tatlow conceals the role of the CICCU in founding the SCM. The SCM just happens to arise at Cambridge, in his account.
In fact less than a dozen pages mention the CICCU throughout the thousand pages of his work, which is astonishing. What on earth does he fill up the pages with? For most of that time the CICCU was the Cambridge representative of the SCM, as well as its founder. He does describe a mission at Cambridge which Barclay also describes. Tatlow does not mention that only one of the missioners was backed by the CICCU, or that the CICCU thought the mission a failure. Instead he tells us that the mission “shook the university to the core”. A striking phrase; but what this means in concrete terms is not stated. Instead he moves on. Barclay’s much briefer account tells us rather more, including the salient fact that the mission meetings were well-attended, but produced no conversions.
Tatlow likewise misrepresents the break with the CICCU before WW1, somewhere around page three hundred and something. Five pages are devoted to this episode, nor is there a lack of criticism of the CICCU for refusing to change as the SCM had changed. But there is nothing to tell the reader that the SCM was sawing off its own roots by forcing its founding organisation to leave. The description is quite bitter enough, however, to explain that the CICCU were very right to leave. Sadly, within forty pages, Tatlow is telling us how the members of the movement no longer knew what truth was, and started having inward-looking meetings to try to find out! One suspects that these efforts were unsuccessful.
The book is really very hard to read. There is not a trace of Christian conviction within it. Like everything else about the SCM, it was intended to give a message to adults rather than for students. But the overwhelming impression is of a little man toadying to bishops and senior ecclesiastics.
It may be relevant that Tatlow himself was not of high social status, at a time when Cambridge was the preserve of the upper class. He was merely the son of an Irish land-agent, who managed the estates of Lord Kingston. Perhaps he always felt the need to doff his cap? His ecclesiastical career was not exciting. For all of his efforts he did not obtain any real preferment in the Church of England, becoming only a canon of Canterbury. But his real achievement was to lead a gospel movement onto the rocks. He died as late as 1957, by which time the SCM was far gone in decay. I wonder if there are obituaries around? They might be interesting to read. There is a rather dishonest Wikipedia article on the SCM; Tatlow himself has no such page, and is clearly a forgotten figure.
The size and shape of the book is redolent of the late Victorian era. I found myself wondering if he was ordered to write it by some imperious Barchester-type bishop, in order to fill a gap of that size and shape in his lordship’s palace library; and the bishop telling him firmly to “leave out the religious nonsense”. It reads a bit like that! There are some interesting photographs in it, however, which I have not seen elsewhere.
I really ought to make sure that Tatlow is online. It is unlikely that anybody will consider it worth scanning otherwise. There is no drearier sight than the “religion” section of a second-hand bookshop, full of rubbish, and Tatlow certainly belongs there. But it is still data, with all its faults. Even when Tatlow is wrong, or foolish, the fact that he thought so – that the secretary of The Movement thought in this way – is itself evidence.
Let us all hope that we use our lives more productively than he did. Let us make absolutely certain that we do not write books like this. The world does not need litanies of pointless self-congratulation, masking utter failure. Only Hell enjoys such books; but one suspects they still go unread.
Edit: the CICCU split with SCM was before WW1, not after it, although there was an attempt at reunion in 1919.