It’s a dog’s life in a dog collar


MEMOIR 

TOUCHING CLOTH: CONFESSIONS AND COMMUNIONS OF A YOUNG PRIEST 

by the Reverend Fergus Butler Gallie (Penguin £16.99, 192pp)

When Fergus Butler-Gallie was a young curate in Liverpool, he was conducting a Merchant Navy Remembrance Day service by the Mersey. The two-minute silence had been punctiliously observed, and the lady bugler was about to play the Reveille.

It was all going rather well, thought the Rev Fergus, who should have remembered Proverbs, Chapter 16: ‘Pride comes before a fall’.

This is the author's third book. The first, A Field Guide To The English Clergy, was basically a history of ecclesiastical oddballs and proved a huge success

This is the author’s third book. The first, A Field Guide To The English Clergy, was basically a history of ecclesiastical oddballs and proved a huge success

Suddenly, there was a powerful gust of wind from behind. As the curate’s cassock and the bugler’s skirt were hoicked into the air, a huge wave of spray rose from the river. ‘The result was that we received an impromptu and ill-directed enema,’ he recalls.

With the crowd now helpless with laughter, he and the bugler adjusted their dress with as much dignity as they could muster and carried on with the service.

That incident sums up clerical life, if Butler-Gallie’s entertaining book is anything to go by: moments of great solemnity very often punctuated by uproarious mirth.

This is the author’s third book. The first, A Field Guide To The English Clergy, was basically a history of ecclesiastical oddballs and proved a huge success.

We do love an eccentric vicar in this country. As some anonymous theologian once remarked: ‘If the Almighty had meant us to take the clergy seriously, He wouldn’t have made vicars rhyme with knickers.’

Butler-Gallie grew up in a military family and remembers the moment when he told his nearest and dearest that he planned to join the officer corps of the Church of England.

‘It’s not so different from the Army,’ observed his father, thoughtfully. ‘The outfit’s stupid and the pay’s crap. Carry on.’

He was right about the outfit. Putting on a dog collar transforms you from mild-mannered Clark Kent into the Reverend Superman (female superheroes are also available). You can no longer melt quietly into the background: suddenly, you are very visible indeed.

Butler-Gallie grew up in a military family and remembers the moment when he told his nearest and dearest that he planned to join the officer corps of the Church of England

Butler-Gallie grew up in a military family and remembers the moment when he told his nearest and dearest that he planned to join the officer corps of the Church of England

‘Eyes were instinctively drawn to me,’ says Butler-Gallie. People even started smiling at him in a certain way, a sort of nervous grimace.

And the clergy get asked such extraordinary things. The most frequent inquiry is: ‘Why did you become a priest?’ But people also wanted to know if budgies go to Heaven and whether he would sprinkle holy water on their knife disposal bin.

He was asked to exorcise a noisy ghost from a flat, only to discover it was a radiator playing up. He conducted a memorial service for the Duke of Rutland’s pony and was once mistaken for a drug dealer at a party.

He got off lightly compared to a college chaplain friend, who once called in at a Liverpool pub in his full kit and was immediately pounced on by a hen party, who mistook him for the stripper. They pounced so thoroughly that he lost a button from his cassock.

There are some surprising revelations. Butler-Gallie admits to covering up his dog collar when passing Big Issue sellers when he has no cash. And most vicars, it seems, hate Christmas, which seems fair enough.

During one advent season, Butler-Gallie took part in 50 renditions of Away In A Manger, which is surely against the terms of the Geneva Convention. He once presided over the Fire Brigade carol service, which included the Fire Brigade Dance Troupe dancing topless to O Little Town Of Bethlehem.

8,000 

Estimated number of vicarages sold off since WWII

The sadder revelation is that not everybody in the Church of England is full of the milk of human kindness. After leaving Liverpool, Butler-Gallie was posted to a church in London.

He’d been warned that it was ‘utterly toxic’, but wasn’t prepared for the year that followed.

‘Nothing worked, time was endlessly wasted, vanity and pomposity was the norm,’ he says. ‘I’d be humiliated in meetings, ignored in public, endlessly gossiped about.’ As part of the unseemly squabbling, he was even denied communion at Christmas.

The book ends on a sad note. Unable to find another job in the church, he reveals that he is leaving the ministry: ‘By all external Church of England measurements, my career has been a failure.’

Can there really be no place in the church for a thoughtful, Oxbridge-educated, kindly young man with excellent communications skills and a media profile?

Is there an element of envy at his worldly success (even though envy is a sin and so is obviously completely foreign to the CofE)?

A quick Google search reveals that Butler-Gallie is not entirely lost to the Church. He is now assistant chaplain at his old school. And if members of his new flock ask why he became a priest, he’ll presumably give the same answer he’s always done: ‘Black is so slimming.’



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