Tuesday Book: Clergy with a flair for sinning

THE GREAT UNFROCKED: 2000 YEARS OF CHURCH SCANDAL BY MATTHEW PARRIS, ROBSON BOOKS, pounds 17.95

AS THE actress said to the bishop, erring vicars are part of our civilisation - though politicians are catching up. Broadly, we think genially of the vicar with the tart. If, in Lord Chesterfield's phrase, the position is ridiculous, the clergy in impious England are halfway there with their trousers on.

The very term "unfrocked", the ecclesiastical equivalent of tearing off epaulettes, suggests a sort of involuntary strip. And the mere idea of a clergyman engaged in sex, enjoying a different sort of benefice, involves a more comic step from serenity to frenzy than might apply to the diversions of a computer salesman.

Matthew Parris, upon whose cool statement of a known fact The Sun has lately impaled itself, might have thought when starting on delinquent clerics that he was launching an anthology of frolics. In fact, assisted by Nick Angel (who researched in Consistory Court records and sat it out at the dirty books' study table of the British Library), he has produced laughs for sure in an elegantly and compassionately written book - but one shot through with sadness.

Archdeacon John Wakeford died in Barming Heath lunatic asylum two years after being admitted. John Atherton, Bishop of Waterford in the 17th century, was hanged in Dublin for homosexual acts having spent three days in the company of his coffin. (Incidentally, the last execution for sodomy took place in 1836.) Also hanged was the clearly off-his-trolley James Hackman, a soldier turned priest, who stabbed to death an actress, Martha Ray, with whom he was remotely and obessionally in love.

Wakeford, charged with spending three nights with a woman in a Peterborough hotel, was like a man convicted of murder in the absence of a body. They never found the tart. His madness came at the end of an impassioned campaign by an admired and popular preacher to prove his innocence. So it is a relief to turn to the ones who got away.

I recall the name Lancelot Blackburne on the tablet of archbishops in York Minster. It has a masterful ring to it, worthy of the man who rose inexorably by way of intrigue, loyal Whiggism and (allegedly) by marrying that wife-confining ogre, George I, to his mistress. From Exeter, whose previous bishop's gangrenous condition he monitored for his patron, he ascended to the bliss of York.

There is something delicious about Blackburne, a wrong 'un in excelsis. Reckoned to have started as a pirate's chaplain in Antigua, which beats the dodgiest Anglican seminary, he had a sharp eye for beneficed mortality and was a good (Whig) party man. He cheerfully hounded a close clergy friend for Jacobite writings until the man died in jail, and meanwhile kept up with the sex.

He was accused, while sub-dean of Exeter, of constructing a secret passage to the house of a neighbour whose wife, a Mrs Martyr, he was enjoying. The wired-up Blackburne had better luck than poor Wakeford. The passage was found, the lady existed, but witnesses failed to turn up or changed their stories. After a period of suspension, the aisle-wise Blackburne was exonerated, a classic good chaps' cover-up in the best Civil Service tradition.

Advanced to the purple, he kept up his old interests. Taking on a good- looking milkmaid in the office, and later to be accused of three-in-a- bed sex, the Archbishop of York was celebrated in death with these lines: "All the buxom damsels of the North, / Who knew his parts, lament their going forth."

What Blackburne had was nerve - more than can be said for the snivelling Roman Catholic Bishop of Argyll and the Isles, Roderick Wright. This priest, beginning well, converted a woman to Catholicism before seducing her. Then he joined the apostolic succession in Argyll, and struck up with another lady. But he collapsed under the attentions of The Sun and told all for pounds 15,000 over a bottle of whisky and a Chinese takeaway. His limp exit line - "There are no more women, just these two" - would have saddened Archbishop Blackburne.

And from Sir Henry Bate-Dudley - serial duellist, acquitted adulterer, playwright, Irish magistrate gazetted as a baronet and, in a final, quiet phase, the rector of Willingham, Essex - there would have been a contemptuous snort. Bates had started as a journalist, libelled the Duke of Richmond, was jailed for a year and fought a duel with his proprietor. (It beats decayed fish fingers as revenge.)

In a splendid anthology which also brings us Titus Oates, Dr Dodd (hanged for forgery), St George, the Dean and Chapter of Lincoln, the Rector of Stiffkey, Pope Joan, Bishop Casey and Judas, these two - Bate-Dudley and Blackburne - stand out. They were robust, happy delinquents, all bang and no whimper, and wonderful examples to Ron Davies.

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