Project Canterbury

My Curates


By A Rector.

London: Skeffington, 1890.


"Non vox sed votum; non chordula musica sed cor; Non cantans sed amans cantat in aure Dei."
S. Augustine.

"Be but duteous, and true preferment shall tender itself to thee."

I AM no idealist; that is to say, I do not believe it possible to find all one wants in another man—indeed, it would be difficult to state all that one does want.

Perfection is hard, nay, impossible, to define, and why? Because perfection admits of an infinite number of degrees. Even supposing that man had never "gone far from original righteousness," still the gradation in human perfection, within its earthly limits, would remain: the range from the perfection of the child to that of the grown man would be considerable.

But without entering the field of metaphysics, even that portion of it which is within the reach of speculation, my experience (and experience is a realising factor) has suggested to me that it is well-nigh impossible to find any two men who could travel from one end to the other of life's road in a harmony of feeling and aspiration which would defy at least an occasional dissonance.

We must not expect, then, to find perfection in Curates, nor a complete unanimity always existing between them and their Rectors. Bishops are not perfect—they are not all unanimous. It would be absurd to expect unanimity on the Episcopal bench; it would be chimerical to expect it among the lower Clergy.

I have already admitted that I made a grave mistake with regard to one of my Curates. Could I lay that aside from my memory, I honestly think that I am not over-scrupulous in my conception of what a Curate should be; and I may say, without affectation, that as some of my Curates were tolerably well satisfied with their Rector, so he was tolerably well satisfied with them.

Now, in preparing to give my impression of what a Curate should be, more than one difficulty presents itself. In the first place, other Rectors may not resemble me, and so may not agree with my opinion. And then again, is it not the case, so strangely are we constituted, that two excellent, earnest, religious men may not be able to get on together as Rector and Curate? Granting, then, that one could mould a die for a perfect Rector and another for a perfect Curate, the question is, Would they be complementary?

However, without further preface to this chapter,. I shall put down some characteristics. If I found a Curate in whom these were harmoniously combined and consolidated, perhaps he would satisfy me: after all, perhaps not.

In the following catalogue, I shall make no allusion to the private life of prayer. Such is taken for granted—without this the others would be of little value.

I should like my Curate to have these qualifications:—

1. His heart in the work. I start with the shrine of our being. The heart is a higher measure than the mind. Before his ordination Lacordaire wrote, "I have a very religious soul, and a very sceptical mind; but as it is in the nature of the mind to yield to the soul, probably some day I shall be a Christian." It is true that I have known young men, who embraced the Priesthood as a profession, and as little else, manifesting afterwards not only a deep devotion, but a deep love in the work of the ministry. But such cases are by no means general.

2. That he be clever and well-educated. The mind should take a prominent part. In these days especially we need young men, not only devoted and earnest, but of profound thought and intelligence.

It is a pitiful thing to see a clergyman beaten or puzzled by the sophistry of an opponent who has made it his speciality to undermine the cause of religion. Questions have to be grasped, arguments to be met face to face—evasion will not do. It is not, of course, to be expected that all our young clergymen should be, mentally speaking, mighty men of war. But it is possible for them to keep up their reading and their thinking, and to have whatever defensive weapons they are furnished with clean and bright, ready for the battle.

I have dwelt on this subject because I have seen religion suffer through the ignorance of a clerical dunce.

3. That he be free from a wish to be popular. There are many instances I could quote, showing how popular clergymen "filled their churches"— they emptied them by leaving; their work was built on sand (perhaps I should say on bubbles). On the other hand, I have known of unpopular men, who laboured and left, but whose works followed them.

There is, however, a little caution to be noted here. Indifference to popularity does not mean indifference to the claims of our people. Besides, if pushed to an extreme, an ignoring of popularity may degenerate into that fanaticism, the self-gratulation of being a martyr, which really consists in unnecessarily offending people.

