PROVIDING a comfortable living for men whom it would be hard to place elsewhere has been part of the Church of England’s remit, in practice if not in principle.
Though the saints are axiomatically not easy to live with, saintliness has not always been the issue, however: the rare bird who wants a perch on which to tend or display his plumage is not as near extinction as members of the ecclesiastical managerial class like to think.
Not everyone shares their hopes for the Church, however; and I confine my remarks to the male sex, since this is what “a young curate” with an Oxford degree in history, Fergus Butler-Gallie (Features, 26 October), does, making an elegant sidestep of an apology, in his book of 48 clever and witty pen-portraits, A Field Guide to the English Clergy. He has clearly noticed that rejoicing in clerical singularity in this day and age has a pleasant undertow of rebellion.
That is far from saying that there is no sanctity in Butler-Gallie’s strange cast of eccentrics, nutty professors, bon viveurs, prodigal sons, and rogues (his taxonomy), some of whose stories are already oft-told, like that of the Vicar of Stiffkey (rogues’ gallery) who had a penchant for pestering the nippies in Lyons’ and was eventually mauled to death by a lion.
A true hero of the author’s seems to be Charles Lowder, Vicar of St Peter’s, London Docks, whose hagiography remains intact here; and Michael Ramsey, always good anecdote material, emerges with credit, too.
Of the names new to me, I warmed particularly to the Yorkshire curate Jeremiah Carter, of Lastingham, who in the 18th century was so poorly paid that he had also to run a pub; of such is the Kingdom of heaven, Butler-Gallie implies. Seeing himself as a kindred spirit, he lets his other bon viveurs off perhaps too lightly, though he recognises a true rogue when he sees one.
Of the bon viveurs, Brian Brindley, whose faxed recipes for the Church Times I remember, with their mock-antique cover sheet (“Fax Vobiscum”), would certainly have admired the design of the book, which is finely executed in that vein, with Stephanie von Reiswitz’s jolly line drawings as a bonus.
Douglas Feaver’s unsigned reviews can be hunted down without too much difficulty in the Church Times archives because of his tell-tale alliterative style. One of the author’s prodigals, he was once dubbed “the rudest man in the Church of England”. His wit was less subtle than Butler-Gallie’s, but was not, in the last century, an obstacle to preferment (eventually to the see of Peterborough). Nevertheless, let young curates be warned.
A Field Guide to the English Clergy: A compendium of diverse eccentrics, pirates, prelates and adventurers; all Anglican, some even practising
Church Times Bookshop £11.70
Listen to the Revd Fergus Butler-Gallie in conversation with Tom Holland: