‘Lord, how can man preach thy eternal word?’ asked the 17th-century priest and poet George Herbert. ‘He is a brittle crazy glass.’ The Reverend Fergus Butler-Gallie asks this old and difficult question in a thoroughly modern way. His new book, Touching Cloth, a memoir that describes his first year in ministry following ordination, explores the challenges of the clerical vocation in a manner somewhat different from that of his Jacobean predecessor, but with an equal appreciation for the crazy.
In some ways Herbert had it easier than the clergy of our times. I don’t imagine he had to deal with praying over the body of one of his parishioners while stuck in a room filled with cannabis fumes, or with someone committing an act of revenge defecation in his choir stalls before the visit of a local dignitary, or with being constantly asked by strangers on buses whether budgies go to heaven. These are all situations faced by Butler-Gallie.
Butler-Gallie is open about the angst attendant on being a man of the cloth. One never quite grows into the dog collar, he says, no matter how many baked comestibles one receives from grateful parishioners. Are the clergy, he asks, supposed to be saintly, or just human? He