Illustration by Clara Nicoll

Clerical life: Fictional clerics provide divine inspiration

Iconic clerics from the vicar of Dibley to Archdeacon Grantly can be a source of comfort for us real ones
March 27, 2024

There’s a story told of Richard Chartres, formerly bishop of London, arriving at theological college. The young men were given an icebreaker: what clergyman had most inspired their model of priesthood? One spoke of his grandfather, another of his college chaplain, and so forth. Then it was Chartres’s turn. “Archdeacon Grantly, in Barchester Towers,” he said. I hope this story is true. When I came up to the same theological college many years later, they were still asking that question, and I had trouble coming up with an acceptable answer. By opening the question to the ranks of the fictional, Chartres had made the conversation a whole lot wilder, more truthful and more fun. 

Don Camillo, for instance, is a presence on the days when you’re feeling beleaguered and irascible, and need an extra reminder to go into the sanctuary to talk to Jesus. The young priest in Georges Bernanos’s Diary of a Country Priest has for years been someone I turn to in loneliness and failure—and for that one exhilarating motorbike ride. Adolphus Irwine, the rector of Broxton in Adam Bede, is another inspiration, especially for his domestic distractions and his honesty when he falls short. Who, after all, can measure up to Chaucer’s parson? When I ask around there are some surprises. Your vicar may be the one who looks to Sterne’s Parson Yorick, or to Doctor Syn, alias The Scarecrow with his long list of transferrable skills. Anthony Trollope’s clergy are everywhere still: one of my favourites is Mr Crawley, the painfully proud vicar of Hogglestock in Framley Parsonage.

You may have noticed that there aren’t many women in this list. There are a few about, mostly solving crimes, which I find makes them harder to imagine as colleagues. “What would Merrily Watkins do?” She would look winsome, recite St Patrick’s Breastplate and go haring across Herefordshire to lay a ghost or two. Female clergy, or “lady vicars” as we’re generally known, became part of the British cast of characters by means of -television. I learned this quickly as a curate, when, refuelling my car, someone would shout across from another pump, “Hey, Geraldine!” or, more formally, “Has anyone ever said you look just like the vicar of Dibley?” The answer would have been, “It has been mentioned,” since it was enough to have dark hair, a clerical shirt and any kind of bosom. The Vicar of Dibley appeared in 1994, the same year that women were first ordained to the priesthood of the Church of England, and almost instantly made women in holy orders imaginable. So, for instance, a cab driver explained to me that he was a Bible-believing Christian. He said he had thought that lady vicars were unscriptural until he read about the prophetess Huldah in the second Book of Kings, and then he came round, and later realised there were many other similar females in Holy Scripture. As well as the new one on Emmerdale

Is the prophetess Huldah a real person, or a character in a book? She appears in the second Book of Kings, and also in the second Book of Chronicles. A book has been found during King Josiah’s restoration of the Temple. Who will say what it means? The King and his priests go to Huldah, the prophetess, the wife of Shallum, who lived in the New Quarter. She will know. And she does. We hear her speak with authority and without deference. She has the voice of a prophet. Then we turn the page and she’s gone. The book was Deuteronomy, we surmise, Moses’s last will and testament. Whether or not Huldah ever lived—and I think it’s likely that she did—we’re looking back into the 600s BCE for her. The Rabbis give her more of a story, and later Christian and Muslim traditions disagree about her burial place. 

Huldah, you might say, is buried in the book. Half a millennium later, we find Phoebe the deacon, who carried the apostle Paul’s letter to the Romans and, I imagine, read it out to them. I love reading that letter and imagining hearing Paul’s gnarly rhetoric in a woman’s voice. It seems that it should be easier to find the historic Phoebe, but it’s not. She too is buried in scripture. How real their voices are, though! Only the fear of public mockery keeps me from saying, “I’m inspired in my vocation by the prophetess Huldah and by Phoebe, the deacon.” It’s much more comfortable to tell people that it was the life of Don Camillo that got me going. And, after all, we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses, by Doctor Syn and Parson Yorick, Mr Slope, Archdeacon Grantly, Mr Crawley and Dr Arabin, Chaucer’s monk and Parson with all the saints, known and unknown, real or apocryphal, and Jesus, who was buried in the book and somehow mysteriously rose up from it.

Meanwhile, the local am-dram society is putting on The Vicar of Dibley this May. Their poster is a photo of St Vigor’s. I think they’re taking the proverbial.