“Put his head in a bag”

It is obviously a fundamental truth that you cannot be funny about a funny subject; if the subject is funny, you can only be pathetic. Thus, pathetic stories are told about clowns, but funny stories about bishops. Farce and religion are deeply akin: they are both based on human dignity. Sin and a piece of orange-peel both mean the Fall of Man. In the light of this eternal contrast we need not wonder that paragraphs in the newspapers which concern the churches and the sects should generally be the funniest reading. But I really think that the following beats anything –

“Some remarkable and lively scenes were witnessed on Saturday night at the adjourned meeting of the Easter Vestry held at St. Mark’s Church, Barnet Vale. Well-known Non-conformists, Passive Resisters, and Roman Catholics were present. For some time past there has been a heated controversy in the parish against what has been considered Ritualistic practices of the Vicar, the Reverend C. McLaughlin … but the Bishop has intimated that there is nothing in the ritual of St. Mark’s to which he takes exception. At the adjourned vestry meeting, Mr. Goddard had undertaken to substantiate the truth of six statements he had made against the Vicar. The first of these was that the Vicar had been urged to wear a ‘mitre’. The reading of the word ‘mitre’ created great amusement.”

I do not wonder at the amusement, but I think it was evoked less by the actual word ‘mitre’ (which is, after all, a word we can most of us pronounce without falling into convulsions) than by the whole nature of this remarkable charge, the charge which is, you will observe, put first and foremost at the very head and front of the Vicar’s infamy. Somebody else (presumably for fun) had urged him to wear a mitre. I do not know what the other five accusations were, but if they were of a corresponding force and logic, it might be possible to imagine them. The second charge was, perhaps, that somebody had said that he would look nice in knickerbockers; the third that Mr. Kensit had satirically suggested that he ought to wear a cardinal’s hat; the fourth that his first cousin had dreamed of him in a green turban; the fifth that his maiden aunt had always wished that he had been in the Life Guards. The list certainly suggests a number of startling images, but it is difficult to see how the unfortunate Vicar is himself responsible for them, just as it is not easy to see why it should be a charge against him that somebody else wanted him to wear a mitre. When a man displeases the little boys in the street, it is not unusual for them to advise him (in a bold metaphor) to put his head in a bag. Doubtless, if a priest of the Church of England did put his head in a bag it would be a startling innovation in the Anglican form of public worship; but it would scarcely be reasonable to accuse a Vicar of introducing this new Romish custom merely because some little gutter-boys had advised him to do it. And, moreover, if an ordinary Vicar put his head in a mitre, he could only be fulfilling the isolated wish of an individual humourist. Whereas, if he put his head in a bag he might, in some cases, be fulfilling a public and long-felt wish.

The final joke of the whole thing was that, as far as I can make out from the report, the priest in question was really an extremely moderate High Churchman and had not done anything odd at all. I feel myself in no great haste to burn idols. But if incense is an idol I should certainly burn it; the same principle applies to tobacco. The only moral of such things is that while there are fools enough on both sides of the question, there is a certain injustice in the fact that the fools on one side are allowed to pose as sturdy Englishmen of sound common-sense, while the fools on the other are regarded wholly as fanatics. It may be the truth that Ritualism is wrong, but if it is, it is a spiritual truth, a mystical truth; it is no more sensible than its opposite. The man who goes through the careful form of using incense may be a Ritualist, but so is the man who goes through the careful form of not using incense. The churchwarden who flies into a passion because somebody has suggested that the Vicar should wear a mitre is just as mad (or just as transcendental) as the Vicar who should actually wear one.”

The Illustrated London News, 27 April 1907.

Published in: on May 2, 2007 at 11:08 am  Leave a Comment  

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