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THERE’S SATISFACTION in buying a book for one reason, then coming to enjoy it for other reasons entirely. So it is with A Field Guide to the English Clergy, by the Revd Fergus Butler-Gallie, MA (Oxon), BA (Cantab), Clerk in Holy Orders.
The book’s subtitle suggests that Butler-Gallie’s intent is light-hearted. This is confirmed by his author’s note, which explains why there are no women among the clergy discussed: “It is not that there is a shortage of eccentric, successful or nutty women…. However, the Church of England’s regrettable tardiness in ordaining women to the Priesthood means that most of these potential subjects are still alive and, being women of great ingenuity as well as great godliness, many have access to excellent lawyers and some (particularly those in rural ministry) to unlicensed firearms.”
By contrast, Butler-Gallie feels confident discussing a particular English prelate about whom he writes “Almost anyone would be remembered as a Saint in comparison….”
Indeed, I bought the book for precisely this sort of ecclesiastical gossip. But along the way, I also learned about another English prelate who had lunar real estate named in his honor.
The following tidbits are gleaned from Butler-Gallie’s book and my usual Internet sleuthing. The rogue gets his bio today in Part 1; we save the scientist for the following Parts 2 and 3.
Butler-Gallie calls the Reverend Dr. Edward Drax Free, 1764–1843, Rector of All Saints, Sutton, “probably the most troublesome clergyman in the history of the Church of England.” High praise indeed.
Upon arriving in 1808 at the Church of All Saints, Sutton, Bedfordshire, Drax Free promptly got the housekeeper with child. Other housekeepers met a similar fate; Drax Free was the father of at least five illegitimate children.
Butler-Gallie notes that Drax Free “spent the vast majority of his time wandering around his rectory in a dressing gown, cataloguing the enormous collection of French pornography he had brought with him, occasionally showing it to anyone unfortunate enough to call on him during daylight hours.”
At one point, the reverend covered his gambling debts by selling lead from the church roof to a scrap metal merchant.
His downfall came after he sued a parishioner for non-attendance, despite the church being roofless and almost permanently closed. The suit had an historic tie to an obscure law passed by Queen Elizabeth I more than two hundred years earlier.
Matters went from bad to worse, and in 1830 the Bishop of Lincoln’s men set siege to the rectory, where Drax Free had barricaded himself with two pistols and his favorite serving girl. “However, after two weeks,” Butler-Gallie writes, “he had drunk all of his claret and, facing the very real prospect of sobriety, Free gave up.”
The Reverend Dr. Edward Drax Free died 13 years later, run over by a carriage as he left a London tavern. He also left a legacy, albeit an indirect one: The Church Discipline Act of 1840 was promulgated, Butler-Gallies notes, “to stop anyone even remotely like the Reverend Dr. Edward Drax Free from ever holding office again.”
In the following Parts 2 and 3, the Reverend Thomas Espinell Compton Espin sets a much better example by aiming for the stars and having x-ray vision. ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2019