Sometimes, it is a relief not to be a clergyman, not to have to say, for the sake of politeness, what one knows to be untrue.
Anthony Trollope captured a sense of how many clergy must feel. In the Barchester Chronicles, when Archdeacon Grantly hears that Mrs Proudie, the manipulative, bullying wife of the bishop has died, he is unambiguous in his words:
“I wonder how he felt when he heard it?’
‘Of course he was terribly shocked.’
‘I’ve no doubt he was shocked. Any man would be shocked. But when you come to think of it, what a relief!’
‘How can you speak of it in that way?’ said Mrs Grantly.
‘How am I to speak of it in any other way?’ said the archdeacon. ‘Of course I shouldn’t go and say it out in the street.’
‘I don’t think you ought to say it anywhere,’ said Mrs Grantly. ‘The poor man no doubt feels about his wife in the same way that anybody else would.’
‘And if any other poor man has got such a wife as she was, you may be quite sure that he would be glad to get rid of her. I don’t say that he wished her to die, or that he would have done anything to contrive her death–‘
‘Gracious, archdeacon; do pray hold your tongue.’
‘But it stands to reason that her going will be a great relief to him.
What has she done for him? She has made him contemptible to everybody in the diocese by her interference, and his life has been a burden to him through her violence.’
‘Is that the way you carry out your proverb De mortuis?’ asked Mrs Grantly.
‘The proverb of De mortuis is founded on humbug. Humbug out of doors is necessary. It would not do for you and me to go into the High Street just now and say what we think about Mrs Proudie; but I don’t suppose that kind of thing need to be kept up in here –so uncomfortable that I cannot believe that anyone will regret her. Dear me! Only to think that she has gone!
How many times has there been a sense of relief in the heart of a cleric upon receiving news of the death of someone?
One woman made life miserable. Aged and in poor health, she expected regular visits, occasions that were always approached with a deep feeling of trepidation.
Living in sheltered accommodation attached to a nursing home, the woman found a wide selection of people about whom to make malicious comments. The comments bore no resemblance to the truth and the director of the care centre would express frustration at her staff being constantly maligned.
There was an awareness during each visit that the woman was probing for any information she might use as a basis for some new piece of slander. No-one was immune. Particular vitriol was reserved for her own daughter, who could do nothing whatsoever that was right.
One morning, the telephone rang. It was the undertaker saying the woman had been found dead.
“She is dead. She is dead, indeed. Hallelujah!” I exclaimed after the call.
When I met the woman’s daughter, she said, “I don’t like to say it, but it’s a relief.”
Archdeacon Grantly would have approved of the non-committal nod I gave.