Thursday, October 05, 2017

A totally preposterous parson . . .

A new study of Evelyn Waugh and the first vicar of St Jude's

A Totally Preposterous Parson: Evelyn Waugh and Basil Bourchier

Basil Bourchier was once one of the most famous clergymen in the Church of England, held in the highest esteem by the many hundreds who flocked from all parts of London to hear him preach, and the many more who followed his doings and opinions in the press.

In 1907 he was appointed the first vicar of Hampstead Garden Suburb, an experimental community in which the social classes would live together in attractive housing and semi-rural surroundings.  The parish inevitably attracted Bohemian and radically minded residents keen to campaign for and debate the issues of the day such as women’s suffrage, animal rights and spiritualism.  Bourchier played a leading part in these discussions and took them to a wider audience through his journalism, books and radio broadcasts.

At the beginning of the First World War he accompanied a women’s medical unit to Belgium where he was arrested and sentenced to death as a spy.  The last minute intervention of a German officer who had visited the Garden Suburb as part of a pre-war town-planning delegation brought about his reprieve.  

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”.  Waugh had been a regular worshipper at Bourchier’s church from shortly after it opened in 1910 and was confirmed there in 1916.  His father, Arthur, was a leading member of the congregation and its various committees, and became a friend and publisher of Bourchier.

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.

Reviewed by Stephen James in the Suburb News Autumn 2016 No 128 page 7