Glittering Images is a tale full of sex, church politics, and spiritual direction. The human weaknesses of both the institutional church and individual Christians are on full display here. And yet, contrary to what you might expect, this tale (written in 1988) doesn't follow the popular scripts of "exposing the corruptions of institutional religion" that are fashionable today. Instead, Howatch accomplishes something rare. She shows the frailty of gifted Christian leaders, along with the church that they serve, and renders them more likable and easier to identify with. She weaves a story that is thrilling to read and utterly scandalous at points, but one that, nevertheless, points to grace.
The novel is set in the Church of England during the 1930s and follows the life of Charles Ashworth, a young, Anglican priest and Doctor of Divinity who is quickly climbing the ecclesiastical ranks. In a riveting start to the story, the Archbishop of Canterbury (Dr. Lang) contacts Charles with the hopes of sending him on an espionage mission. He wants Charles to "visit" a particular bishop, who is known for being good with the ladies, and whom he suspects may have committed some "disastrous indiscretion." Dr. Lang sends Charles to check this bishop's diary and psychological barriers in order to ensure that he hasn't fallen into some "gross error." Charles is loyal to the Archbishop, but he is also aware that this targeted bishop recently disrespected and embarrassed the Archbishop in a debate on divorce in the House of Lords. With multiple layers of politics and mystery, Charles sets out on a mission where many things are laid bare, including the dark corners of his own soul.
Howatch does a great job depicting pastoral struggles in the midst of academic pursuits and psychological realities. She possesses some theological nuance (e.g. subtle discussions of "Karl Barth" and "the historical Jesus" from that era come up in dialogue). And for Anglican tradition/history aficionados, her depictions have a great degree of faithfulness and historical accuracy.
Glittering Images was well-received when it first came out. Surprisingly (or not), it was very popular with mainstream readers who were not particularly religious. I think it's a must-read, especially for aspiring Christian leaders.