Project Canterbury

The Parson’s Handbook

By the Rev. Percy Dearmer, M.A.

London: Grant Richards, 1899



Little need be said about the Choir, as so much must depend upon the architecture of the church. It should not be crowded with benches and desks, which has a very bad effect, but kept as open as possible. Where there is little room, it is far better not to have a surpliced choir; so that only stalls for the clergy and a few seats for the servers will be needed.

The stalls for the clergy will vary according to the size and customs of the church. In large churches as well as in collegiate churches returned stalls were formerly used.[1] The clergy will need an extra shelf for books; and a similar shelf for the men, partitioned between each seat, will be useful. It is my experience that the boys behave better if they have nothing at all to kneel up against. They will then kneel bolt upright, with nothing to screen them, on a strip of matting (say of dark green or red); and this will also give the choir a more open look.

No wood or metal work that can possibly come in the way should have sharp edges or corners. And no nails should be allowed to be fixed in the wood by those who carry out decorations.

[41] The lighting of choirs by flaring gas-standards is a practice much to be avoided (still more so when two gaudy brass standards are placed near the altar). These things are nearly always very offensive in appearance: they get in the way: they are costly: they waste a great deal of gas; and they contribute towards spoiling and dirtying everything in the church. There are many other ways of managing the light. For instance incandescent burners may be fixed out of sight at the side of the choir; in which case their reflectors should throw the light on to the stalls; and two burners on each side will suffice for a not very large church. If the burners are fixed on standards it is best that these should be plain and stand in the midst of the benches: a shade to throw the light on the books will be useful to the singers, will try the eyes of the congregation less, give a better effect in the chancel, and economise gas. If oil-lamps are used, they too should be well shaded. In those churches that are fortunate enough to have electric light, it is generally better not to use the old gas-fittings (which may conveniently be got rid of at the installation); for electric lighting lends itself to peculiarly light and graceful methods. Anything like throwing a theatrical light on to the altar is strongly to be condemned. Gas or electric lights on the altar itself are intolerable. The general rules about all lighting, whether in nave or choir, should be,—that it be of as simple and unobtrusive nature as possible, that, if possible, it be not obtained by naked gas-jets burning to waste, that it be not placed at any height, but that the principal aim be to place it near to where it is wanted for the people to see their books, so that there is as much quiet shade in the church as possible. The less gas is burned the better. People are more drawn to and impressed by a church that is not filled with flaring light, though often they do not know the reason; and the present [42] craving for a fussy crowd of candles on the altar is in great measure caused by the want of a reasonable proportion of light and shade in the rest of the church.

The service books should be well bound and stamped on the outside ‘Choir’ with a number, ‘Choir Boys’ with a number, and ‘Clergy Decani,’ or ‘Cantoris,’ etc. The boys should not be allowed to use any but those marked for them, as they have incurable destructive tendencies.

Hymn-papers should be filled in every week by the librarian, and placed one in each clergy stall, and two or three on each shelf for the choir. If they are printed altogether in red ink, the numbers will be more easily seen. It will also lessen the danger of false numbers being given out, if the place for the hymns be arranged in a column distinct from that for the chants, etc.

If the public notices that are to be read are written in a book, it serves to keep a useful record.

The Rood-Loft.—There can be little doubt that the most appropriate position theologically, as well as the most impressive, for the Rood or Crucifix is the ancient place on the chancel-screen, or, when there is no screen, on a beam running across the chancel arch. Reverence would suggest a great reserve in the use of crucifixes, which should not be dotted about the church in the way one sometimes sees. Nothing can well be more impressive than the use of one large crucifix on the screen or beam, and that alone. Figures of St. Mary and St. John were generally placed on either side of the Rood, and sometimes other figures also. The Rood-loft was a common place also for the organ and for musicians. Two, four, or six candles on the Rood-loft are in conformity with ancient custom,[2] and look most impressive [43] if the church is kept in proper shade: they also have a good effect in daylight.

