The Church Survives

A very good friend gifted me with a delightful and nerdy book: A Field Guide to the English Clergy: A Compendium of Diverse Eccentrics, Pirates, Prelates and Adventurers; All Anglican, Some Even Practicing. Written by The Rev. Fergus Butler-Gallie, a reviewer describes the book as “Ridiculously enjoyable” and I agree.

The chapters are divided into various galleries of Eccentrics, Nutty Professors, Bon Vivants, Prodigal Sons, and Rogues. The tales told therein are limited to the clergy who have already shuffled off this mortal coil – and since the Church of England was very late to the game of ordaining women – not until 1994 – the roster of dotty and dodgy clergy is limited to a gentlemen’s only club. 

In God’s good time, this will certainly change I am sure.:)

So, with no further ado, let me introduce you to The Reverend Robert Hawker.  “The way of man is contrary and strange” Proverbs 21:8 observes, and this is certainly true of The Rev. Hawker. Born in the year of Our Lord 1803, he died in 1875. In his first assignment as a young curate “he decided he had a joint calling; not only to be a priest, but also a mermaid. In order to live out that vocation, he fashioned a wig out of seaweed, and wrapped an oilskin around his legs, he rode out to a rock in the harbor one evening, sat on it and began to sing. He kept this up for a few months until winter set in and a local farmer tried to silence him with his shotgun and Hawker sang one last performance of “God Save the King.”

The Vicar of Morwenstow was not without his merits. “He invented the village fete, a fall harvest festival, as a way of getting his pagan parishioners to church… He kept a sizeable menagerie, including ten cats who followed him to church and joined the congregation, though one was once excommunicated for killing a rat during services… Hawker was regularly observed talking to the birds in the churchyard and made friends with a ‘highly’ intelligent pig named Gyp.”

Still mindful of his pastoral duties, “he saw it as his mission to collect the bodies of sailors who regularly drowned in shipwrecks off the treacherous Cornish Coast.” And out of his own paltry pocket, he was always making repairs to the parish church and vicarage.

“If you visit Morwenstow, you will see a signpost pointing to ‘Hawker’s Hut’ made out of driftwood still standing to this day.”

And guess what?  In spite of, or because of, the Vicar and Mad Mermaid of Morwenstow the church survives.

Now let me introduce you to another curious cleric: The Most Reverend and Right Honorable Michael Ramsey, Archbishop of Canterbury. Born in 1904, he died in 1988. His predecessor, ABC Geoffrey Fisher in discussion with Prime Minister Macmillan about his successor, gave him this advice: “Whomever you choose, it must not be the Archbishop of York. He is a theologian, a scholar, and a man of prayer. And he is totally unsuitable to be the Archbishop of Canterbury. I would know, I was his headmaster.” The Prime Minister ignored the advice and recommended his appointment anyway.

Fisher was not entirely wrong about Ramsey: “son of a socialist and a suffragette, a Congregationalist whose brother was Britain’s most prominent atheist,” he was also noted for strange habits. While in chapel at seminary, Ramsey would tear his handkerchief into strips and on outings with a professor, he was taken to shouting out the car window bellowing at the top of his lungs.

“At times he was just plain forgetful – such as when he locked a group of American airmen in Durham Cathedral. He was supposed to be giving them a tour but got separated, forgot why he was there and decided to lock up as usual, leaving the men to spend a chilly night inside huddled around the tomb of St. Cuthbert.” 

He may have had some form of ADHD or autism, not understood at the time. “But he was without a doubt an usual choice to ascend the throne of St. Augustine of Canterbury.”

Ramsey turned out to be a very consequential ABC. “His support for decriminalizing homosexuality helped carry the bill through the House of Lords, and his rigorous opposition to apartheid in South Africa helped the Church of England take a leading role in dismantling white minority rule.”

And despite all of his eccentricities, or perhaps because of them, the church survives.

I tell you these stories as way of introduction to the upcoming election of a new bishop here in the Diocese of Virginia. We do not have a Prime Minister or a Queen or a Parliament to do the church’s business of appointing bishops. Way back in 1789 when the American Episcopal Church declared its independence from the Church of England, we set up our household similar to the new United States. We have a House of Bishops – somewhat like a Senate. We have a House of Deputies – somewhat like the House of Representatives. We have a Presiding Bishop – who does just that – presides over these two houses. And bishops are elected at Diocesan Convention by the clergy and lay delegates from every parish.

Bishop Susan Goff is set to retire at the end of this calendar year. I cannot say enough good things about Bishop Goff. Elected as a suffragan – kind of like an assistant bishop, she rose to the occasion to take over the reins when Bishop Johnston resigned.  She has steered us through two years of pandemic with a strength of purpose and a pastoral touch – all while living through treatment for breast cancer. On a personal note, I am incredibly grateful for her support during those 10 weeks when Chuck was hospitalized and recovering at home from heart surgery. So many stars in her crown, may her retirement be a restorative and delightful one. She so deserves it.

The election of the new bishop to replace her takes place at St. Stephen’s/St. Agnes on Saturday, June 4. A very diverse nominating committee has come up with a not very diverse slate of four candidates. All straight white guys. Both an open and opaque process, we do not know all of the machinations and unforeseen circumstances that went on behind the scenes. But we will all get to see and hear from all four and ask them questions before we vote. Chuck, Barbie Frank, and I will all be there.

The candidates are:

The Rev. Joseph H. Hensley, Jr., Rector, St. George’s Church, Fredericksburg, Virginia;

The Rev. Canon Alan C. James, Interim Canon Missioner,
Diocese of Western Michigan;

The Very Rev. Gideon L. K. Pollach, Rector St. John’s Church, Cold Spring Harbor, New York;

The Rev. Canon E. Mark Stevenson, Canon to the Presiding Bishop for Ministry Within The Episcopal Church.

All have considerable experience and various talents. And I am sure, as well, they each have a boatload of eccentricities.  I am not lobbying or campaigning for any one of them.  I still need to do my own due diligence to read all the resumes and watch all the videos, talk to my colleagues, and yes even pray about it. 

But this I do know, no matter who is elected, God will make use of their experience and talent and oddball habits and curious practices and pastoral sensitivities. Whatever they bring to God’s table – God will turn their gifts to the feeding and fostering of God’s people in this little pasture of God’s Kingdom – called the Diocese of Virginia.

The church will survive.

So, let us pray for the church.

Almighty and everliving God, source of all wisdom and understanding, be present with those who take counsel for the renewal and mission of your Church. Teach us in all things to seek first your honor and glory. Guide us to perceive what is right, and grant us both the courage to pursue it and the grace to accomplish it; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. (BCP, p. 818)

Pax vobiscum,



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The Rev. Joani Peacock, Editor for Emmanuel Voices: A Parish Blog

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