GLITTERING IMAGES by Susan Howatch (Alfred A. Knopf: $18.95; 401 pp.).

"Glittering Images" is a bold and exciting departure for Susan Howatch from her previous works, "The Wheel of Fortune," "Cashelmara" and "Penmarric." Her latest book, set in the 1930s, is announced as the first in a series of novels about the Church of England in the 20th Century.

The Archbishop of Canterbury sends one Charles Ashworth, a pure-hearted but naive scholar and priest, to observe the dean of a distant cathedral, Alex Jardine, who is suspected of adultery. Eager to earn approval, Ashworth accepts the assignment of warning the archbishop of this potentially explosive scandal, despite personally dreading it.

Ashworth complicates matters more when he falls in love with Jardine's suspected mistress. At the same time, he becomes enmeshed in a father-son relationship with the dean.

Howatch forces her scholarly priest to confront his own capacity for destruction; he must learn that escaping into church history or engaging in dogmatic, theological debates cannot save him from his own potential for evil. Eventually, Ashworth discovers the reality of redemption and hope.

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