John McGinnis passes along this delightful old recording of an 18th Century ballad about a pliable priest, The Vicar of Bray. Some of you, particularly readers in the UK, may already know the song. It concerns an Anglican clergyman who manages to survive the shifting religious commitments of the Stuart and Hanoverian dynasties by remaining loyal to one, overarching principle: keeping his job.
Under James II, for example, the vicar is a committed Catholic:
When royal James possessed the Crown, and popery came in fashion,
The penal laws I hooted down, and read the Declaration.
The Church of Rome, I found, did fit full well my constitution
And I had been a Jesuit, but for the Revolution.
He switches allegiance after the Glorious Revolution, though, to become a Protestant; then an arch, High Church Tory under Queen Anne; then he switches again under George I:
When George in pudding time came o’er, and moderate men looked big, sir
My principles I changed once more, and I became a Whig, sir
And thus preferment I procured from our new Faith’s Defender,
And almost every day abjured the Pope and the Pretender.
And there he plans to stay—for now:
The illustrious House of Hanover and Protestant succession
To these I do allegiance swear – while they can hold possession.
For in my faith and loyalty I never more will falter,
And George my lawful king shall be – until the times do alter.
No matter what, the refrain declares,
And this is law, that I’ll maintain,
Until my dying day, Sir,
That whatsoever king may reign,
Still I’ll be the Vicar of Bray, Sir.
The vicar of the song was apparently a real person. In a lovely essay, A Good Word for the Vicar of Bray, George Orwell wrote of seeing a yew tree he had planted in a Berkshire churchyard–more of this in a bit. Down the centuries, the vicar has been a byword for opportunism and lack of scruple, especially religious scruple. Perhaps the American Framers knew his song, which illustrates well the corruption of established churches. Not that lack of scruple is unique to clergy in established churches. I’ve heard that even professors can act like careerists on occasion.
Now that time has passed, I wonder if we shouldn’t lighten up on the vicar. Aren’t his tergiversations somewhat forgivable? Sure, you can see him as a hypocrite. But on another view, he’s a charming rogue, a man who uses his wits to navigate what he recognizes to be silly, but quite dangerous, quarrels. After all, who today takes seriously the controversies of the Stuarts? Only historians still get most of the song’s references. Wasn’t the vicar wise to avoid strong positions on matters that ultimately counted for little? One might even see him as an ecumenist, someone willing to compromise on doubtful points to maintain harmony in the church.
It’s a stretch to see the vicar as a sympathetic figure, I know. But, as Orwell pointed out, the vicar did inspire a comic song that still entertains after centuries, and he did plant that tree in the Berkshire churchyard, which gave rest to generations of tired souls. Surely those things count for something. Indeed, Orwell reflected,
It might not be a bad idea, every time you commit an antisocial act, to make a note of it in your diary, and then, at the appropriate season, push an acorn into the ground. And, if even one in twenty of them came to maturity, you might do quite a lot of harm in your lifetime, and still, like the Vicar of Bray, end up as a public benefactor after all.
It’s winter here in New York just now. Come spring, I’m going to start planting trees.