There are many good ways of disposing the organ. To block up a chapel with it is a bad way. The recent committee under the Bishop of Chester, which reported on the subject, showed that, for the sake of the instrument itself, it should not be crammed into positions of this sort. Our old country churches were not built to contain a large organ; there is no place for one, and therefore a chapel, often the only chapel, has been taken, to the destruction of the church’s beauty and the great detriment of the organ’s power. If the little Positive Organ, charming in appearance and excellent in tone, had been invented earlier, many a lovely old church would have been spared from hideous defacement. In larger churches some kind of organ-loft should be built. Organ-pipes should be left their natural colour.

There can be little doubt that the best arrangement both for music and for ceremonial in most churches is the old one of a west gallery, containing both organ and choir. This has the additional advantage of allowing for a mixed choir. The choristers can still take part in the procession, slipping off their surplices in the vestry, or going as they are into the gallery, when the procession is over. There is nothing particularly Catholic about a surpliced choir.

The Pulpit may be in almost any part of the church, the usual place being at the side of the nave. My own opinion is that the south side is the best for every one who is not left-handed; for the preacher, having his stronger side towards the people, is able [44] to speak right across the church with more ease and self-command.

It is curious to notice how few pulpits are well placed or adequately fitted. As a rule they are pushed too far back against the chancel, and too much at the side of the church. Often they are half under a pier-arch, and the preacher as a consequence has to strain his voice in order to be heard, or is not heard by half the congregation. The old architects seldom made this mistake; they placed their pulpits well into the nave, and the preacher stood high enough to have a good command of his hearers.

Generally, too, of late years, expensive and very ugly stone pulpits have been set up. Of course, there is nothing wrong in itself about a stone pulpit; but a wooden one has these great advantages—that it is warm, smooth, and clean to the preacher’s hand; that it furnishes a church, giving it warmth and colour; and that it can be easily moved.

If an immovable stone pulpit is to be set up, a small platform should first be knocked together, and carefully tried in different positions; it should be moved about until the spot is found, where (1) the voice rings truest and clearest with least effort, (2) gesture becomes most easy and unstrained, (3) the largest part of the congregation can be seen. It will generally be found that the same place will be best for all three purposes. In the case, for instance, of a church with two aisles; if the pulpit be brought well away from the pier-arches, it will be found not only that the acoustics are much improved, but also that he can see (and consequently be seen by) a far larger proportion of those who sit in the aisles. Or again, in a church with no aisles, if, instead of the pulpit being stuck against the wall, it project into the church, the preacher will not only find it easier to speak, but also to move, having no longer the fear of hitting the wall.

[45] The pulpit should not, as a rule, be east of the easternmost row of seats, but should project a row or two into the seats on its side. As for height, I would suggest that the floor of the pulpit be not lower than the shoulders of the people when they are sitting down.

In the pulpit itself everything should be avoided that tends to make a preacher nervous or awkward. The steps to the pulpit are often better behind and out of sight, but in this case there should be a door, or at least a wooden bar, so that the occupant need not fear the fate of Eli. The sides of the pulpit should not be so low down that the hands dangle helplessly: Englishmen as a rule find their hands rather in the way, and they will speak much better, and avoid fingering their garments much more, if they can rest their hands quite comfortably on the sides of the pulpit. I would suggest 38 to 42 inches as a convenient height for men of average size; it is best to err on the side of height. Where the sides of the pulpit are too low, a rounded wooden rail can easily be fitted on to them, and it can very often be made to look well: the rail gives a rest for the fingers, it makes gesture more ready, the hands not having to be lifted so high, and at the same time it leaves the top of the pulpit (which should be at least 4 inches broad) quite free for books. Every pulpit should also have a shelf, sloping inwards, with a little ledge, large enough to hold the necessary books, and on the front side only. On the shelf there should be always a decent bible, a prayer book and hymn book, and a copy of the bidding prayer (which may be written on the fly-leaf of the prayer book). These books should not be too large to be put conveniently on the shelf, as anything that is in danger of tumbling-over adds to the constraint of the preacher. They should be stamped ‘Pulpit,’ and on no account ever be removed.