4. To be a friend to the rich as well as to the poor. Both classes need his spiritual counsel. He need not be obsequious to the former class; nor is it necessary to make himself cheap to the latter. How many clergymen who read the Bible in the cottage never say a word about spiritual religion in a rich man's house. We must remember that the Master had friends among the rich, and He preached to them. He entertained Nicodemus and instructed him; He supped with Simon the Pharisee and rebuked him.

5. I trust it is not necessary for me to say that I would have my Curate natural, free from affectation, mannerism, servility, and all those blemishes which are excrescences on manliness.

6. That, if possible, he be a graduate of one of our Universities. Here I would not for a moment disparage our Theological Colleges. I have met with most excellent men—gentlemen—who were trained at these Colleges. My reason for mentioning this qualification is that I have noticed a certain self-sufficiency about some alumni of Theological Colleges. Perhaps they were very proud of having distinguished themselves in a small way and against few rivals. The conceit is generally knocked out of a young fellow at the University, unless he be a great fool. There, he finds himself beaten at all points, on land and water, in the schools and at the sports. If not beaten, if he win all the big Scholarships at Oxford, and come out a double first, or if he be Senior Wrangler and Senior Classic combined at Cambridge, then he is too great a man to be conceited.

7. That he be an honour man. Number 2 partly gives my reason for this. University training is not by any means everything, but it is something.

I cannot refrain here from telling a little anecdote about the great Bishop Wilberforce. It may be an old one, and I dread lest it should be so, but I have only just heard it. A candidate for Ordination was being examined. The Bishop heard him reading the Greek Testament, and was much annoyed at the young man's pronunciation. He asked him rather crossly, "Where did you learn Greek, Sir?" "At Athens, my Lord," was the reply.

8. As a preacher, I should like him to be simple and erudite—these can be combined. The following quotation has pleased me, "The ideal sermon is an ethical translation of supernatural truths from the language of scientific dogma into forms convenient for daily practice."

9. That he be cheerful, contented, unsuspicious, and a friend of his Rector.

10. That he be fearless in stating his opinions, if he firmly holds them: this without ostentation or obtrusiveness.

11. That he convey the impression that he not only says what he feels, but also feels what he says. Children, especially, are quick to discern when the feeling and saying are not in unison. I knew a little girl who, after hearing a clergyman preach on Christ's sympathy, said, "He says it, but I don't feel he feels it."

12. I hope I should be satisfied with a Curate who was imbued with all the virtues expressed in the beginning of the fifth of S. Matthew, the thirteenth of First Corinthians, and the twenty-second and twenty-third verses of the Epistle to the Galatians.

But I branch off from catalogue and synopsis. My readers, especially among the clergy, may say that my suggestions are superfluous, that they are all recognised and accepted.

And yet I would dwell, a little at length, on two characteristics, which are essential to a clergyman's usefulness, and which, although they be theoretically recognised, are not always observed in the practical life of clergymen, whether they be Bishops, Rectors, or Curates. I mean humility and zeal.

These two virtues, although at first sight the resemblance may not appear striking, are nearly related: we might call them brother and sister, at all events they are good friends, and when they nestle in the inner shrine of the same tabernacle they give it a wonderful lustre.

Humility, what is it? If I may personify, I should call her a quiet gentlewoman who is very often misunderstood, who is the companion of the three graces, and who helps a man to be a gentleman. Without her, the great man sometimes appears small: with her the small man looks bigger. It is she that gives a refining touch to love's work, and helps love to teach the soul the true meaning of altruism.

But why need I eulogise Humility, seeing that it is written "I am meek and lowly of heart," the words of Him—

"The first true Gentleman that ever breathed."

And Zeal. Yes, Zeal is a man, and a noble-looking fellow he is, too, and the more I look at him the more he resembles Humility. They have the same expressive features; the difference is, that while hers are of Grecian type, his are decidedly Roman.

