Duellers, dog lovers and head-banging bishops

Archbishop Ramsay, right, would often exclaim: ‘I hate the Church of England’ (Getty)

A Field Guide to the English Clergy
by the Revd Fergus Butler-Gallie, Oneworld, 192pp, £12.99

If one were to run a competition to find the funniest book in the English language, my guess is that Sellar and Yeatman’s 1066 and All That would win by a mile. Because it is such a good book, and more importantly a publishing sensation, never out of print since 1930, it has spawned a great many imitations, few of which have approached its level of success.

This volume under review, subtitled A Compendium of Diverse Eccentrics, Pirates, Prelates and Adventurers; All Anglican, Some Even Practising, is clearly in the Sellar and Yeatman tradition of parody and arch humour. It consists of several dozen thumbnail sketches of Anglican clergy, all deceased. It may have the makings of a modern classic.

The author’s chosen subjects are all dead because dead men cannot sue for libel. So each section has the flavour of a Telegraph obituary about it.

One of the more recent clergy described is Canon Brian Brindley, who will be familiar to many of the readers of this magazine. Butler-Gallie works over the material in an amusing manner, placing Brindley first in his section of bon vivants. But who knew that the full name of the late canon was Brian Frederick Dominic Titus Leo, three of those names not being given at birth but added for later effect?

Other subjects reveal equally unsuspected details. We have all heard of the boy who picked up the ball and ran with it at Rugby school, but until now I had no idea that William Webb Ellis was later ordained in the Church of England. It turns out that his clerical career was “devastatingly unimpressive”. Poor man.

Many of the clergy in this book are not what anyone would term religious in the usual sense. Take, for example, the Rev Jack Russell, who died in 1883, spent much of his life on horseback and founded the Kennel Club, giving his name to the dog that we all know.

In his spare time, he was the vicar of Swimbridge in Devon. This sort of duplication of roles was quite usual in centuries past, where being a vicar was seen as a useful cover for living the life of a country gent.

Russell was a respectable member of society, which can hardly be said of Sir Henry Bate Dudley, known as “the fighting parson” because of his propensity for duels. Like several other men in this volume, he seems not only bad but also mad.

Eccentricity has long fascinated the English reading public, and it is refreshing to find that some who have risen to the top did so despite their oddities, or perhaps even because of them. Michael Ramsay, generally considered to have been an excellent archbishop of Canterbury, was a decidedly strange man. He would often bang his head against his desk and declare “I hate the Church of England”, which is certainly endearing. Some of his verbal tics and his inability to keep still probably mark him out as “on the spectrum”, as they now say. The Royal Family dreaded entertaining him at Sandringham and the feeling was mutual.

At the end of his life Ramsay threw many of the gifts he had been given – including a pectoral cross from Paul VI – into a river, where they were later discovered by amateur divers.

This book will greatly appeal to those who revere the Church of England as a wonderful national institution. Clearly the author seems to think that the good old Cof E should be cherished simply because it contained, and still contains, so many characters of note.

But even those of us who are not Anglicans and not smitten with the culture of Anglicanism will find here much to delight in. For Butler-Gallie chronicles not just Anglican follies, but also human weaknesses which we all share and with which we can perhaps sympathise. That makes this both a funny and appealing book.