[46] There should be always a desk for those who use notes or manuscript. This desk should not be made of cheap, shaky metal with thin edges. It should be substantial, with rounded edges that do not cut the hands. It should be firm, and readily adjustable both as to height and slope. Metal is better for this purpose than wood. But here as elsewhere it is well to remember that there is nothing particularly ecclesiastical or sacred about brass. It is better to cover it with a cloth, but the Church nowhere orders that such cloths should follow the colour of the seasons. The desk should look across to the opposite corner of the church, and not due west.

A round hole should be made on the shelf under the desk, to hold a watch, even if there is a clock in the church; for some men are short-sighted. The congregation will often have cause to be grateful if there is a clock within sight of the pulpit. In most small churches a plain round clock on the west gallery or wall will be best.

A small fixed seat may be set in a very large pulpit, but not in one of average size (36 inches inside diameter). Many old pulpits are only 30 inches across. Although tastes differ in the matter, it is often true that a large pulpit makes a fidgety preacher.

If there is a tumbler of water, it must be kept in an absolutely safe place; for instance, in a niche under the front shelf.

The question of sounding-boards depends upon the acoustic properties of the church. Often a curtain of tapestry behind the preacher will be an assistance: it also serves to rest the eyes of the congregation. A hanging round the front of the pulpit, covering the sides but not the base, may often hide a multitude of architectural sins.

In nothing are pulpits more badly managed than in the method of lighting. It may be laid down as an [47] axiom that the lights should be turned down during the sermon; for this disposes the congregation to listen and not to stare about, rests their eyes, purifies the atmosphere, lessens the heat, spares the decorations, and reduces expense. Therefore the pulpit must have an independent supply of light of its own.

This should not be supplied by two unguarded candles on the shelf, unless the preacher is absolutely determined to court martyrdom. As a matter of fact, however, when preachers find themselves placed so near the fire, they take such care to avoid it that they remain throughout their discourse as impassive as statues. When the candles are guarded, the preacher is equally under restraint; for he is afraid of breaking the glass, and the fear of being ridiculous makes him awkward. No candle-bracket of any sort or kind on the shelf, or within possible reach of the preacher, is tolerable.

There remains another common alternative, that of placing a gas-bracket near the pulpit; but, if the pulpit projects sufficiently into the church, the gas-bracket will often be too far away. And in any case it will need a separate connection.

But it is still open to grave objection. If there is a gas-burner, candle, or other naked light near the pulpit, it will be very trying to the eyes of the congregation; it will thus cause them to look anywhere but at the preacher (whom indeed it often renders nearly invisible). Besides this, it generally gives a very poor light for the notes on the desk.

What is wanted is a flood of light on the desk, and a clear light on the preacher, with no visible flame at all. This can be easily obtained by hanging a lamp over the pulpit. The lamp should hang from a chain, fixed either to the roof, or, if the wall is not too far, to an iron bracket projecting from the wall some height above.

[48] It should be suspended rather in front of the preacher and over the desk, at such a height that it can just be reached by any one in the pulpit, which will be found to mean that it is well out of the way of the most violent gesticulation. A pulley and chains will be convenient for tending the lamp. This lamp will of course be shaded. If a silk shade is used, it must be quite plain: red, or green, or dark yellow are good colours, lined with white. But the best plan of all is to have a copper reflector round the top of the chimney with a copper cup round the flame; in this way the rays of light are reflected with clear mellow brightness on to the desk and the preacher, while no flame at all is visible. The best designed lamps of this kind are made by Mr. W. A. S. Benson, 82 New Bond Street. They burn crystal oil, and can be lighted and turned out as easily as gas. Lamps need to be lacquered, as otherwise they are difficult to clean. It is best to light them before the service.

The Lectern may be beautiful or ugly, artistic or commercial, according to the spirit of the people who gave it. It can be cheap or dear, of wood or metal, according to their means; but it may be something other than a brass eagle without any offence against orthodoxy. One thing is essential to it,—that the desk be of a convenient height and angle, and do not come between the reader’s head and the congregation. There is plenty of ancient precedent for much higher lecterns, but they were used for singing the service in the choir, and not for reading to the people. Like the pulpit, the lectern should be placed where the voice is best heard, for our rubric (as well as common sense) orders that the reader shall so stand as he may best be heard. It may be on the opposite side to the pulpit, and not too near the chancel. It should stand on a platform at least a foot above the floor of the nave. From the platform to the lower edge of the desk 48 inches is a good height.

