Project Canterbury

My Curates


By A Rector.

London: Skeffington, 1890.


"Et mihi res, non me rebus, subjungere conor."

IN some respects I may compare myself to Cincinnatus, who, in his old age, was called from the plough to do battle for his country. I am aware that the great Roman commander has been utilised in this way before now. Some years since, for instance, Punch's cartoon depicted Mr. Gladstone as England's Cincinnatus, called—not from the plough—but from the tree-felling axe to resume his seat as head of the Government.

Notwithstanding the savouring of plagiarism, I liken myself to Cincinnatus. He was of a retiring disposition—so am I. He loved the country—so do I. In his earlier years he was a public man; as age advanced he retreated to the quiet of his farm; here his peacefulness was disturbed, and once more he figured in public.

In earlier life I was not exactly a public man, although some of my thoughts were made public; I was a scribbler on a small scale. In the mellow period, when one scarcely knows whether to call himself middle-aged or an old man, I accepted a country living, where I now tend my roses in the garden, and my flock in the parish. Once more I retake my pen to write, not a sermon, but a book.

There is something very formidable about beginning to write a book. I promise, however, that it will not be a very long one. For such a work, even granting the capacity, I have not the time. My little book will be, for the most part, a description of my Curates; and of these I shall give special prominence to my fellow-helpers who worked with me while I held the important living of S. Peter's, in the large country town of Mulworth.

Talking of Cincinnatus and his plough reminds me of a pathetic little incident which I witnessed last hunting season. It will serve as a simile; I find that one gets fond of using rural similes in the country.

James, my man-of-all-work, was ploughing part of the glebe land with a couple of horses; one a cart-horse which I had borrowed from Farmer Jones, the other my old gig-mare, who is a well-bred animal, and was a hunter years ago. A fox, followed not long after by a pack of hounds in full cry, and a company of red-coats, passed through the field—

"Id clamor et agmine facto
Quadrupedante putrem sonitu quatit ungula campum"—

The earth shook, whips cracked, the tally-ho resounded, the blast of the horn shrieked out. It was an exhilarating sight, and James pulled up to have a look. But the pathetic part was this—while the cart-horse tried to nip a chance tuft of herbage, my dear old mare Alice became quite excited. She thrust her ears forward, and strained her eyes with a long wistful look at the passing throng. She whinnied and neighed, as if craving for yet another run on the open.

The little incident quite affected me, and I found myself meditating how many of us old men resemble in disposition my mare Alice !

But for my simile. The huntsman's horn, which awakens within me recollections of other days, and kindles a fitful glow of earlier energy, is a little book which I have just been reading. It is entitled "My Rectors, by a Quondam Curate;" it has stirred me; I shake off the yoke of age; I shut myself up in my study; I take my pen, and launch out once more into the arena which has witnessed so many victories and defeats—the chequered arena of print.

Cincinnatus—to refer to him for the third and last time—is reported to have said to his wife as he started for Rome, "I fear, Racilia, our little field must remain this year unsown." A similar fear might be mine. My little field is my parish; there is seed to be sown there in truth, and there may be the apprehension lest a flitting backward of the memory into the past should interfere with one's ever-present duty. However, if I can finish my book as quickly as Cincinnatus finished the Aequians, the ground upon which I work will not remain neglected long.

For a little while I shall follow "A Quondam Curate's" lead. I shall imitate his example, and say something about myself. That something will be little. My personal history has been an uneventful one—that is, if it can be said that the history of any person, however insignificant, is really so. Whatever interest it might possess for the general public consists in the parishes and people with which it has been connected. And in this it resembles the history of many another country clergyman; indeed in the majority of cases the English clergyman's life is a quiet, uneventful one; of course it has its throbs and pulsations, but they are mostly caused by the cares and concerns of his calling.

As I claim to be no extraordinary person, but, like Jacob of old, a plain man, although not exactly a dweller in tents, so I will take no extraordinary pseudonym, but the plain one of John Smith. I present my card—Rev. John Smith, Lulbrook Rectory, Stirbridge.

After taking my degree at Oxford, I proceeded in the usual way to obtain a Curacy. I spoke to some clerical acquaintances on the subject, I advertised, and looked out for advertisements.

And here I would say a few words on the topic of advertising. What objection, unless it be a merely sentimental one, can be urged against a clergyman advertising in a clerical paper? Is it more derogatory to his dignity than advertising in a daily paper is derogatory to the dignity of Jeames or Chawles? Indeed one may perceive a distinct advantage in the custom of advertising for either a Curate or a Curacy. It gives a wider area from which Rector or Curate may make his choice, and so it affords a greater probability that either or both will arrive at a fitting conclusion. If a Curate-dispensing committee were formed, what would be the result? This committee, very likely, would know nothing about the Rectors and their requirements, and little or nothing about the Curates and their qualifications. So if mistakes are already made, they would only be increased and magnified were we to give up advertising.

