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A Few Words to Parish Clerks and Sextons of Country Parishes

[by John Mason Neale]

Published by the Ecclesiological late Cambridge Camden Society
London: Joseph Masters, 1846.
Third Edition.


I DO not know whether those who may read this little book will have seen or heard of a Tract called A Few Words to Churchwardens. If they have not, I wish they would read it, should it ever come in their way: if they have, they will not wonder at my taking up my pen to write a Few Words to Parish Clerks and Sextons. My reason for writing advice to Churchwardens was my wish to help them in their task of keeping the church in repair, and particularly to lead people to behave themselves reverently in GOD'S House: and I have the same reason for writing to Clerks and Sextons now.

What a Clerk's business is.

2. Though you have not the power to order that the Church shall be taken good care of, yet in your way, you may do a great deal of good; and if you do not take care, you may certainly do a great deal of harm. You cannot, it is true, have things your own way; you must take them as you find them: and it will often happen that you will have to make the best of a bad thing. Still, do your best; take pleasure in your office; do what you can to serve God in it: and then you will find that you can do a great deal more than perhaps you now think. I hope that what I am going to say may help you to know your duty, and stir you up to do it.

The necessity of doing all little things in the best way.

3. Now never give way to the thought that it can be no matter how you get through your business, so it is done sufficiently well to give you a claim to your year's salary. None but an idle man would say this: for in every thing there is a right and a wrong; and why should you do it wrong, when you may do it right? "If a thing," says the proverb, "is worth doing at all, it is worth doing well." It was once said by a good and a very great man, "If I had been born a street-sweeper, my crossing should have been the cleanest in London." And it was the spirit that led him to say this which made him a great man.

And much more when they concern the church.

4. Now all this is very true, even in the case of those who are only engaged in common business: but how much more with respect to those, who like you are allowed to be employed in the service of God! The meanest office in His House is a great honour; and if you do not do your very best to serve HIM you are altogether unworthy of your place.

The church to be kept clean: rubbish carried out of the churchyard: nettles cut down.

5. The first thing which it is your business to do, or to see done, is the keeping the church clean. And here I hope that you will never give in to any of those untidy ways of which so many Clerks are guilty: such as sweeping up odds and ends into dark out-of-the-way corners, where no one can see them,-or strewing them in the churchyard. They often get put into just the very worst place possible, namely, the drain which runs round the church: this hinders the water from flowing off, and the rubbish thrown in soaks it up, and decays: then the wall against which it is thrown begins to decay; then more rubbish is thrown in, which takes away the only chance of the wall drying; and soon the whole side of the church becomes ruinous; and all because the Clerk would not take the trouble of walking a few yards further to throw his sweepings away. If you really, as you ought to do, take a pride in your church, you will not grudge the trouble of now and then cleaning out this drain, if there is one: if unfortunately there is not a drain, you can at all events cut down the nettles and other tall weeds which are sure to grow against the wall, and to remove loose earth and rubbish from it. And indeed it would be a good thing to cut down weeds wherever they spring up in the churchyard, more especially about tombstones; for they very soon hide, and then destroy, the letters engraven on them.

Brooms not to be left about: torn leaves burnt.

6. There is a proverb which says, "Let your house be kept clean, but no dusting be seen:" and this is very good advice for those who have to look after churches. It is very sad to see, on going into a church, a broom in one place, a duster in another, and a scoop in a third: for it shows that a habit, which no decent persons would allow in their own houses, is thought very allowable in the house of GOD. And these things generally get put into the very worst places possible: the broom within the Altar rails, the duster in the Font, and the scoop in the Chancel. Another thing, too, which has a very bad look, is to find torn leaves, especially of Bibles and Prayer-books, lying about; and very often filling up the Piscina as they are called, or other little recesses in the wall. These leaves, if you cannot find the books to which they belong, you should burn.

Pues, and open seats, and stalls.

7. I suppose that your church is infested with some of those very ugly and mischievous things called pews or pues. If it be so, it is of course your duty to keep them clean and decent; to beat out their cushions, and brush or dust their sides. But when you do this, you should take just as much, or more, care to keep tidy the old-fashioned open seats where the poor people sit. These seats, carved in hearty four-inch old English oak, not built of miserable half-inch pieces of deal, are a great deal worthier of your care than the pues. Therefore you should not leave them, as I have too often seen, dirty or greasy. They are always good in their way; and often very handsome indeed. By-and-bye, when the fashion of pues goes out, as it has begun to do with all sensible people, if any of those old-fashioned seats, with their dogs, and lions, and flowers, should have been hurt by your carelessness, people will owe you very little thanks for it. Some old churches have a kind of stalls, where the bottom lifts up, or shuts down, and either way makes a very good seat: these are often, for no possible reason, nailed down You should get the Churchwarden's leave, which he will be sure to give you, to knock out the nails which fasten them down; you will often find some beautiful carved-work underneath them for your pains. [Every body, I suppose, thinks them ugly: why they are mischievous you may see in a little tract, called Twenty-four reasons for getting rid of Church Pues.]