[49] Book-markers are a convenience, but not an ecclesiastical ornament, needing a particular treatment. To change them with the seasons is a piece of fancy ritual, which may be harmless, but is at any rate unnecessary, and rather damaging to the book. Red or blue are good colours. Reverence would suggest a sparing use in these and similar things of very sacred symbols.

Lectern-cloths are among the ornaments of our rubric, and often they will greatly improve the appearance of a lectern. The usual pattern is, however, not a good one: the lectern-cloth should be a strip of handsome material (not embroidered for preference) as wide as the desk, and long enough to hang not only over the front, but over the desk to a longer distance down the back. Cloths of this sort are better fringed at the ends, and sometimes also at the sides. There is no reason why they should follow the colour of the seasons, though they may be put away in Lent and either replaced by some older or more sombre cloths, or the lectern left bare. Of all things of this kind it is well to bear in mind that it is better to spend a fair sum on one of good material than to waste the same amount on four or five cheap ones. One bad result of this multitude of changeable material has been that the lesser feasts and fasts of the Church are often not marked at all. Only the frontal need be changed.

The Litany Desk or Faldstool is not proved to have been in use at the time of the rubric; but, as in the first year of Edward vi. it was ordered that in parish churches ‘the priests, with other of the quire, shall kneel in the midst of the church, and sing or say the litany,’ a desk may have come into use as a matter of convenience. Grindal in 1563 orders the Litany to be said ‘in the midst of the people.’ Cosin, in 1627, as Archdeacon of the East Riding enquires, ‘Have you ... a little faldstool, or desk, with some decent [50] carpet over it, in the middle aley of your church, whereat the Litany may be said?’[3] The position of the faldstool is discussed on p. 131.

The desk, then, had at this time a ‘carpet’ i.e. a cloth on it, which, of course, like other cloths of this nature need not follow the colour of the season. If it stands in the middle alley of the nave, it should be at an ample distance from the chancel-steps, with plenty of room on either side of it, so as not to be in the way. If possible it should be a substantial roomy structure in wood. The tendency is to make them too high and too narrow in the shelf.

The Font should, according to Canon 81, be of stone, and ‘set in the ancient usual place,’ i.e. near the church door; this was again insisted on by the Bishops at the Savoy Conference;[4] the font was never in England placed in a special chapel or baptistry. As the rubric in our baptismal service orders the font to be filled afresh at each baptism, a drain is absolutely necessary. The Puritan practice of putting ‘pots, pails, or basons’ in it to hold the water was steadily condemned by our bishops from Parker downwards. The font should have a cover, which may be a simple lid or an architectural feature. Covers to fonts are constantly ordered from the time of St. Edmund of Canterbury to as late a date as that of Cosin. Care should be taken at festivals, if the font is decorated, to keep the top of it clear. When the font is ornamental in itself it is better not to decorate it.

Pews are by no means a Protestant invention, and in some ways they are better than chairs. They should, however, always be low, and the alleys both in aisles and nave should be much wider than usual. There are a good many old churches in England which show the medieval arrangement of low pews. [51] They are like separate islands of low wood-work, two in the nave and one in each aisle, with plenty of open space at the west end. To leave thus wide alleys, and a clear bay at the west where the font stands, is a great help to the architecture of the church, and gives room for the proper management of processions. Movable chairs can always be added when necessary.

Pictures and Images are legal in the Church of England, at least so long as they do not commemorate ‘feigned miracles,’ and are not abused by superstitious observances, but are for a memorial only. Their destruction was the act of lawless violence, and their use has never been entirely discontinued.

The special series, called the Stations of the Cross, has, however, no authority; for these were never in use in England, being of comparatively modern date. And, as they are exclusively connected with a special service, they cannot be defended as if they were so many separate pictures. It may be added that, while in Roman Catholic churches they are generally kept in due proportion by the multitude of other pictures, of images, shrines, etc., in an English church they tend to give an undue prominence to one part of our Lord’s life and work.