And besides this, as the inclinations of Rectors and Curates could not well be consulted, the probability is that in many cases both would be dissatisfied. The Curate would be reduced to a machine, packed off anywhere at the will of the committee; and the Rector might be saddled with a machine which he could not work. Why in these things, as in most others, we ought to decide by our common sense. If the Church of England leaves a margin for the action of reason in matters of faith, so in matters of work she leaves a margin for discretion.

However, I obtained a Curacy by means of an advertisement, and was well satisfied with my Rector, and I have reason to believe that he was satisfied with me. Of course we had, occasionally, little differences of opinion, theological disputings and such like. They but added to our zest, they did not interfere with deference and respect. Even as a pie is savoured by pepper, so is life improved by amicable disputation.

It is not my purpose to dwell on this period of my life. Altogether I worked for seven years in the capacity of Curate, for three years in one parish and four in another. I look back with pleasure to those days, and am deeply grateful for the wholesome advice which I received from both my Rectors, and which was given with the simple view of training a young disciple, of necessity rather inexperienced, in the work of the ministry.

My stipend was about the average; though not large, it was sufficient for the necessaries of life. In prospect of my usual annual holiday, I made preparations for its enjoyment by occasionally writing for a country town paper, the editor of which paid me half a guinea for each of my contributions.

And here I would mention that many Curates are by no means anxious to exchange their status for that of Incumbent of a small living. The Curate is, in many respects, the more independent; he has few calls on his purse, while the Incumbent has many; and the sense of parochial responsibility falls much more heavily on Incumbent than on Curate. Besides this, I am aware that not a few young men in Holy Orders have refused livings on principle, deeming it their duty to remain Curates for a term of at least ten years.

At the age of thirty I accepted a small living in the gift of the Dean and Chapter of our Cathedral. After some years, the parish of S. Peter's, Mulworth, was presented to me. From this I have retired to my present Cure, which is in the gift of our Bishop. For him I have a sincere regard, and I think it but proper and courteous to address him as "My Lord." Why should I not? It is a customary mode of address, and a term of respect due to the chief Pastor of the Diocese. The title is given to Roman Catholic prelates out of deference to the office of Bishop; so that, apart from legal arguments or Parliamentary considerations, there need be no qualms of conscience in using the phrase. And if we come to derivations, what is the meaning of "Lord" but "bread-dispenser?" Surely such is a most applicable designation for a Bishop.

Of course, there can be a lavish overplus in the use of the expression, which savours of obsequiousness as well as pleonasm. For example, when dining lately with our Bishop, I heard a New Zealand Missionary say, "My Lord, what is your Lordship's opinion of the Bill your Lordship is introducing into Convocation?" Nobody disliked the redundancy more than did the Bishop himself. The question reminded me—for alas! profane thoughts will beset us—of the eighteenth clause in the Athanasian Creed.

Like most elderly men, I find that I am easily tempted into digression. My excuse is that I have really very little to say about myself. It is, however, right that I should state my theological opinions. In these I may be accepted as a fair example of the ordinary beneficed clergyman. I am not extreme, and I wish to be liberal. If a man be in earnest, I have ever considered that his opinions (if they be within the boundaries of orthodoxy) are of minor importance.

With regard to my Penates, I have but to say that I am married. Although I did not, like the Vicar of Wakefield, choose my wife as she did her wedding gown, still she is possessed of such qualities as wear well. She is a kind, motherly woman; she likes young men, for they remind her of our eldest son who is on a ranch in America. We have always wished to treat our Curates as our equals and on terms of intimacy. They have been expected to come, as a matter of course, to dinner and supper on Sunday, and could drop in at any other time and be welcomed.

Having been a Curate myself, I am in sympathy with them. If at times I have tendered my counsel to them, on the other hand I have been ready to receive from them any suggestions which might be serviceable to the spiritual welfare of the parish. If I found fault with them there is little doubt that they had reason to find fault with me. We clergy, beneficed or unbeneficed, are, like other men, "compassed with infirmity." I claim to be no exception to the rule. Still I maintain that, taking us all round, we Rectors and Vicars of England will compare favourably with the members of other professions in those endowments of mind and deportment which should regulate a man's conduct as a Christian.

For the present I have said enough about myself as an introduction to my readers, I now turn to my Curates. In describing them, I may be guilty of a species of anachronism; that is to say, they may not have been with me in the same order in which they appear in this book. It must be understood that other Curates, who will not be mentioned, may have filled in certain interregna or pauses of silence. But for convenience sake I shall head the chapters as if those of whom I write came in the specified order.

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