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I deplore the far too easy analogy between the traditional role of the priest and the current role of the therapist. It can only be made by people who clearly know very little of your profession and less than nothing of mine. You may assuage a troubled mind, but you offer no solace to the soul.

The Catholic Church is facing a losing battle with public opinion these days. The horrific revelations of child sex abuse that have increased in recent years were only made more horrifying with the discovery that the Vatican has made it policy to cover up allegations of abuse in lieu of investigating and prosecuting the crimes. This year Cardinal Tarciscio Bertone went even further and laid the blame on homosexual priests, in effect excusing the Church itself of any responsibility. A long-standing antagonistic relationship exists between the Catholic Church and the gay community, one that has led to the ironical claiming of Christian martyrs as gay icons, such as Saint Sebastian. Even the masochistic imagery of the Passion has itself become confused by sexual ambiguity and it is this blurred line between martyrdom and repressed sexuality that author Michael Arditti explores with his first novel.

Each chapter of The Celibate opens with a continuing narration by an erudite tour guide to a group of astonished tourists. We then flit from, in the first half of the novel, a discussion of the Whitechapel murders by the figure popularly known as Jack The Ripper, to a second narration, that of a troubled young man who has been ordered to undergo therapy. Slowly it becomes clear that the tour guide and the young man, an ordinand in the Anglo-Catholic Church, are one and the same. The therapy sessions are entirely one-sided, with the trainee priest’s life story unfolding almost unprompted, as to his increasing frustration, the therapist never speaks.

He describes how his calling was quite a unique one. As the son of an English Jew it seemed odd to many that he would choose to become a priest, but he feels compelled to study the Catholic faith and make it his own. At the seminary he befriends – and from the beginning we are given to understand was betrayed by – another student named Jonathan, who is fiercely passionate and politically active. The narrator at one point mentions that his one-time friend expounded from the pulpit that the Church’s ban of homosexuality is actually a distraction from the breaking of the more serious taboo of incest in the Bible by figures such as Noah and Lot.

The sudden seizure upon the altar which leads to the narrator’s suspension from his studies results in him working alongside more secular charities for a time. While there he discovers something of his old missionary zeal in trying to help London rent boys. He compares himself to William Gladstone, which in turn reflects the narration by his future self of the attitude towards prostitutes held by the Victorian era. Slowly his religious resolve begins to weaken and he discovers that he has been hiding his true nature from himself, something that the rent boys and pimps he meets are quick to guess at. Can someone believe in a Christian god represented on this Earth by a homophobic church and be gay at the same time?

This book is divided into two sections, each bookended with a different opening tour by our nameless guide. The first compares the hypocrisy of the Victorian era with its condemnation of ‘fallen women’, (allowing for a double-victimisation at the hands of the Whitechapel murderer), to the rampant homophobia of the Church and its refusal of mercy to homosexuals. The second examines the parallels between the plague of 1665 and the present-day AIDS epidemic, with bigotry and intolerance increasing the risk to sufferers of both.

As Arditti has chosen the device of having this character engage in ongoing monologues, via his tour guide patter and therapist confessional, we are privy only to his thoughts throughout. Scholarly discussions of the history of Christianity meet a reserved naivety of a man hiding from himself. As such the reader comes to know this nameless protagonist better than he knows himself – and by extension, we come to understand the dilemma of many priests who are called to betray themselves.

This is a stunning, yet disturbing debut novel. Sex and spirituality are twinned, the bigotry of the Thatcherite era equated with Victorian hypocrisy. A powerfully moving book.

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