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Dean SpanleyHallo again to all.

It's not officially the Silly Season here in the northern hemisphere, but the appallingly hot weather in North America makes us advance it forward. No doubt we, all of us, are in the midst of a serious and troubling time in the church, and all manner of evidence suggests that the Anglican Communion is fraying badly. (Whether it has frayed as badly before and survived is open to dispute.) We can become morose about this state of affairs. We try hard never to remain long in the slough of despond, for history — always a useful restorative — shows that the Church has survived far greater difficulties than the quarrels that characterise our time.

As we took refuge these past weeks in this or that church history or biography of a Worthy Clerical Person, it struck us that our age seems to have bred out of itself some of the more colourful and eccentric characters that once leavened the Church. Of all places, the Church should be the encourager and caretaker of character in its deacons, priests, and bishops. Forgive us whilst we indulge in a massive generalisation, but it seems that there are far too many terribly earnest but dreadfully dull people in collars these days.

Do our ordination processes ruthlessly eliminate the unusual and the different? One wonders whether we're so intent on weeding out the barmy and deranged that we excise the merely colourful. There is a difference between colourful and being daft or apostate, and, though it may be difficult to describe that difference, we all know it when we see it. Unless we allow for some human eccentricity in our selection committees, our church will be filled with the uninspiring and the undistinguished, the cleric in the grey flannel surplice. Often the ability to be different, to not care — from time to time — what others think, to be able to stand apart: these qualities can signal a person of compelling moral force, able to speak without fear on issues of substance in the church.

To enliven your spirits, spend a few minutes with some characters in our Ecclesia Anglicana*:

The Bishop of Chester, John Wilkins (1614-1672), 'an ingenious, mechanically-minded man, had in early life, tried to prove that the moon was habitable and had even invented a locomotive which would sail there'.

Thomas Wilson, age 34, landed on the Isle of Man as its new bishop in 1698 and rebuilt the 'dilapidated episcopal seat, Bishop's Court, and set up drug shops giving free advice and medicine for the island's poor'.

In 1717, 'the Bishop of Exeter, Dr Blackall, died after fall from his horse. He was replaced by Dr Lancelot Blackburne, a boisterous man who had served as a chaplain on a ship and engaged in buccaneering and who was to shock his vicars by calling for pipes and liquor in the vestry after a confirmation service'. After he became Archbishop of York, he was said to have kept a harem at Bishopthorpe Palace.

'In November 1728 a group of religious enthusiasts gathered at Oxford under the leadership of the young John Wesley, a fellow of Lincoln College. Dedicated to Bible-reading, prison-visiting, and strict personal habits such as getting up at four o'clock in the morning, these studious and pious young men were to provoke much ridicule and indignation and were nicknamed The Holy Club and The Bible Moths'.

Charles Simeon in the pulpit'In 1801, the more devout clergy were shocked by the appearance of a two-volume work entitled Rural Sports by the Reverend William Daniel, covering hunting, shooting, coursing, angling, and wild fowling, as well as such matters as the interbreeding of dogs and foxes. Mr Daniel, who held no benefice, later tried to make amends by publishing a series of discourses entitled Plain Thoughts upon the Lord's Prayer'.

In the early 19th century, the Bishop of Bristol, Dr George Pelham, 'who was disgracefully lax, dealt with ordination candidates by sending his butler to tell them to write an essay'. The more industrious Reverend Edmund Cartwright in 1809 was voted £10,000 by the House of Commons for his invention of the power loom, which revolutionalized the weaving industry.

Dr John Randolph, Bishop of London in 1810, was the first to dispense with the wig, annoying the Prince of Wales mightily. (Query: What would be the equivalent now of abandoning a wig?)

The coronation in 1838 of Princess Victoria was 'slightly marred by clerical blunders. Archbishop Howley attempted to force the ruby ring onto the Queen's fifth rather than fourth finger, the Bishop of Bath and Wells, Dr Law, accidentally turned over two pages of the service book at once, and another participant, Dr Maltby, Bishop of Durham, was, in the Queen's own words "remarkably maladroit". Archbishop Howley afterwards admitted, "We ought to have had a full rehearsal"'.

During the bombing of London in 1940, Dr Fisher, the Archbishop of Canterbury, at Fulham Palace 'abandoned the great rooms and moved into the Tudor wing, once occupied by Bishop Laud. Here most of the household slept in an underground shelter beneath the library, with the notable exception of the Bishop's chaplain, the Reverend FC Synge, who chose to sleep on a camp bed on the lawn, saying that he preferred to be hit by shrapnel than be buried alive beneath Fulham Palace'.

Such characters are now a rare spotting, rather like a hoopoe. The death, in 2000, of the Reverend Henry Croyland Thorold eliminated one of the more colourful. So in this vexing and anxious time, to counteract dullness, overearnestness, snarkiness, and just too damn much blogging, we suggest:

Be blithe. Whimsical. Colourful. Perhaps even a little eccentric. The world needs it. (And especially the soi-disant Anglican Communion.)

See you next week.

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Last updated: 27 June 2010

*These examples are drawn from Andrew Barrow's The Flesh is Weak: An intimate history of the Church of England (London, 1980)


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