Monday, 7 February 2011


A week, I fear, of priests and prelates, beginning with the lowly vicar.

A vicarious pleasure is one that is experienced at second hand, it is the smiling elder brother of compassion (suffering with) and sympathy (suffering with). I once heard that back in the days of rationing, when you couldn't buy a good cigar, fellows used to go and watch Citizen Kane, just to see Orson Welles smoke.

Anyway, a vicar is a vicarious substitute for God. God isn't there in the flesh (being uncarnate) so he sends along his substitute.

The novel The Vicar of Wakefield, by Oliver Goldsmith includes this merry little rhyme:

When lovely woman stoops to folly,
And finds too late that men betray,
What charm can soothe her melancholy,
What art can wash her guilt away?

The only art her guilt to cover,
To hide her shame from every eye,
To give repentance to her lover,
And wring his bosom, is -- to die.

Which I would love to see reprinted as a response in an agony aunt column. T.S. Eliot had fun with it in The Waste Land. His version is, alas, more accurate.

When lovely woman stoops to folly and
Paces about her room again, alone,
She smoothes her hair with automatic hand,
And puts a record on the gramophone.


N.B. The vicariousness of vicars was pointed out to me by an erudite correspondent.


  1. Not quite true, unfortunately.

    A rector (Latin rēctor, director, rēctus, past participle of regere, to rule) is an Anglican cleric who has charge of a parish and owns the tithes from it.

    A vicar is the priest of a parish in the Church of England who receives a stipend or salary but does not receive the tithes of a parish. He acts in the place of a rector or bishop - that is where the vicarious responisbility comes from, not from God.

  2. Well it's half and half. No etymologist is utterly sure whether the vicar was originally a vicarious rector or a vicarious god.

    I prefer the latter idea, although the former may be true.

  3. If the latter, then surely all clergy would be called vicars.

    We're not.

  4. And yet, the Pope is also known as the Vicar of Christ (at least in some parts)

  5. 'The Vicar of Christ' rather than 'A Vicar' would tend to imply that no-one else is, wouldn't it?

    I must say, I know a lot of Anglican clergy, and (although not an Anglican myself) I trained at at Anglican college, and have never heard an explanation other than the one I gave at the start of these comments. Certainly that is what we were taught at college.

  6. As I say, the ball is up in the air and on a knife edge all the way to the wire.

    If etymology were consistent all bridge-builders would be pontiffs and all persons parsons. Fortunately for the continued existence of this blog, etymology is nonsense.

  7. And for those of us who take the priesthood of all believers seriously, on your definition, all Christians would be vicars.

    More tea...?