Touching Cloth by Fergus Butler-Gallie review – the pratfalls and pitfalls of priesthood

·4-min read

When the young clergyman Fergus Butler-Gallie was asked, by the curious and the insolent, “What made you become a priest?” – with a variety of different emphases depending on the interlocutor – his stock answer was to reply: “Well, I heard that black was slimming.” Yet, as he subsequently reveals in this diary-cum-memoir, his true answer, shruggingly expressed, was: “Death, I suppose.”

It is this dichotomy between the sacred and profane – or to be more exact, tragedy and farce – that permeates Butler-Gallie’s account of contemporary life in the Church of England. After two accomplished volumes of humorous ecclesiastical history, including 2018’s excellent A Field Guide to the English Clergy, he now turns his attention to himself and proves a witty and adept guide to the foibles of the well-intentioned and all too human figures who follow holy orders. He comes from a military family, and when he tells his father that he is considering becoming a clergyman, the patriarch’s response, delivered with “a well-worn hereditary hangdog look”, is: “In many ways it’s not so different from the army. The outfit’s stupid and the pay’s crap.”

'In many ways it’s not so different from the army. The outfit’s stupid and the pay’s crap'

Rather than seeking to justify the ways of God to man, Butler-Gallie places himself in the new vein of workplace memoirs based on the traditional professions. Touching Cloth can be compared to Adam Kay’s This Is Going to Hurt and the writings of the Secret Barrister, but while Kay and the anonymous advocate were scathing about, respectively, the medical and legal professions, Butler-Gallie is mostly warm and complimentary about the clergy, even as he retains a wry edge of reserve. He writes, of his ordination, that “as I am contractually obliged to tell you, it leads me to a fuller, more joyous life”, and keeps a sense of humour about the demands of his vocation. When asked by one stranger “Are you a priest?”, while in full clerical garb, Butler-Gallie muses that “I may conceivably have been a very ugly stripper”.

He excels at farcical set-pieces of richly observed detail. The opening, in which he leads the prayers in a cramped Liverpool backstreet bedroom during a wake before realising that someone is smoking weed, is especially uproarious. It ends with the admission that “I concluded that blowing marijuana smoke over a body was probably not the best look for a cleric”.

For all the occasional laddish informality of the prose – “would a saint, as I did later on, jump the barriers to avoid paying 20p for a wazz at Euston?” Butler-Gallie asks while discussing charity and kindness in contemporary life – there is a warmth and wit here that recalls everyone from Wodehouse to that other godly humorist GK Chesterton, although it is hard to imagine Chesterton’s Father Brown receiving what Butler-Gallie describes as “an impromptu and ill-directed enema, courtesy of one of Britain’s dirtier rivers” while holding a merchant navy remembrance service alfresco by the Mersey.

Butler-Gallie’s thoughtful and humane observations of the priesthood and the people that he has helped (or hindered) temper the “it shouldn’t happen to a vicar”-style shenanigans he depicts. Nonetheless, when I was almost at the end of Touching Cloth, I found myself hoping for more anger and grit. From the Church of England’s stubborn refusal, until recently, to bless same-sex marriages in church to its complicity in concealing sex abuse cases, there is a case to answer about its iniquities and decline in both popularity and standards that Butler-Gallie appears to veer away from.

Yet in an affecting epilogue, he levels with the reader. He matter-of-factly describes his disappointment at failing to acquire a permanent living, and angrily calls out a minority of clerics as “manipulative and abusive, disinterested and duplicitous”. He has now left ministry, perhaps for good, and concludes that the church is, in an echo of St Paul’s words, “one body in Christ… not its silver plate or its procedures or its pomp or its promotions, but its people… the strange, awkward, wonderful, holy people”. It is ultimately the book’s humanity and compassion – as well as disbelief at Butler-Gallie’s not being able to find a place in the contemporary Anglican church – that lingers after you finish reading, rather than its farce.

Alexander Larman is the author of The Windsors at War (W&N)

  • Touching Cloth: Confessions and Communions of a Young Priest by Fergus Butler-Gallie is published by Bantam Press (£16.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply