Notes from the Borderlands of Belief: Phil Rickman's Merrily Watkins Mysteries

Chad Schrock

I found my way years ago to Phil Rickman’s mystery series because I’d heard that his sleuth, Merrily Watkins, was an exorcist in the Church of England, and that sounded awesome. And, indeed, she was an Anglican exorcist (“deliverance consultant” in her church’s embarrassed euphemism), and awesome to boot, but no conventional priest or exorcist, and these are no conventional clerical mysteries.

For instance, her first use of the name “Jesus,” and many subsequent, is an expletive, one of her most distinctive speech mannerisms. Her conversion experience consists of a vision of “deep blue and gold,” not exactly creedal specificity. She pukes at her installation ceremony. She lies. She believes she shouldn’t smoke, but smokes anyway (although there is some hope; she’s vaping in the most recent book). Her organist describes her as “a jolly little dolly of a clergyperson with nice legs and dinky titties, oh what fun”; apparently her shape under the cassock makes it difficult to concentrate on the service during the service. And all that peculiar vicaring is just in the first book of the series.

For instance, it is not quite true to say that Merrily is crap at her job, but these books are strewn with malformed, misfired Deliverance. Although the books always come to some sort of satisfactory resolution, evil exposed and so on, Merrily’s exorcism techniques rarely work the way she draws them up. Rickman would like me not to spoil his carefully crafted cruces out from behind the Christianity & Literature journal paywall, so here are some dark hints: a climactic scream interrupting a climactic ritual, an object of a Deliverance ceremony inconveniently dying before he can be delivered, a Eucharistic rite successfully delivering someone other than the person it was intended for, twice a death (once a murder) following hard on the heels of Merrily’s prayers of blessing and consecration.

For instance, the series absolutely savages most any church it bothers to name. Merrily’s Church of England is “like any large secular organization, . . . essentially self-serving and self-protective”; its personnel zestfully embrace power politics empty of transcendent meaning or motivation; its parishioners flounder, wander, dwindle. Low-church fundamentalism and evangelicalism and the charismatic movement, all more or less synonymous, merit a string of contemptuous epithets: “fundamentalist bigot,” “evangelical maniacs,” “an evangelical madness,” “hardcore Bible freaks,” “loony fundamentalist bastards,” “fundamentalist zealot,” “fundamentalist loonies,” “born-again fervour fuelled by bitterness,” “a lot of born-again bollocks,” “crazy evangelical.” Rickman cheerfully asserts, “Born-again evangelical Christians won’t go near [the books], while they’re quite popular with a surprising number of atheists,” and himself has gone on record several times saying he’s no churchgoer. 

The books advertise their lack of allegiance to the religion that houses clerical mysteries. They portray a postsecular religious landscape and sell in that market. They tick the postsecular boxes: pluralist, apophatic, experiential in their approach to a spiritual reality that exceeds all religious (that is to say: human) categories. Christianity is definitely not dogmatic or authoritative in these books. But it is instrumental, startlingly practical. Rickman houses his examination of postsecular belief and doubt in Christianity not because Christianity is true but because it, at least Merrily’s idiosyncratic version, works the best for solving spiritual mysteries—makes the best story, is the most attractive to and provides the most common ground for his spiritually diverse audience, and, consequently, sells the best. It is as if Rickman and Merrily are offering the cheat codes to making Christianity work again, winsome again, in a postsecular public square.

I wrote the article to figure out what the cheat codes are. And they have to do with Christianity’s most distinctive ethical contribution: cruciformity—the humility, faithfulness, and sacrifice of going to the cross. Humility makes sense, perhaps a different kind of sense than it ever has, to all the competing options in a postsecular religious marketplace allergic to dogma. Non-dogmatic faithfulness provides an ontological and epistemological anchor in the tossing waves of pluralism. Merrily doesn’t know whether what she believes is true or not (or even, sometimes, what she believes). But it will not let her go. If you were really delving into mysteries of the spirit, you would need a reliable point of access within space and time but would also need to remain daunted before the mysteries. And they would be the most important mysteries, worth whatever sacrifice you had to give.

Naturally, Merrily is cruciform after the example of the man who died on the cross. There isn’t much Jesus in the books (that would be too much, too doctrinaire, too unsalable), but a print of William Holman Hunt’s famous painting The Light of the World hangs just inside Merrily’s door and shows up in almost every book in the series. This diluted, secularised, commercialised Jesus is the Jesus her world can tolerate inside its door, inside its series, past (and almost lifeless from) all its inoculations. He’s pretty easily dismissed, but there’s still something there—disempowered, but strongly marked by humility and faithfulness, by a sacrificial love that carries no certainties for lover or beloved and whose offered deliverance can end up looking malformed and misfired, or not.

Sometimes the print only functions as a Rorschach test for Merrily’s own emotions, not much more than a projection. Merrily “exchanges grimaces with” Jesus, “exchanges thoughtful looks with” him, shivers alongside him “obviously not drawing much heat from his lantern,” wonders at the disappointment in his eyes: “Him too?” Or he is sometimes only furniture, “limply dangling his lantern over a few Mars bars lying on the table underneath” or overseeing an umbrella. Sometimes he serves as ironic contrast: to Merrily’s daughter’s sullen pagan desire to smash him or give him the finger, to Merrily’s “oh shit,” to Annie Howe the atheist policewoman standing at Merrily’s door.

But he can hold more meaning than that. Sometimes he is a symbol of weariness while knocking patiently at a resistant heart’s door: “jaded,” “sorrowful and weary,” “lord of weary acceptance,” “laden with experience of humanity at its most depressing,” “a tired and disillusioned middle-aged Jesus doing this sorrowful simper: I’ll hold up the lamp but I don’t really expect any of you to follow.” Merrily is that weary, breaking supernatural news to an indifferent materialistic society. She feels like this man and acts as resignedly and doggedly as this man who levels the moral imperative of faithful suffering: “the wizened, thorn-tortured face of Jesus Christ, in . . . the picture that said, with all its Pre-Raphaelite pedantry, there are no short cuts.” He is an outsider, like her; a doubter, like her; exhausted, like her; a sufferer on the cross of corrupt religion, like her; no quitter even when he is forsaken, like her.

And, only once in the series (but once!), Holman Hunt’s Jesus’s lantern seems to light a woman’s face outside the picture frame.