‘Stay weird, Church of England’

26 October 2018

Fergus Butler-Gallie celebrates the evangelistic potential of the weird, and mourns their demise

CATHY SIMPSON

“I HATE the Church of England, I hate the Church of England, I hate the Church of England.”

It was with these words that a predecessor of mine would routinely start his working day, often while banging his head on his desk. That man was Michael Ramsey, and, before you check the other pages of this august publication for news of a palace coup at Lambeth, he preceded me, many moons ago, as Assistant Curate at Liverpool Parish Church.

There, however, the similarities end, and not only because there are single-celled organisms living at the bottom of my unwashed coffee cups with a greater chance of occupying the throne of St Augustine. A key difference is this: I must confess that I, unlike Ramsey, love the Church of England.

Of course, there are many things about the Church of England which frustrate or enrage me, from the form-filling to the formulation of doctrine, and yet it is an ecclesial space in which I (not to mention a number of others, including, one might expect, a modest percentage even of Church Times readers) feel I might most fitly encounter the living God who is Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.

One of the reasons I love it is that, aware of (but not totally condemning) the frailty and folly of humanity, we have been home to many of those who have excelled in proving that, as Proverbs 21.8 puts it, “The way of man is froward and strange.”

The phrase “wounded healer” is one of the pieces of church-speak that I find most irritating and excluding, but there is undeniably something to be said for having leaders at a local and national level who manifestly exhibit the weakness — and, often, ridiculousness — of human nature.

It is something that the Church of England has, historically, excelled at; perhaps because we have a Cranmerian anthropology still present, deep in our marrow.

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Ramsey, of course, had eccentricities beyond his understandable frustration at the machinations of his brothers and sisters in Christ. Once, while being driven from London to Cambridge, when Regius Professor there, he became so taken with the name of a town through which he passed (Baldock, if you’re wondering) that he spent the rest of the journey bellowing the word out of the window.

Then there was his penchant for throwing his valuables into the River Wear, a habit discovered only recently when a team of divers mistook the accumulation of medals, pectoral crosses, and other gifts for a Saxon trove.

 

RAMSEY was not the only figure to attain high office despite being eccentric. Launcelot Fleming, sometime Bishop of Norwich, was given lifts to meetings by Royal Navy helicopters, and, on his first day of episcopal ministry, had to have the concept of a parochial church council laboriously explained to him on account of spending most of his ministry either on Arctic-exploration missions or in the Senior Common Room of Trinity Hall, Cambridge. Like Ramsey, Fleming was considered a wise and pastoral bishop. Neither, I imagine, would pass a bishops’ advisory panel today.

Other senior clergy were even more erratic. William Buckland, a Victorian Dean of Westminster, became obsessed with eating as many animals as possible, from porpoise and panther to mole fricassee and mice on toast, even managing to gobble up the mummified heart of King Louis XIV while being shown round the Archbishop of York’s stately home.

He was no fool, though. The first person ever to excavate an entire dinosaur skeleton (although he was more interested in other prehistoric remains, writing on a desk made out of dinosaur faeces), he once disproved a supposed miracle in France by being able to prove (by taste, of course) that a supposed saint’s blood was, in fact, bat urine.

For Buckland and others, ministry stretched far beyond doing churchy things for churchy people. The Church of the past was home to plenty who saw Holy Orders as being totally in keeping with other vocations.

Some of these were impressive, such as the Revd Jack Russell, to whom we owe the eponymous dog breed, and Canon Sydney Smith, the greatest wit of his day, who quipped that “I never read a book before reviewing it — it prejudices a man so.”

Others were less salubrious. The Revd Thomas Patten was a real-life Dr Syn, helping to run a smuggling operation on the north-Kent coast. Patten would preach interminably boring sermons until a parishioner held up a lemon, a sign that someone had agreed to buy his drinks for the evening at the tavern opposite, at which point he managed to terminate the service with astonishing alacrity (a ruse, I’m sure, no clergy reading this would even consider replicating).

Lancelot Blackburne went one further than smuggling, having a successful career as a pirate before ending up as Archbishop of York. As one contemporary put it: “His behaviour was never of the standard expected of an Archbishop — indeed, it was rarely of a standard expected of a pirate.”

Perhaps, as his present Grace has announced his retirement, whoever it is that appoints archbishops these days (and the retreat of the State in this regard has undoubtedly robbed us of some of the great characters of the bench) might consider listing “piratical experience” as necessary for would-be applicants.

