Reverend Fergus Butler-Gallie on vicars, Christmas, and his first book

Christmas is coming and, whether, amid the current epidemic of veganism, the geese are still in demand to get fat is, one imagines, a moot point. The waistlines of waterfowl aside, one person who will be very much in demand will be your local vicar – and, with mince pies and mulled wine proffered after most services these days, there’s a fairly strong chance they’ll spend the Christmas season acquiring some extra padding for their cassocks. Christmas may well be the only time you see your local vicar all year, for, whether you tick the CofE box on your census or not, you’ve got one.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, this need for clergy to cover the length and breadth of England has led to the Church of England playing host to a number of somewhat strange individuals who, due to their manifold eccentricities, it might fairly be assumed would struggle to find gainful employment anywhere other than the original ‘broad church’. The Reverend Frederick Densham, for instance, was certainly not in demand whilst Rector of Warleggan. An argument with his congregation over Densham’s insistence on painting the church in a bright colour scheme of his own devising and on erecting an eight feet high barbed wire fence around his rectory meant that the villagers travelled to churches elsewhere on Christmas Day. Densham didn’t care, and he held the service anyway, preaching to a congregation made up entirely of carefully arranged nametags on which he’d written the names of his predecessors.

Despite their often bizarre manner, the clergy were, for centuries the primary advocates of literacy, book ownership (to be ‘a clerk in Holy Orders’ is a rather roundabout way of saying you can read), and practitioners of other forms of knowledge in most parts of the land. How they acted on that knowledge depended very much on the eccentricities aforementioned; one Parson Woodforde (of culinary diary fame) briefly fancied himself something of a physician and treated a servant’s cough by giving him a large glass of gin and throwing him in a pond. It worked, and so may be worth a try as the winter sniffles begin to bite.

Others put their bookishness to even stranger uses; the Reverend William Buckland was the first man to excavate a dinosaur skeleton intact, becoming a professor at Oxford and Dean of Westminster Abbey. He was also absolutely obsessed with animal excreta, working on a desk made of dinosaur faeces and once disproving a supposed miracle in a French Roman Catholic church by being able to identify, by taste, that the supposed saint’s blood was, in fact, bat urine.

These are just a taster of the rogues, bon viveurs, prodigal sons, nutty professors, and eccentrics scraped together into my first book: A Field Guide to the English Clergy. It’s unlikely that, as you stumble into midnight mass after a sherry or two, or make your way to sing carols on Christmas morning, your vicar will be writing a last minute sermon on some T-Rex dung or throwing domestics into ponds, but don’t be surprised if, after reading this book, you notice a few more clerical eccentricities while they’re in demand over the Festive season.

Hatchards are delighted to be hosting an event with Reverend Fergus Butler-Gallie. He’ll be with us on Wednesday 21 November at 18:30, where he will be in discussion with Tom Holland, historian and author. Tickets can be purchased via this link at £7, or £15 for admission plus a copy of the book.

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