Living quotably at close quarters

21 November 2006

The Canons
Trevor Beeson

SCM Press £19.99 (0-334-04041-8)
Church Times Bookshop £18

William Whyte enjoys the lives of clergymen whose eccentricity was given free rein by preferment

CANON to right of him, Canon to left of him, Canon in front of him: as Dean of Winchester from 1987 to 1996, Trevor Beeson would have had enough of them, you might have thought. Far from it. Hot on the heels of his Bishops (2002) and his Deans (2004), we now have his Canons. And what an odd lot they are: some saints; some sinners; some successful; some failures — and all eccentrics, to a man.

Now, it is an infallible rule that any book that mentions Sydney Smith is at least worth a look — and this one provides a number of treats for his fans. “I must believe in the Apostolic Succession,” he famously observed, “there being no other way of accounting for the descent of the Bishop of Exeter from Judas Iscariot.”

But Smith, as Beeson shows, is not the only canon worth quoting. The less well-known but equally odd Emmanuel Armand de Mendieta earns a place in the book for his struggles with English. At Winchester, it seems, he has never been forgotten. “Jozeph’s bruzzers vent on zheir own vay,” he once declaimed. “Jozeph, ‘owevair, remained in goal.”

The problem with canons, of course, is that, even more than bishops or deans, they lack a clear career path or role to fulfil. Many of these men were canons for only a matter of a few years; several took up the post only when it became clear they were too ill to do anything else. Consequently, Trevor Beeson focuses more on their lives than their roles within the cathedral. That said, though, their lives are often intriguing enough in their own right, and a sensible bibliography will allow the interested to follow them up.

The Canons, then, is an ideal gift for anyone who relishes clerical eccentricity, Anglican biography, or, indeed, both. More than that, this is clearly a story that will run and run — and anyone with amusing anecdotes about archdeacons would do well to send them in now, ready for Christmas 2008.

The Revd Dr William Whyte is a Fellow of St John’s College, Oxford, and a curate of Kidlington.

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