Me and Dusty Springfield have a personal connection. She has written a song about me!! For I am the son of a preacher man. Well, I am the daughter of a vicar, the niece of an archdeacon and the granddaughter of a vicar, which is more than enough Anglicanism as far as I am concerned. 

My mum has been a vicar (priest, reverend, whatevs) since I was in year five, which was just in time for me to be teased at secondary school, and too late for me to say that I’d ‘never known any different’. My mum becoming a vicar caused her to move house five times in nine years and spend a large proportion of my adolescence dressed like a penguin in clerical robes – an outfit that could lead the finer of us to remark that she was ‘serving tent’. 

I’d like to start with the robes. The robes will be my gateway into my schism-poking, Henry VIII-tickling revelation that the whole church-thing (Anglicanism, my area of personal research, lived experience if you will) is deeply theatrical. It is so 


Putting on a big church service is essentially and logistically equivalent to putting on a musical, but with more gravity. While sitting in the audience of this advent’s candlelit carol service, I glimpsed the choir and clergy hiding in the wings (the vestry). They were huddled, giggling before their big entrance in large gowns of a variety of colours – some red, some black, some with furry hoods – accentuated by black shiny shoes and full cassocks. 

You would have thought that Anglicanism was stripped of all theatricality when it was split from Catholicism, and all that Lollard business – but NO. My mother will be flinging incense about at midnight on Christmas Eve. Really, church services are a dance of sitting, standing and kneeling at the right time with no clear instruction, only the expected years of experience as your guide. The pressure! The tension! Caitlin Moran astutely observed on her first visit to a church that all the hymns are impossible to sing: they are either too high or too low, causing an awkward strain that truly does not invoke the angelic choir. 

Moran’s observation is bang on and captures how the whole church experience would be extremely daunting if you were not immersed (literally, or in my case figuratively) from birth. Attending a church service for the first time is like going to a pantomime where audience participation is fundamental, expected and generally unexplained. Not only is it BEHIND YOU, but the thing you’re meant to be experiencing is in FRONT, to the SIDE, ABOVE and even WITHIN – EVERYWHERE. Technically, ‘omnipresent’. If the communally shouted response in a pantomime was ‘IT’S OMNIPRESENT!’ I think the expected, and I would say justified, reaction would be ‘ARGH!’ Possibly people would be so alarmed that they wouldn’t even stay for the juice and biscuits. 

I’m not here to discuss whether this pomp is a bad thing, or if it’s really more Catholic, or the many problems of categorising historically messy denominations. These are my reflections as a vicar child, who, if I may be so bold, is treated as basically ‘the understudy’. 

Priests must, for their professional role in the community, live in the area they work in. However, this has drastic implications for the priest and their family’s privacy. It creates an odd situation: every time you leave the house you are visible and On Duty, and even when you’re at home in your dressing gown you’re technically On Duty because it is a vicarage and therefore a public building, your place of work. Theatrically, this is equivalent to a Leading Lady (and her children, and her partner) living in the theatre she performs in, meaning she never really leaves work and that her fellow ‘cast members’ (family) are performing by association. 

Of course as the Leading Lady, my mum is fabulous. Few people can look up at an absolutely wham cathedral and think ‘my mother is inside there, winning.’ But there are downsides to my assumed role of understudy. A few people are deadly serious about it, asking me if I’m going to become a vicar like my mum, a question delivered with a gravity that assimilates my existence with that of an heir to the throne. Some people seem to ask just because the whole vicar-thing seems weird, which is fair enough.

My familiarity-by-association has peculiar benefits. These benefits are generally food-orientated, and stem from a stereotypically kind old lady called Joan, or potentially Grace. Women, at any rate, who know a lot more about me than I know about them. Usually, I acquire these tasty benefits after a church service, while I am attempting to lie low with several biscuits. On a typical, regular Sunday, I am often accosted by an unidentified lady who I later find out is called Beryl, asking how my holiday was. I say it was good, and I ask her name. She asks me if I know her grandson, who she insists is the ‘most well known and funny boy in the whole school.’ I deny it. She is incredulous. If a propitious encounter, she may in the future bring sweets, or in one wonderful and blessed relationship, lemon drizzle cakes. 

It is deeply weird that the omniscient, Ur-Joan knows where I went on holiday and who my biology teacher is. As the understudy, you are fundamentally a public figure, a situation which is already moderately naff. Yet it becomes monumentally more naff when you are also known and available to the public in your own home, which is also a place of work. This means no skimpy lounging in the garden! No using the kettle between 10am – 12pm on a Wednesday while there’s a meeting in the study! No drinking or generally delinquent formative behaviour in the village! No publicly expressing the desire to be married to a woman!

In deep sympathy with this naffness, my mum once showed me some guidance the CofE had released for families of priests. It featured the responses to a questionnaire about living in a vicarage. Most of the responses said ‘this is shit’. This is the gist:

  • There are randos in my house
  • There are randos in the garden
  • I can’t wear slaggy outfits because everyone knows I am the son of a preacher man
  • I can’t get pissed in my house because it’s a house of god
  • Everyone thinks I’m a Christian
  • I have to keep moving house 

The positives were mainly: 

  • Free food
  • Good sense of community 

Both of which are tremendous positives, and essential to survival. None of the negative responses will kill you off, unlike being without food or community, but they will stop you from unconsciously going about your life. It’s an awful lot of performing, a life of considering the audience. But then, I remember something from Sunday school – aren’t I meant to be self-sacrificing? 

Or is that another thing that I’ve unwillingly inherited? 

To be continued…