Evelyn Waugh and the Preposterous Parson

A book describing the career of Rev Basil Bourchier, the first vicar of St Jude-on-the-Hill in Hampstead Garden Suburb, has been written by the current vicar, Alan Walker. Evelyn Waugh’s family were parishioners at the church in his youth, and he was confirmed there in 1916. He described Bourchier in his autobiography A Little Learning as somewhat flamboyantly high church:

I went to church with my parents, who had taken to frequenting Saint Jude’s, Hampstead Garden Suburb, a fine Lutyens edifice then in the charge of a highly flamboyant clergyman named Basil Bourchier . . . Personal devotees flocked to him from all parts of London. His sermons were dramatic, topical, irrational and quite without theological content. . . . Despite all Mr Bourchier’s extravagant display I had some glimpse of higher mysteries.

The book is entitled A Totally Preposterous Parson: Evelyn Waugh and Basil Bourchier and is available from Amazon. The title is a quote from A Little Learning (p. 131):

Mr Bourchier was a totally preposterous parson. When he felt festal, whatever season or occasion marked on the calendar, he dressed up, he paraded about, lights and incense were carried before him. When the mood took him, he improvised his own peculiar ceremonies. Once he presented himself on the chancel steps, vested in a cope and bearing from his own breakfast table a large silver salt cellar. ‘My people,’ he announced, ‘you are the salt of the earth,’ and scattered a spoonful of salt before them…He was anathema to the genuine Anglo-Catholics of Graham Street, Margaret Street, and St Augustine’s, Kilburn.

UPDATE (16 August 2016): This book is not yet available from amazon.com in the US but can be purchased from amazon.co.uk in the UK. The price is £14.99 but may be paid in dollars and shipped to North America.

UPDATE (23 August 2016): We have received more information about the contents of this book since the foregoing was posted:

Bourchier would probably be forgotten today if it were not for a few lines in Evelyn Waugh’s A Little Learning in which he is ridiculed as “a totally preposterous parson”…By the time of A Little Learning (1964) Waugh had been a Roman Catholic for over thirty years and had long since come to think of the Church of England as an essentially ‘bogus’ institution. Bourchier himself had died in 1934 at the age of 53.

Biographers of Waugh invariably repeat the 1964 portrait as if it were an accurate account of Waugh’s youthful opinion of his vicar. Alan Walker (the current vicar of Hampstead Garden Suburb) reconsiders Waugh’s statements in the light of the church’s records and suggests the author actually had a much warmer and more positive opinion of Bourchier – and indeed of the Church of England. He corrects several errors and misunderstandings about Bourchier and his ministry, and goes on to look at the clergyman’s later career and final downfall.


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