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Diary: Fergus Butler-Gallie

27 October 2023


Gifts in abundance

MAY God bless organists! This is a sentiment not often attributed to the clergy, perhaps because they are experts at preventing our greatest pitfall, namely vanity. I descended the pulpit and reading desk at All Saints’, Shorthampton, fondly imagining that I would leave to the accompaniment of the Trumpet Voluntary, or some other piece of ceremonial music. Instead, we were treated to a much more appropriate rendition of Country Gardens.

Still, I might have been chastened more explicitly. One friend famously got into trouble at school for playing an unusual introit as the masters and clergy entered the chapel: Stephen Sondheim’s Send In The Clowns.

I was at Shorthampton — a gem of a church, whose cure, along with the wonderful St Mary’s, Charlbury, I will have the great privilege of undertaking in January — for Harvest Festival. Cranmer’s prose ricocheted off gourds and apples. After evensong was over, there was only one notice to be given (that alone a fact to give thanks for), which was to ask everyone to take a marrow home with them.

As my surplice flapped in the unseasonal early October zephyr, I suddenly called to mind Kenneth Williams and his rendition of “Oh! What a beauty!”, a song about a man who grows a particularly large specimen of the striped, thick-skinned cultivar. He truly could make anything sound rude — another great subversive gift.


Model ministry

ASIDE from Williams, the other great tragi-comic figure who comes to mind every Harvest Festival is Parson Hawker. He made the whole thing up, of course, although — despite having written and talked on him for many years now — I still haven’t worked out whether this occurred before or after his ravenous opium addiction.

There are so many good stories about Hawker, from the adventures that he had while dressed up as a mermaid to the incident involving the excommunication of a cat, or the time when his “tame” pet stag pinned down an archdeacon. Perhaps my favourite aspect of Hawker, however, is the quiet ministry that he exercised, slowly creeping down the North Cornish cliffs to retrieve the bodies of shipwrecked sailors who had met their end on that treacherous coastline, in order to give them the seemly burial that the sea sought to deny them.

Hawker’s ministerial-development review would, I suspect, make rather curt and unhappy reading today, but that in this he lived out the gospel there can be no doubt.


Types and shadows

HIS was a ministry that flashed into my mind during the tragic denouement of Britten’s Peter Grimes. A friend very kindly secured me a ticket to the final night at the English National Opera. The Rector, Mr Adams, is rather unwillingly co-opted into leading a group to Grimes’s hut to confront him about the treatment of his apprentices. (I felt for him, having to deal with the triple scourges of gossip, tragedy, and a charismatic Methodist preacher.)

The author of The Borough, the collection of poems on which Peter Grimes is based, was also a clergyman, George Crabbe. He served his title at Aldeburgh, his native town, before becoming chaplain to the Duke of Rutland, and then Rector of Trowbridge. He was known for being kindly but a little otherworldly: there may, I suspect, have been more than a little of himself in Mr Adams.


Home, sweet home

MOST rurality, however, is more bucolic than Britten and Crabbe’s Borough. And, after a summer of being abroad, I’ve been lucky enough to have a very welcome return to life according to The Village Green Preservation Society. “God save Tudor houses, antique tables, and billiards” might have been a good summary of a recent weekend in Norfolk, staying at Hales Hall. (There wasn’t actually billiards, but I think a pub pool-table saw usage at one point.)

We were there for a friend’s stag party, I and another friend being joint best men. Who needs Las Vegas or Prague when you have Great Yarmouth? The Hall itself is an astonishing Tudor house, built for Henry VII’s Attorney General. The house, however, pales into insignificance compared with the enormous brick barn — the largest surviving in the country — that the Attorney General built to store his fruits and his goods.

Eventually, however, his life was demanded of him, and now his rafters ring — and, alas, his steps are stained — with the excesses of weddings and, in our case, pre-wedding festivities. Sic(k) transit gloria mundi.



THIS is the first time I have been a best man. Normally, at friends’ weddings, I find myself up the front. It’s a great privilege and enormous fun, not least because the cleric can claim “I’m marrying X and Y”, briefly scandalising their hearers.

Fortunately, my friend is Jewish, and so, latitudinarian though the modern country parson must occasionally be, I wasn’t in the running to conduct the service. But still, I will be there, as will my friends, Jew and Gentile. We will celebrate, with Jewish rites and with Jewish song, the joining together of a couple in love.

At the heart of this festival — as at the heart of any wedding — will be an expression of hope for their future. And, in the light of the evil unleashed in the past few weeks, when we have seen such an ugly reversal of Psalm 30, with dancing turned into mourning for our fellow children of Abraham, it will be all the more powerful a festival. May God bless them.


The Revd Fergus Butler-Gallie is a writer and teacher.

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