Photographs do not look well in a church, and even autotypes should be used very sparingly. Pictures with colour are wanted, and original paintings if possible. Some Arundels and some of the Fitzroy Picture Society’s lithographs look extremely well. The Arundel Society has given over the remainder of its stock to the S.P.C.K., but nearly all the best are now out of print. The Fitzroy Pictures are kept at Messrs. Bell’s, the Publishers, York Street, Covent Garden.

The choice of pictures lays a very solemn responsibility upon the parson; for many who see them will have their ideas of the Christian religion formed or [52] modified by what they see. They may, for instance, form the impression that weak sentimentality, or theatrical self-consciousness, is the religion of Christendom. On the other hand they may learn to see in it sincerity, depth, and strength. Need I say that this is even more true of images?

The placing of pictures on the walls is a matter for the architect, and cannot safely be attempted by amateurs.

Shriving-pews were sometimes used in old times; but their shape is not known, and their use was not general. For many reasons it is better nowadays to hear confessions in the open church, either at a seat or pew by the wall, or in some accessible chapel.

Holy water stoups are ornaments of the rubric; and there seems to be no serious reason against their use. If not built into the masonry they were often made of metal or earthenware, and hung near the doors.[5]

One or more alms-boxes should be placed near the doors of the church, and clearly marked ‘For the Poor,’ ‘For Church Expenses,’ etc. These boxes are generally now of flimsy wood screwed on to the wall. As a result they offer great temptations to any thief with tools about him, and are used as an argument against open churches. It is a matter of common-sense that a box containing money in a public place (for the church is a public place) should be very strong. The old boxes that have come down to us are formidable looking things, heavily bound with iron. At the present day we can do even better. Small iron alms-boxes of the ‘safe’ type are sold by [53] any good church shop. They should be cemented into the wall.

Notice-boards should be kept very neatly, and this needs among other things that each corner of each notice should be pinned down with a drawing-pin. Where there are several boards, it is a good plan to keep one for notices of the week, another in a less conspicuous position for notices of a more permanent character, and another for receipts. A card for the names of the sick and departed, for whom the prayers of the congregation are desired, can hardly be dispensed with in a town parish. And at the present day it seems really necessary to post up in a prominent position the card ‘Whosoever thou art’ which is published by the S.P.C.K.

Hymn-boards are very useful, but sometimes there is not enough room on them when there are processionals or extra hymns. The day should be given at the top, so that every one can find the Psalms; and if a psalm is sung for the introit according to the First Prayer Book, it will save bother (and also the expense of introit books) if a piece of wood is provided with the word ‘Introit’ to hang over the word ‘Day,’ for the Holy Eucharist. The verger is generally the best person to look after the hymn-board.

Devotional books for private reading are an admirable institution in a church; they encourage people to make use of it, besides assisting meditation and helping to dissipate prejudice. The Bible and other books were formerly kept on a desk for folk to read; the custom of keeping books in church had come in as early as 1488, and in the seventeenth century devotional books were common in church. A small book-case may be hung near the west end, and supplied with a good selection of books, stamped with the name of the church.

Chapels are required by our Bishops, following the [54] ancient practice, to be enclosed by some kind of open screen with doors. A chapel needs an altar with a foot-pace, and a credence, all of which may be smaller than those belonging to the chancel. Minor altars are not allowed unless they stand in a chapel. Chapels are intended for the Eucharist, not for choir offices.

Of all the objectionable ways of warming a church that of noisy iron gratings on the floor is one of the worst. They have a power of spoiling the effect of the architecture which is curiously beyond their importance; they are a danger at weddings and at other occasions; and they harbour rats.

No alterations or additions should be made in the architecture or furniture of a church until a faculty is obtained from the Bishop. The cost of a faculty for minor alterations (if unopposed) is £2, 2s.

There should always be benches in the Church Porch. An open wire door to let air into the church is useful in the summer, and the porch itself should have gates.

The verger should have a cupboard near the west end of the church, where his gown and wand and the alms-plates should be kept, and also magazines, additional hymn-books, and such like things. In new churches provision should be made in the wall for a cupboard of this sort.

