The Church of England has sponsored some bizarre acts of worship in its time, but seldom one more extraordinary than the thanksgiving service held on July 1, 1979, in the Somerset village of Bratton Fleming on the edge of Exmoor.
The vicar, the Rev John Hornby, had organised the ceremony in order to give thanks to God for the acquittal at the Old Bailey two weeks earlier of his friend, the former leader of the Liberal Party, Jeremy Thorpe. Thorpe, along with three others, had faced a charge of conspiracy to murder his former lover Norman Scott (in the event Scott’s dog Rinka was the only casualty).
The congregation was not a large one, consisting as it did of Thorpe, Marion, his second wife, and a few Liberal Party colleagues including Clement Freud, the MP for the Isle of Ely.
But nothing could dampen Hornby’s high spirits. “My dears,” he proclaimed from the pulpit, “wasn’t God fantastic”, for bolstering Jeremy and Marion throughout their long ordeal. “Don’t you think that if it had been you or me in Jeremy or Marion’s shoes that we’d be either round the bend or in the madhouse or had a couple of coronaries?” There followed a reading of the famous passage from Ecclesiasticus often used at funerals: “Let us now praise famous men”.
As it happened, Thorpe had had little need for divine intervention, as he owed his freedom to his clever barrister George Carman, and particularly to the judge Mr Justice Cantley.
Cantley’s shamelessly biased summing-up had discredited all the prosecution’s witnesses, with Norman Scott dismissed as an accomplished liar and a crook.
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