GLITTERING IMAGES By Susan Howatch Knopf. 401 pp. $18.95

The author's note at the end of Susan Howatch's new novel contains what I took as rather more of a threat than a promise: "This is the first in a series of novels about the Church of England in the twentieth century ..."

And indeed, for about the first 20 pages, I found myself somewhat daunted by the book's hero, who is an authority on "the impact of Modalism on the doctrine of the Trinity."

However, by Page 21 of "Glittering Images," it is clear that although Dr. Charles Ashworth, prote'ge' of the archbishop of Canterbury, may be a world-class wimp -- as he does turn out to be -- Howatch will find as much misplaced emotion and mismatched affections within the church as she ever did in the troubled families she chronicled in some of her earlier successes.

"Penmarric," "Cashelmara" and "Wheel of Fortune" contained characters and situations more than a little reminiscent of the Crusades-era British monarchs and their flamboyant goings-on in and out of the sheets, or whatever passed for sheets in those days. The links to reality are rather more clearly drawn in the earlier books, but even as Howatch mixes real church figures with her fictional creations, she is happily creating the glittering image of plenty of hanky-panky among the clergy.

That, however, is not at all what Howatch means by her "glittering images." Glittering images are the public front we all put up to protect our vulnerable selves from the world's cruel blows, especially those inflicted by the ones we most hope to be admired by. The glittering image is the one we see in the mirror, embellished with all the self-delusion the human mind can generate, which is a great deal.

Practically everybody in "Glittering Images" has his own glittering image, and the book is spent narrating the process of shattering them, one by one.

Perhaps the strongest character in the book is the one person who does not have a glittering image superimposed on his inner self. This is Jonathan Darrow, an Anglican monk who seems to be a combination of Jesus, Sigmund Freud, Pat Robertson and the Blue Fairy. He has "glamourous powers," so it is not surprising to learn from the author's afterword that he is to be the protagonist of her next Church of England novel, to be titled "Glamourous Powers."

The plot of "Glittering Images" is simple enough. An upstart Bishop Jardine of Starbridge, an ex officio member of the House of Lords, has publicly humiliated the archbishop of Canterbury by speaking out in Parliament in favor of a bill that would broaden the grounds for divorce in England.

The archbishop, the very one who presided over the abdication of Edward VIII (a k a, of course, the Duke of Windsor), had chosen to remain neutral. As he said to his (fictional) prote'ge': "Caught between the Scylla of my moral inclinations and the Charybdis of my political duty, I had no choice but to adopt a position of neutrality."

Dr. Jardine (evidently based loosely on a real clergyman of the time) had spoken in favor of the "marriage bill." The archbishop dispatches Charles to the Jardine household -- a palace -- to find evidence of impropriety and, ostensibly, to get rid of such evidence before Fleet Street can make public sport of it.

On the face of it, there may be something to find. Jardine has a wife described to Charles as "a wonderful fluffy little thing with a heart of gold and a stunning selection of tea-gowns. Everyone adores her. Her favourite topic of conversation's the weather."

Jardine's fluffy wife has a companion who is "the original ice-maiden. Starbridge is littered with the bones of those who have died of unrequited love for that particular lady."

Specters of me'nages a` trois.

Aha, but remember the title of the book. This is, after all, the Susan Howatch we know and wallow in.

Charles arrives at the bishop's palace of Starbridge Cathedral. The companion greets him. " 'Dr. Ashworth?' She held out a slim hand. 'Welcome to Starbridge. I'm Miss Christie, Mrs. Jardine's companion.' "

And Charles replies: "I took her hand in mine and knew without a second's hesitation that I wanted her."

And it's time to settle back for a good Howatch wallow.

The reviewer is a columnist for the Health section of The Washington Post.