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Winter Reading: A Field Guide to the English Clergy

February 1, 2019

I come from a line of Church of England clerics, starting with a great-great grandfather who became the Vicar of Newton Tony after retiring as the Dean of Queen’s College Cambridge. Then there was a great grandfather who was the Vicar of Anfield, a stone’s throw away from Liverpool’s hallowed football ground. The tradition continued with a great uncle whose parish was in the Isle of Man. And finally, a few years ago my sister, after a career as a physician, took holy orders in Bristol.

My step-grandfather was also a vicar. Sadly, I never got to know him, since he fell dead of a heart attack six weeks after christening me. But all in all, you could say that the blood of the Anglican Church is flowing though my unholy veins. Despite having few of the religious beliefs that were instilled in me as a child, I still retain great affection for its traditions, practitioners and values.

Perhaps that’s why I’ve relished a new book about the eccentrics, nutcases and rogues who served the Church – and themselves – over the past four hundred years.

A Field Guide to the English Clergy, by the Reverend Fergus Butler-Gallie, is a collection of short biographies of some of the Church’s most celebrated misfits and ne’er-do-wells. He includes academics, country parsons and even archbishops in his gallery.

You only have to look at the parishes –  Thursford and Snoring, Blewberry and Stiffkey – and the names of some of the protagonists – Vicesimus Knox, Brian Dominic Titus Leo Brindley, John ‘Mad Jack’ Allingham, Marco de Dominis and Dr Edward Drax Free – to be transported into a world that inspired PG Wodehouse, Evelyn Waugh and the Ealing comedies.

Butler-Gallie’s cast of characters include drunks, lechers, gargantuan eaters and even a murderer. For many of them, a clerical appointment was merely a convenient platform for other pursuits, be they hunting, astronomy and polar exploration. Others were deemed so unemployable that they were shunted off to various arcane posts at Oxford or Cambridge, there no doubt to serve as source material for Tom Sharpe in his memorable Porterhouse novels.

Parish stipends were rarely generous, which was why many of the priests had independent means or acquired them through marriage. Younger brothers of wealthy families would enter the Church as an alternative to going off to run the British Empire. Some did both.

We learn of the rector who was defrocked and ended up being eaten by a lion in Skegness. Another who resisted removal from his parish by barricading himself in his rectory, fortified with large quantities of French pornography, his favourite maid and two pistols. Then there was the one who rowed out to a rocky outcrop in Cornwall dressed as a mermaid and sang to his onlooking crowds. And the Archbishop of York who in an earlier life was a pirate in the Caribbean. Not to mention William Webb Ellis, the alleged inventor of Rugby football, and Jack Russell, who gave his name to the most annoying breed of dogs on the planet.

Many were loved by their parishioners. Others were virtually unknown to them, choosing to delegate their duties to a junior cleric while they gallivanted around the fleshpots of Europe.

One of the problems the Church faced when dealing with badly-behaved clerics was that it was almost impossible to get rid of them under canon law (the separate legal system that applies to the church). This resulted in many of them waging war with the bishops to whom they were responsible when the prelates attempted to curb their worst excesses – hence Dr Drax Free’s last stand with his porn and pistols in his besieged rectory. He only came out after two weeks when his supply of claret dried up.

Butler-Gallie, who is himself a clergyman, finishes his tale with a glossary that explains, among other things, the meaning of various titles in the Church – canons, vicars, rectors, chaplains, curates deacons and all. Very helpful if you’re not familiar with the inner workings of the institution.

As a loyal servant of the Church, and no doubt cognisant of the libel laws, he writes only of the dead. Despite the many and diverse indiscretions of his subjects, he still manages to find a good word to say about most of them.

No doubt there are a few eccentrics among the modern clergy, but I sense they’re better at keeping their heads down than their predecessors.

It’s a short book – a mere 180 pages in a small format – which makes it ideal for a long train journey or a couple of afternoons in some sunny clime. My father, who was an avid collector of human frailty, would have loved it, as would my great aunt who, in later life, developed an all-consuming obsession with men of the cloth, never failing to point one out with delight from the back of our family car.

For all its faults, and despite its violent birth at the hands of Henry VIII, the Church of England is an essential part of the English story. Our culture would be much the poorer without it. If, like me, you occasionally crave relief from the grim realities of the present, this gentle and often riotously funny book will come as a welcome escape into England’s quirky past.

If you’re not English, and you’re curious about our occasional oddball tendencies, A Field Guide to the English Clergy might go some way towards helping you to understand us better. On the other hand, it might leave you even more confused – but hopefully still intrigued enough to want to come and visit us. Because God knows, we need your money.

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