Love and forgiveness are central to the novel. In the principal love story between Hilary and Lex, their loving relationship develops from the initial physical delights into a deeper love, promoted by their transcending a number of obstacles. Subplots show how love can grow and change between parents and children and how Christian love is expressed as people sacrifice themselves to benefit others.
Concerning the church and its role in the community, the novel is ahead of its time. Rather than embracing tradition and focusing on the customary, elite members, Hilary leads the church to become more than a building. He tries to show that Christianity is not restricted to a specific church service but can extend not just spiritual but also concrete aid, such as dances for young people, outings to a farm, and even recipes on how to make a soup bone stretch into more than one meal. However, he always promotes these specific projects as a gateway to the stronger values of membership in the church community.
Principally, the novel is centered on the spiritual development of a priest. At the beginning of the novel, Hilary’s faith has not yet been tested. The death of his parents occurred when he was young, and although he is saddened by the bishop’s death, what causes Hilary to despair is the death of his young, vibrant brother, whom he had always counted on and who seemingly led a charmed life. He feels as if all his “foundations were crumbling,” and the words he so often uses to comfort others are now just words. Hilary begins to doubt there is a caring God. Again his grandfather’s scrapbook provides help with the bishop’s thoughts on immortality and faith. Reflecting on Saint Paul, who wrote on the mortal body and the spiritual body, of perishing and of immortality, the bishop shows how his own doubts renewed his faith. Hilary, under the bishop’s mantle, finds a deeper faith. “And he knew that there was law here, and order; there was purpose and design,” and his faith became “impregnable.”