 

THERE were heroes among the rogues, eccentrics, and bon viveurs of the past, too. Fr Charles Lowder went from being disciplined for hiring urchins to pelt a recalcitrant churchwarden with rotten eggs to being lauded as a hero of the East End when he doggedly cared for his parishioners in the midst of a cholera epidemic. The sight of him trudging through the dockland mire carrying the body of a young orphan girl so that he could give her a decent burial made such an impression that he became the first Church of England cleric to be popularly known as “Father”.

More recently, the Revd Hugh Grimes spent most of his career idling around the chaplaincies of Europe until, in 1938, when he happened to be in Vienna, he stepped up to the mark and helped to smuggle out hundreds of Jewish people trying to flee the Nazis. There are still people alive today because of the efforts of this unlikely hero-parson.

These are some of the individuals gathered in A Field Guide to the English Clergy, a scraped-together offering designed to celebrate some of the eccentric, rogueish, brilliant, and brave clergy who saw out their earthly ministry in that strange ecclesial space we call the Church of England.

The book owes its corporeal existence to an unlikely Twitter exchange and a series of decent lunches, but also to an unlikely and abiding love of the Church of England, with all its weaknesses and failings. In short, I was fortunate enough to be asked to write it, but the stories and tropes of the lives told therein will, I hope, be recognisable to anyone who calls our odd little corner of Christendom home.

The clergy are invariably called to occupy a strange space, and the clergy of the Church of England even more so, treading the tightrope between archetypal English eccentricity and the inevitable “otherness” of the ordained. The combination of the calling to be a “fool for Christ”, which is at the heart of the purpose of a priestly caste, and the general tendency towards dottiness which seems to be part of dwelling in certain parts of this strange, drizzly little island has made the Church of England’s clergy a source of hilarity and pathos for generations. In short, they — we — often find ourselves occupying the dual roles of prophet and clown.

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Or so it was. A Church of England with more rigour and vigour might have its appeal, but the evangelising potential of the strange increasingly appears to be a casualty of the drive to be more, not less, like the world around us. An embracing of our strangeness, failings, and folly might free us to eschew conversion via tales of our usefulness — be that in pastoral wizardry, wounded healing, or nifty management speak — and, instead, “impress people with Christ himself”, as suggested by Ignatius of Antioch (who, though not an Anglican, did share his fate with the 1930s Rector of Stiffkey, both being eaten by a lion).

All this is not to say that eccentricity is a barrier to effective evangelisation: quite the opposite. Men such as Donald Pateman (“the most politically incorrect clergyman in the Church of England” who nevertheless dedicated his time in Dalston to a radical ministry among newly arrived West Indian migrants) or Jeremiah Carter (who combined his ministry in the Yorkshire Dales with running a riotous pub) can claim to have been Pioneer Ministers long before their time.

Yet they increasingly feel like figures of the past. A low-risk, prudent, pared-back gospel is seemingly what is required in an age of Huel and humanism, not the high-stakes, high-octane, high-cholesterol gospel that many of these eccentrics so enthusiastically embraced.

 

PERHAPS less strangeness is a good thing. It is certainly an easier, safer thing from the bureaucratic and behavioural point of view. I’m more inclined, however, to agree with J. S. Mill — hardly a friend of the Church of England — who suggested that “the amount of eccentricity in a society has generally been proportional to the amount of genius, mental vigour, and moral courage it contained. That so few dare to be eccentric marks the chief danger of our time.” Or, to put it another way, a Church that represses its strangeness is one that is not more at ease with itself and the world, but less.

When Holy Scripture describes the Kingdom of God, it does not put forward a safe, still-water only, bring-your-own-sandwich, working lunch, but, rather, a wine-soaked feast at which the guests are the downright dangerous, the truculent, and the strange. The Church of England that I confess to loving is the one that has been so effective in showing that latter vision. It’s the Church of Parson Woodforde’s dinners and Canon Claude Jenkins’s handmade cigars. It’s the Church of Brian Brindley’s high heels and Bishop Howell Witt’s heaving bosom. It’s the Church that indulged Archbishop Ramsey’s headbanging as it sought to follow Dr Spooner’s “Shoving Leopard”.

And if, in the downstairs lavatory of a rectory somewhere, this silly little book causes an enthroned house-guest or visiting archdeacon to recall the ways in which that strange and forward Church sometimes shewed forth the praise of God, then it will have done its job.
 

A Field Guide to the English Clergy: A compendium of diverse eccentrics, pirates, prelates and adventurers: all Anglican, some even practising is published by OneWorld at £12.99 (CT Bookshop £11.70).

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