The parish church belongs to the people, not only during service time, but all through the day. It is not the parson’s private property: he is one of the trustees for it, and his duty is to keep it at the people’s service. It is really inexcusable to exclude them from it at any time of the day. If all the doors are kept freely open it is safer than it would be with only one entrance; for a thief would have to keep a watch at all the entrances. As a matter of fact, thieves generally find it safer, for this reason, to break into a locked church. But the church is a public place, and therefore valuables should be kept [55] under lock and key, and reasonable precautions should be taken not to leave temptation in the way of a chance passer-by. The best safeguard is for the church to be well used; and abroad very few precautions are found necessary. The people will gradually learn to use the church, if they are given the chance, and not prevented from saying their prayers by the churlishness of the parson. It is more important that the church should be open than that it should be adorned with valuable things. In some parishes voluntary watchers can be obtained; in others two or three old people can be provided with a pension as payment for a few hours’ watch every day. Watchers should be instructed not to follow strangers about, nor to eye them suspiciously, nor to address them on the chance of tips.

Gothic architecture is most beautiful, when it is true, as the modern imitations of it hardly ever are; but it was only in use during four centuries of the Christian era, and is therefore not more ecclesiastical than other forms of architecture. In Gothic, as in all other times, the church builders simply used the current style that was in use for secular buildings as well. The parson should not try to tie down the architect to any popular ideas as to what is ecclesiastical—which is, indeed, just the reverse of the whole Gothic spirit. Shoddy Gothic is the most hideous of all architecture, because corruptio optimi pessima. In medieval, as in all other Christian times, architecture and all forms of decoration were free, although symbolism was so intensely appreciated. Even frontals and vestments were made without any regard to the supposed ecclesiastical character of their materials, birds, beasts, flowers, and heraldic devices being freely used.[6] Because the significance of symbolism [56] was so well understood, sacred devices were used sparingly and with definite intention. Special ‘ecclesiastical’ materials only came in, even abroad, within living memory, and were due mainly to commercial reasons and the rage for cheapness.

Sound masonry is most necessary, even from the aesthetic point of view. A good architect’s work is spoiled, if nothing is asked of the builder but a low tender; and the only advantage of this cheap building is that it tumbles down after twenty or thirty years, and so the world is rid of it.


1 This was long continued in many places. The Puritan Cartwright objected in 1573 that ‘the minister sitteth in the chancel, with his back to the people.’ Bishop Wren in 1636 appeals to post-Reformation practice in favour of this custom (Parentalia, 78). 40

2 The lights on the Rood-loft were allowed to remain by the Injunctions of 1538, when many other lights were forbidden. But the Injunctions of 1547 forbade all candles except the ‘two lights upon the high altar, before the sacrament, which for the signification that Christ is the very true light of the world, they shall suffer to remain still.’ If, therefore, these latter Injunctions can be shown to have the authority of Parliament, then the Rood-lights are not ornaments of the Rubric.

3 Works, ii. 4.

4 ‘At or near the church door, to signify that Baptism was the entrance into the Church mystical.’

5 As late as 1644 they were in use, for the Ordinance of the Puritan Parliament on May 9, 1644, orders ‘that no Copes, Surplisses, superstitious Vestments, Roods or Roodlons or holy-water Fonts shall be or be any more used in any church or chapell within this realm…and that all Copes, Surplisses, superstitious Vestments, Roods and Fonts aforesaid be likewise utterly defaced.’ Scobell’s Collection of Acts, 1644, p. 70.

6 E.g. the inventory of Lincoln Cathedral for 1536 enumerates the following designs worked on the vestments (they are tabulated by Mr. Macalister in his Ecclesiastical Vestments)’.—Leopards, harts, falcons, do. with crowns in their mouths, swans, ostriches, ostrich-feathers, popinjays, lions, owls, black eagles, peacocks, gryphons, dragons, phoenix. In addition to these are figures of the Divine Persons, incidents in the life of Christ, of our Lady and other Saints, figures of the Angels and Saints, and emblems such as roses and lilies, sun, moon and stars; also crowns, clouds, knots, inscriptions, initials, and heraldic devices.


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