Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

A Field Guide to the English Clergy:
A Compendium of Diverse Eccentrics, Pirates, Prelates and Adventurers; All Anglican, Some Even Practising

by fergus butler-gallie
oneworld, 192 pages, $20

Ah, the holy fool. Though we often associate such characters with the great tomes of Russian literature, the Reverend Fergus Butler-Gallie suggests it is the English—specifically the Anglican clergy—who most fit the archetype. Butler-Gallie, a Church of England curate and self-declared “bon ­viveur,” has written an encyclopedia of England’s strangest sons, albeit one without encyclopedic precision.

The reverend charts brief sketches of the life and times of forty-eight clergymen, dividing them into not-so-distinct categories: eccentrics, nutty professors, bon viveurs, prodigal sons, and rogues. The tone is jocular, but the style is unfortunately frenetic. After one reads three or four lives, all begin to blend together due to Butler-Gallie’s rapid-fire succession of wisecracks. Certain charades do stand out: the prelate guilty of “pissing on a peeress,” as well as the extravagant bishop who received his dying wish to be preserved in a cask of “the very finest sherry.” But Butler-Gallie’s humor is often lost in a sea of monotonous quips, and the reader is left with a cacophony of hazy stories rather than a clear sense of who these men were.

The sketch of one Jeremiah Carter, Curate of Lastingham, perhaps mirrors the lives of some modern-day clergy. Each Sunday after finishing his services, he would head up “something not dissimilar to a conga line of parishioners” to dance and sing their way to the local pub, wherein Carter would retire his preaching bands, kick back, and start pulling pints for barflies. I think it’s safe to assume there was little theology on his tap.

—Moriah Speciale

This is the first of your three free articles for the month.