The church of England may have ad its fair share of scandals, but at least they always captured the exuberance of the zeitgeist. Alan Edwards looks back at some memorable tales of disgrace
It was while reading Tracey Temple’s tales that I realized that here was one area where the CofE could compete – sexual shenanigans that chimed in with the mood of the moment.
In the Thirties depression, many privileged folk sought to share the lives of the poor. Middle-class George Orwell took the road to Wigan Pier; the future George VI took East Enders camping in Windsor Great Park; Anglican missioners hopped with the hoppers.
Harold Davidson, Rector of Stiffkey and ‘Prostitutes’ Padre,’ took it that little bit further. He was accused of having more than a pastoral interest in fallen women. Possibly his habit of taking them on rehabilitation trips to Paris awakened suspicious minds. ‘All part of my rescue mission,’ he said; the same justification he gave for being found by the military police in a Cairo brothel during his forces chaplaincy days.
The Rector was deposed in a Norwich Cathedral solemn ceremony, given less solemnity by Davidson’s hysterical protests.
Most readers will know that Davidson met his death in the jaws of a lion, Freddie, while exhibiting himself in a cage as part of his innocence-proving campaign.
Less well known is his speech preceding his death, a vigorous denunciation of the Archbishop of Canterbury and his fellow bishops. There is, sadly, no record that Freddie was thanked by Archbishop Lang for his defence of episcopacy.
War chaplaincy service gave many clergy a regard for military traditions, a regard given a new dimension just after World War II when a former R.N. Chaplain was prosecuted for standing naked at a window, facing a policewoman. ‘That’s just an old naval custom,’ was his unsuccessful plea.
The war also destroyed traditions and it was surely in defence of pre-war morality that, in 1956, a Fr Richard undressed and spanked a bride-to-be, claiming to his bishop that he had been annoyed by her slack religious practice.
The Sixties saw flower power and it was an interest in botany that did for another Richard, ‘Rick the Vic,’ a.k.a. Revd Richard Mayes. His Kentish origins revealed to him that the hop was related to the marijuana plant. When he moved to Essex, he also moved from studying the weed to dealing it and from thence it was another quick move to prison.
A typical Sixties ‘child of nature,’ Rick was again arrested when, stark naked, he caused two horse-riding Essex girls to drop their handbags by shouting, ‘Come over here darlings.’
Rick told the police that he wanted to live as a ‘primeval man’ and, true to his beliefs, he swapped being a Reverend for becoming a Rainbow Red-Indian and life in a reservation, where else but mid-Wales?
Before leaving Rick in his wig-wam, some wise words from Martyn, landlord of The Butcher’s Arms, Herne, situated a Prayer Book’s throw from Bishop Ridley’s St Martin’s where the Te Deum was first sung in English, sadly not a FiF parish today.
Martyn opines, ‘If binge drinkers drank real ale the soporific effect of the hop would get them sleeping not fighting.’ His marvellous source of real ale is a ‘must visit’ if you follow Chaucer’s advice to make pilgrimage to Kent. For those not given to admiring Ridley and the Reformers, a Society of St Pius X chapel is a few yards along the road.
Rick’s Sixties liberalism was replaced by Seventies consumerism, fuelled by our ‘flexible friends.’ Progressive churchmen were not slow to take advantage and a former Bishop of Southwell, who lived after retirement with Amanda, a topless dancer, ‘played away’ in Belgium and was alleged to have paid for sex with ‘Sexanna the Stripper’ using an American Express card.
Despite the ‘spot-on’ relevance achieved by the foregoing, no scandal had the long-term significance of the Bryn Thomas case of 1961 which anticipated Larkin’s date for the start of sex by two years.
William Bryn Thomas was Rector of the Ascension, Balham, an area hymned by Peter Sellers as ‘gateway to the South.’ Bryn made a reverse journey to Rick, coming from Wales, and he retained his link with the ‘hen wlad’ by adding to his Anglican duties leadership of a Welsh language church.
It was this work ethic that probably led him to call out ‘lazy bastards’ when he saw me and fellow navvies having a breather on our shovels while road-mending in tropical heat outside his Vicarage. Accurate though his verdict could be, it seemed odd from a man famed for Socialist sympathy with all workers, including strikers, but obviously not shirkers.
Bryn proclaimed Trinitarianism by embracing Anglo-Catholicism and Freemasonry together with his Socialism. His embrace, it was alleged, also extended to his curate’s wife and to a parishioner, Mrs Brandy. Evidence at the Consistory Court described couplings that could have occurred in a modern Whitehall ministry. Hence many jokes about the Vicar ‘having brandy after the services.’
That the curate came from the episcopi vagantes subculture and, prior to Balham, had travelled in artificial ears (a change from Max Miller’s men travelling in ladies’ underwear) added to the surreal atmosphere. Among those who rallied to support the ‘randy rector’ was the gloriously named Revd Amphlett Micklewright, a priest-lawyer who shared Bryn’s wide ecclesisatical sympathies, moving from Anglo-Catholicism (he wrote for The Pilot) via atheisim to Unitarianism and back again, with his final destination seemingly being Rome.
Stiffkey’s rector claimed to be misunderstood, Balham’s to have been framed, but the result was the same – unfrocking. Bishop Mervyn Stockwood deposed Thomas at a Southwark Cathedral service held early in the morning to avoid Davidson style disturbances.
This would have been the end of the affair (though not of Bryn who re-surfaced as a nonconformist minister, still, it was said, as amorous as ever) were it not for the fact that Bishop John Robinson, on his way to the Consistory Court, hurt his back alighting from a car. In hospital he drafted Honest to God.
As Bryn would have said, ‘There’s relevant for you.’