IT WAS about a year ago that I received what, on the face of it, was a strange request. The editors of The Fence — a new magazine that affirms the truth that rumours of the death of print have been exaggerated, and that is specifically aimed at my late-millennial generation — wished to publish a quarterly feature to consist of an imagined clerical diary of an inner-city parson. Could I write such a piece?
The commissioning editors sent me some of the articles alongside which this posited insight into clerical routine would be appearing: a guide to the underground dance tribes of London, a gloriously acerbic takedown of male dating behaviour, edgy and inspired pieces of lit. crit. — not, at first glance the usual bedfellows for an account of a clergyman’s daily bumbling along.
The editors made the point, however, that, as young people in the midst of London, that great bucker of secularist trends, they saw faith at work every day, and that the New Atheist narrative, beloved by a certain chunk of preceding generations, appeared to them “performative and tedious”.
AlamyPortrait of Parson Woodforde in Weston Longueville, Norfolk (1806) by Samuel Woodforde RA
With a commission so couched in the currents of modernity, it seemed only natural to turn first to the past.
Although not an author of one (until now), I have long been a consumer and admirer of clerical diaries. Indeed, when I was first discerning a vocation, a wise priest told me told me that the only books worth reading as acts of Lenten devotion were the Bible and Parson Woodforde’s diary.
The journal of the late-18th-century Rector of Weston Longville is primarily known as a source of information about Georgian domesticity, besides being an astonishing testament to the good parson’s ability to eat and drink vast amounts; but it also offers some tender moments that show a good and holy priest underneath the wobbly and worldly façade.
James Woodforde was particularly assiduous in visiting prisoners, offering what comfort he could to those condemned to die in that era of widespread executions. Here he stands in stark contrast to another clerical diarist, the Revd Horace Salusbury Cotton, who spent the early- to mid-19th century recording in his diary numerous gruesome details of executions, as part of his work as chaplain to Newgate Prison. He was so macabre in his preaching that he actually received a warning from the prison authorities — hardly renowned for their desire to engender a positive working environment — and was told to tone things down.
“Diary writing is caused by various things: the desire to keep a record which can be useful later, and committing to paper what can’t be communicated to a mentor . . . all kinds of reasons, but fundamentally it is about loneliness.” So wrote the prolific diary-keeper Kenneth Williams.
It is possible to trace various motivations in clerical diary-keeping: from the desire to show the pace of social change, however glacial, in even the remotest of parishes to the venting of frustrations that, given a priest’s ministry as a visible symbol of godliness, cannot be voiced elsewhere.
Of course, clerical diarists may not have realised quite how important their observations had the potential to become, however minor they seemed at the time. This year marks the 150th anniversary of the date when the Revd Francis Kilvert picked up his pen and began a journal of observations of late-19th-century clerical life.
AlamyFarmland near Clyro, Powys, where Francis Kilvert was curate from 1865 to 1872
Kilvert was a curate in the borderland between England and Wales, that mystic hinterland that seems like a natural place for priests and poets to reside. Accordingly, much of his writing is suitably florid. When a neighbouring vicar refused him permission to marry his daughter, he reacted by writing: “It was like the sun had gone out of the sky.”
Despite a heavy-handed editorial process involving a bonfire (in fairness to the incendiarist, his niece, it has to be pointed out that one of Kilvert’s hobbies was nude bathing, and his writing about some of his parishioners would now undoubtedly fall foul of a diocesan safeguarding officer), the diary that survives is a must-read for those wanting a snapshot of the era of Thomas Hardy.
GREAT upheavals, beloved by that strange breed of people whom we call historiographers, are recorded by the clerical pen. The diaries of John Longe, long-standing Vicar of Coddenham, in Suffolk, are filled with his irritation at constant parochial disputes over bond payments and tithes: irksome to him, but invaluable to historians studying the effects of the second Agricultural Revolution.
The jottings of Sir Christopher Trychay, parish priest of Morebath, in Devon, between 1530 and 1580, became the basis for Eamon Duffy’s masterly portrayal of the English Reformation The Voices of Morebath. They paint a picture, not only of the fascinating minutiae of English village life (many of which remain unchanged, as rural clergy today will know), but also of the huge religio-political changes that were going on and which altered the identity of the Church in this land for ever.
More recently, Bishop Edward Hicks, who held the see of Lincoln during the early 20th century, was an isolated Anglican voice against the rush to war in 1914. His diaries reveal a moving account of a man grappling with deeply held pacifist convictions alongside a vocation to leadership in a nation at war.
MORE recently, the phenomenal success of Adam Kay’s This is Going to Hurt, purporting to be the actual diaristic observations of a junior doctor, shows that the public’s love for peeking into the private journals of others is unabated.
The clergy, I would venture, experience at least as strange goings-on in the course of their day-to-day existence as medical professionals do. So, determined to make the Fence commission as true to present forms of diary-keeping as inspired by the past, I wondered whether there were any modern day Woodfordes or Trychays, or even, God forbid, Cottons lurking amid the pages of Crockford’s Clerical Directory.
I turned to Twitter, that medium where people are normally more than happy to share their inmost thoughts, however dark they may be. Yet it proved curiously reticent on this. A couple of clerics did say that they kept diaries — at least one had started doing so recently as a way to document the strange era we now live in, showing that, in the age of the Covid-19, the spirit of Sir Christopher Tychay lives on.
The number of self-identifying diarists among the clergy proved to be minuscule, however. For this, I can posit only possible explanations: maybe the clerical diary truly is a dead genre, buried under the tyranny of iCalls, scheduled phone calls, and 24/7 accessibility. After all, when you’re writing sometimes several sermons in a week, why would you want to use a rest day for yet more putting of pen to paper?
Perhaps it has been subsumed, supplanted by the clerical blog. Or perhaps it lives, but remains, in these days when the Damoclean dangers of speaking one’s mind under Common Tenure are all too clear, the one sancta sanctorum in which the clergy might record what it is that they really think, as opposed to what their congregation or archdeacon or parish wish that they thought.
If this last reason proves to be the case, then the clerical diary remains sacrosanct, and I have no desire to publish abroad the contents of such tightly hedged inner courtyards of the heart.
That ministry can be a lonely place is a truism. But if, as our aforementioned Carry On star implied, diary-keeping may assuage loneliness — even that strange clerical solitude that comes from being in the midst of near-constant activity — then perhaps a revival in this strange genre is due.
SO, TO return to that strange commission of a year ago. I decided to err on the side of caution and create a diarist from the clay of pure imagination. So was born “the Diary of an Urban Parson — true and affecting vignettes from the life of the Reverend J. J. Cowan, Rector of St Ewold’s, Stoke Newington, from which the reader might ascertain some insight as to the state of the Church of England in this nation’s fair capital”.
ALAMYA scene from Newgate Prison in the Regency period. A cleric, far left, waits while a prisoner is unshackled before execution. An illustration from Pierce Egan’s Life in London
The title hints toward its being a conceit; and yet the clerical stereotype of the well-meaning, slightly otherworldly parson still has cultural traction, which, I would suggest, is, in part, due to the residual idea of the clergy scribbling down their hopes, prayers, private fears, and public joys in a diary.
And, although it is a great tragedy that we will never know what Parson Woodforde thought of quinoa, even in an age of podcasts and cancel culture, the spirit of the clerical diarist is not quite gone yet.
The Revd Fergus Butler-Gallie is Assistant Curate of Our Lady and St Nicholas, Liverpool. The Diary of an Urban Parson can be read at www.the-fence.com.