Our reading today is taken from the Book of Errant Ecclesiasticals, chapter 458, verses 19-26: "And, lo, it came to pass that the Rev Teresa Davies was cast into the wilderness of the West Midlands and stripped of her priestly raiment when it was discovered she was a husband-swapper, and liked a nip or three of strong stuff before evensong. And then, verily, came tidings of ex-minister Roderick Sangster who, if he met women of certain age and comely means, could not pass by on the other side. Instead, he married them, often all at once. Hence, to the sounding of judicial trumpets, he was found guilty on charges of bigamy. Here endeth the lesson."
It is a sore and mighty text, the Book of Errant Ecclesiasticals. Infidelity by infidelity, wandering hand by wandering hand, it has been written; a great doorstop of a thing, heavy with centuries of lifted cassocks, panting parishioners, and goings-on in the vestry. And last week, the chroniclers were bent over its vellum pages, busily transcribing details of the latest clerical escapades. Ironic, really: you wait all year for a wayward cleric, and then two come along at once.
Mrs Davies of Daventry broke new ground in clerical misbehaviour. A Church of England tribunal heard she was drunk at three services, at one of them sitting among the bemused congregation with her head in her hands. And it was booze, presumably, that prompted her to confide in two colleagues at a Christmas lunch that she and hubby Michael took wife-swapping holidays. Further investigation turned up a website where "Tess and Mick of Daventry" solicited for fellow funsters.
She was banned from working as a minister for 12 years, and rode off on her motorbike into the pages of the Daily Mail, where she was pictured in a dress revealing a cleavage so deep it would have needed Jacques Cousteau to reach the bottom. Then news came in of Mr Sangster, ex-minister, but not, in the case of his three wives, ex-husband. Found guilty in his absence, the search for him goes on. The Book of Errant Ecclesiasticals, ever to be continued.
These tales of rectors ruined, curates shamed, and bishops dethroned are not, outside of clerical circles, recorded for their cautionary value, but as entertainment. They are that rich part of our comic tradition: naughty vicars. Quivering with lust despite the restraints of their calling, they are one of the great Standard English Jokes, a peculiarly Anglican tradition which ignores Roman Catholics and their supposedly Popish and Mediterranean practices, omits mucky Methodists, and overlooks unseemly Unitarians.
What we appear to find especially funny – from the drawings of Rowlandson, with red-faced parsons dandling servant girls on their knees, to any week's "randy vicar" headlines in the Sunday papers – is the very idea of the Church of England dipping its wick.
The ordained have spared no effort to generate material. Let us begin with the Rev Edward Drax Free of Oxford, who, having assaulted the bursar of St John's College, was given the living of Sutton in Bedfordshire in 1808. He took the word "living" seriously, stripping the lead from the roof and selling it, felling 300 parish oaks for their valuable timber, and filling the churchyard with a menagerie of livestock whose truffling rather disturbed the graves.
He also made no secret of his vast collection of pornography, gave each housekeeper to understand that they were also expected to be his concubine (siring five children by four women), and held no services for months at a time. Eventually, after Free launched an ill-advised lawsuit against the local landowner, these fun and games came to an end. The Bishop of Southwell, backed by parishioners, laid siege to the vicarage, shots were exchanged, and Mr Free ejected. He died in poverty, run over by a varnish-maker's cart.
Then, in the 1850s, came the Rev Henry Prince, newly defrocked for his ranting and semi-heretical sermons from the pulpit of Charlinch in Somerset. Prince proclaimed himself the Messiah and, with monies wheedled out of heiress followers, founded a commune called Agapemone on an estate in Spaxton, just a mile from his old parish. He forced his followers, even married ones, to live in single-sex quarters, but made different arrangements for himself. Every seven days, the younger women were seated on a giant roundabout; it was given a twirl and the girl who faced him when it came to a stop was his "Bride of the Week".
Not content with this, he once deflowered a teenage Zoe Paterson in the chapel before his startled congregation. Not a conventional place of worship, it also doubled as Prince's billiard room. Despite declaring himself immortal, he died in 1899 and was buried standing upright. His sidekick, the Rev John Hugh Smyth-Pigott succeeded him, was defrocked in 1909, but lived on at Agapemone until 1927.
The premises eventually became the studio where children's TV series Trumpton and Camberwick Green were made. No wonder Pugh, Pugh, Barney McGrew, Cuthbert, Dibble, and Grub wore such startled expressions.
In the Thirties came the most celebrated naughty vicar of them all – the Rev Harold Davidson, rector of Stiffkey in Norfolk, and famed as the Prostitutes' Padre. It was his habit to leave his country church and make for London to counsel young, vulnerable, but always attractive, females about the perils of the flesh. His helping hand (and for some reason he felt compelled to conduct some of his ministerings in, or out of, pyjamas) eventually led to his downfall. Defrocked at a consistory court in Norwich, he went off to tour the land as a fairground attraction, finally perishing in 1937 while re-enacting biblical tales in Skegness, when the lion called Freddie whose den he was sharing mauled him.
It was post-war, courtesy of the Sunday papers, that the naughty vicar became a full-fledged national institution. There was, in January 1956, the case of the Rev Richard Smart, who undressed and then spanked a bride-to-be in his vestry. Given something of a talking-to by his bishop, he claimed he was only trying to inculcate a sense of religious duty in the lass.
In 1961, the Rev William Bryn Thomas, vicar of Balham, was defrocked for not only dallying with a local divorcee, but also for molesting the wife of his curate. As permissive times rolled, the pages of the Book of Errant Ecclesiasticals began to fill up fast: the Right Rev Gordon Savage, who soon after stepping down as Bishop of Southwell, moved in with a former topless dancer called Amanda Lovejoy; All Saints, Leamington, where Christmas 1993 brought news that unto the parish a son had been born, the fruit of a liaison between the vicar and his parish secretary; the Bristol vicar whose sermon was interrupted by an angry husband shouting: "You are a fornicating adulterer!", which he was; the Cumbrian vicar who tried to French kiss the head of the regional tourist board, and the curious case of the Sheffield vicar who presented himself at Northern General Hospital's A&E department with a potato lodged in his backside. "I was hanging the curtains in the nude when I fell backwards on to the kitchen table and a vegetable," he claimed. Oh, how we laughed.
But why? What is it that makes these events – regarded as sad and damaging if they happened in most other areas of life – richly comic when a vicar's involved?
Part of the answer might lie, of all places, in the saucy postcards of Donald McGill. Here, trading on the comic conventions that are with us still, vicars and curates are portrayed as foolish innocents. (Vicar to woman with two babies in pram and identical children beside her: "Twins again, Mrs Lovejoy? Do you always have twins?" Woman: "Oh, no, vicar! Lots of times we don't have anything at all!"). Clergy were bookish, but unworldly, as well as deliberately occupying, through their vocation, a self-conscious place on the moral high ground.
How delicious, then, in real life, to have the occasional aberration who, even as he chairs the parochial church council, is fumbling under the table for the thigh of the verger's wife – or, better still, that of the verger. And finally, there's that dog collar. No humourist could contrive a better uniform for wayward models of rectitude: constrained above, but unbuttoned below.