Zeal—that rare and precious gift which has made men heroes. What a glorious attribute in the young officer of the Church Militant Army! It draws him away from the world and yet to the world, without spoiling him; it whets his sword and nerves his arm; it helps him to put self aside, and yet be no Stoic; it makes him an orator both outside and inside the pulpit; it endows him not only with what Cicero calls a sermo corporis, but also with a sermo spiritus; his words are not his own—they are ordinary English words, it may be, but they have caught fire, because the thoughts behind them are sparks which human necessity has struck from the red-hot Anvil of the Divine Pleroma. Such a man has power, a mighty power to win men; but as soon as he becomes aware of his power there is danger of his losing it. I recall the noble lines—

"They out-talked thee, liiss'd thee, tore thee!
Better men fared thus before thee;
Fired their ringing shot and pass'd,
Hotly charged—and sank at last.

Charge once more, then, and be dumb!
Let the victors, when they come,
When the forts of folly fall,
Find thy body by the wall."

I would ask a Curate desiring preferment, Have you such zeal as these words suggest? If so, would you take this quiet living of Lulbrook in exchange for the work you might make for yourself amid the masses of human souls? If you would, then give me your youth, your strength and your zeal, and I will hand you over the living.

It is nearly time for me to close. I have not been visiting in the parish much lately, and, I must confess it, I preached old sermons on the last five Sundays. I must try and write a fresh one for next Sunday, perhaps it will be on Zeal.

Alla gar hdh wra apienai

—that is, I must take my hat and stick and go out to the parish. Good-bye, my friends, to whom I dedicate this book. If I have, inadvertently, hurt or wounded any of you, forgive me: I did not mean to do so. If I have exposed some of our failings, it will do no harm. If I ever become aware that my suggestions have helped any of you I shall rejoice. If, perchance, I have made you smile, why, I have smiled too; and let us remember the saying—

"Quid velat dicere verum
Etiam ridentem?"

I still linger at my desk; my pen wants to go on; it seems to whisper to me, "You have something more to say!" Let it, then, be to "My Curates," past, present, future, real and imaginary. Forgive, if, as these conjured memories pass away, the parson replaces the historian, the preacher the scribe. The words, the deeds of great men rush upon me—

"Duty!" exclaims Kant, "wondrous thought, that workest neither by fond insinuation, flattery, nor by any threat, but merely by holding up thy naked 'law in the soul,' and so extorting for thyself always reverence, if not always obedience; before whom all appetites are dumb, however secretly they rebel; whence thy original."

Yes, if Duty be the soldier's watchword, let it be the clergyman's too.

You look forward to preferment, possibly, some of you, for the fine linen of the Episcopate. Remember the only garment for which S. Paul asked; the cloak that he left behind him at Troas. Are you better than was he? Do you want more than did he?

And what are all the honours of life here compared with one act of self-sacrificing kindness? What the laurels of your profession, compared with the deep peace of helping one soul towards God? What the praise of men to the joy of giving a drop of cold water in the name of a disciple?

True to your great responsibility, you may be called to patience, to endurance, to neglect and omission—but Preferment will come—it may be delayed till "these shadows flee away."

There are jars and jolts in our profession; mistakes, misconceptions, injustice; there is the trial that you feel you could be more useful if more independent. What are all these but "broken syllables in the great poem of our redeemed humanity? "

A pamphlet is open before me; I see there soul-stirring words; they are those of one who never sought preferment, and only accepted it when the sense of duty forced it on him. I had once the great honour to know him: he has lately gone to his rest, but his words remain, and I give them, for they are worth reading—

"What, after all, is the individual life in the history of the Church? Men may come and men may go; individual lives float down like straws on the surface of the waters till they are lost in the ocean of Eternity; but the broad, mighty, rolling stream of the Church itself—the cleansing, purifying, fertilising tide of the river of God flows on for ever and ever."

They recall yet another quotation—

"Cleansing my streams as I hurry along
To the golden gate and the leaping bar,
And the taintless tide that awaits me afar;
Till I lose myself in the infinite main,
Like a soul that has sinned and is pardoned again.
    Undefiled for the undefiled;
Play by me, bathe in me, mother and child."

It is later than I supposed. There is no time to-visit in the parish to-day; but I must begin my sermon at once. Good-bye.


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