Bishop Dancer's Ferret: Church Politics in Oscar and Lucinda

[from Peter Carey's Oscar & Lucinda]

Bishop Dancer is a man you would most quickly understand if you saw him on a Saturday in Camden, dressed in his red hunting jacket and high black boots, leaning forward to accept some hot toddy from the stirrup cup. He had a handsome ruddy face which these days extended to his crown. What hair remained clung to the sides and back of his head; it was fine and white, cut very short, as was his beard. With no mitre to assist you, you might be inclined to think him a gentleman farmer. He had big thighs, strong shoulders, and although you could see the man had a belly, it was not one of your featherdown bellies, but a hard one. He sat well on his horse and it was a good specimen, too -- sixteen hands and no stockhorse in its breeding.

Dancer could not, of course he could not, have clergy who were notorious around the track, who lost their horses or their carriages because they heard a horse was "going to try." Sydney -- a venal city -- was too puritanical to allow such a thing. But had you informed Dancer of this story after dinner, he would have found it funny. He could find nothing in his heart against the races and he left that sort of raging to the Baptists or Methodists. The true Church of England, he would have felt (but never said) was the Church of gentlemen. Sometimes gentlemen incur debts.

He had interviewed Oscar closely on his arrival. He put him through his paces, questioning the fidgety fellow as closely as a candidate from Cambridge. He was looking for signs of this Broad Church heresy. He could find none. He accepted Virgin birth, the physical Resurrection, the loaves and fishes. The Bishop allowed him his view on Genesis with a little uneasiness, but it was no longer politic to make a fuss about this matter. He soon sniffed out, however, Oscar's Low Church background. In normal circumstances he would not have cared for it at all. He loathed Evangelicals with all their foot-thumping "enthusiasm." He did not like their "bare boards" approach to ritual, and there was plenty of this in Oscar's attitude. Bishop Dancer was delighted to find it so. "This fellah," he told himself, "will be my ferret out at Randwick." And when he thought it, he imagined Oscar quite literally as a ferret, his long white neck disappearing down a hole.

He asked the untidy applicant about candles on the altar. Oscar thought they should be lit only for illumination. He asked about vestments. Oscar thought a simple surplice quite acceptable, but preferred a plain black cassock. He asked about genuflexion. Oscar confessed himself uncomfortable with the practice.

Bishop Dancer became quite hearty. He had the young man stay to Iuncheon. He had him fed beef, although the beef was cold, and was not even mildly disconcerted when the young man refused the claret. There was going to be fun out at Randwick, that bed of Puseyites with all their popish ritual. There would be a first-class row out there, but he would win. He must win. For he had, by one of those anomalies which made the diocese so interesting, the right to appoint the incumbent himself. If the Randwick vestry did not like it, they could go over to the Church of Rome. They would not get their new parson dressing up in white silk and red satin. This one was a nervous little fellow, the Bishop judged, but he would not budge on this issue. He would not be susceptible to Tractarians, only to missionaries. Even at luncheon he persisted with a request that he be sent "up-country" (wherever that might be - when asked he could not say) . Bishop Dancer told him bluntly that mission work was a waste of time. The blacks were dying of like flies, and if he doubted this he should look at the streets of Sidney, man, and note the condition of the specimens he saw there. ~he held was over-supplied with missionaries and Methodists fighting Baptists to see who could give the "poor wretches" the greater number of blankets. Leave the blacks to the Dissenters, Dancer advised. God had work for him to do at Randwick.

It did not occur to Oscar that a bishop might lie to him. He accepted Dancer's story and, indeed, relayed it to Theophilus who disseminated it further through the columns of The Times. It was because of this gulibility that Oscar allowed himself to be placed almost next door to the notorious Randwick racecourse. He was Bishop Dancer's ferret, but it was not Keble, Pusey and Newman who were to cause him the greatest stress in his new parish, but Volunteer, Rioter, Atlanta, Nemon, and Kildare. [255]

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Last Modified: 14 March, 2002