8. Indeed you may often get leave to do what the Clergyman and Churchwardens would not perhaps order, but what they will nevertheless be very happy to see done. I mean such things as scraping whitewash off the pillars, or off the Font, or, it may he, from some fine old monument. I need not, surely, say here that this scraping off of whitewash and paint needs great care, lest any of the stone underneath should be chipped or scratched. You must go to work very cautiously, and use a brush and hot-water with soda, much oftener than a chisel or knife. I know of a Clerk, who took a great deal of pains to clear a monument which was quite clogged up with whitewash and paint, and who thought himself well repaid for his pains (as indeed he was) when the letters of the inscription came out as sharply and clearly as if they had only been cut a day, instead of being in such a state that no one could make out what they were. If you can do anything to hinder the church being covered with a fresh coat of whitewash, all the better.

Matting and hassocks. Dryness of the Church.

9. You ought not to let matting, or trusses, or hassocks, lie on the floor of the church not only because it destroys them, but, much more, because it hinders the floor from drying. You should do every thing you can to make it drier; and, (unless you live a long way off) not take proper care of your church if you are not there at least once every day, to see that the windows are kept properly open. If the casements are wired on the outside, as they always ought to be, there are very few seasons of the year in which they may not be left open all day, except when the rain sets directly upon them. In the fine summer nights you need not shut them. And the more you can safely leave the door open the better. There ought, by rights, to be a wicket to the outer gate of the porch, not only that the inner doors may be set open, but that sheep, and other animals, may not get into the porch itself. If the casements are not wired, you will have to be out and in all the oftener, to drive out any birds, which may have come in. I have sometimes seen the whole church, and the holy Altar itself, in a vile state by means of these birds. In like manner, it is disgraceful to see slugs, or moths, or spiders in the corners of the walls.

Rubbish brought in by birds.

10. If jackdaws (or caddows) are allowed to come often be up there to scrape the bells, to which otherwise they do a great deal of harm, and to carry away the stacks of rubbish which they bring in, and leave about. I have sometimes seen the Tower stairs so choked up with this rubbish, that I could hardly make my way up them. I knew one church where the Clerk was allowed by the Churchwarden to have for his own use all that the caddows had brought into the Tower: and he took home, at one time, two cart-loads of good firewood, besides a great quantity of rubbish which he threw away. Birds also often leave sticks under the eaves of a church, and behind the cornice. This you should watch your time and take away as you can.

Morning's business before service. General reverence in church.

11. The first thing you have to do on the Sunday Morning, and whenever else there is service in church, is to make, if you can, a thorough draft from one end of it to the other. Then in uncovering the Altar, and the pulpit or desk, do not go to work as some Clerks do, treating holy places and holy things with great irreverence. If old customs were kept up as they ought to be, you would never be allowed to go within the Altar-rails: and this I hope, may some day be the case again. In the mean time, I would not go there needlessly: and when there, would behave so as to show that I knew myself to be on very holy ground. If you have an assistant in getting ready the church for service, do not allow him to talk or talk yourself, loudly or irreverently. In some countries the people always speak in a whisper at church, at whatever time they may happen to go in: and it is a good and a wise custom. You will of course take care that the places are found properly in the Bible and Prayer-book, and if the Church-books are any the worse for wear, as they too often are, (a sin and a shame it is!) you should look through the Lessons to see that nothing is missing, from a leaf being lost or torn. While the congregation is assembling, you may do much good by keeping order, in making boys take off their hats when they come into church, and so forth. I surely need not tell you to be careful in setting them the example. It will also be your business to see that the surplices are clean and in good repair. If you have anything to do with the washing of the vessels used in the Holy Communion, this is a matter in which you should be particularly careful to show a reverent behaviour.

The singers.

12. I have not yet spoken about the singing in church. It is best to be plain-spoken, and therefore I say at once that the Singers are often the pest of the parish. They ought to remember that it is a privilege for them to be allowed to take a part in the public worship: instead of which, they oftentimes, by their unruly and vexatious behaviour, disturb the due order of the service, and very much harass and annoy the Clergyman and Congregation. Herein by your example and influence you may do great good. You ought always to withstand any turbulence or conceit on the part of these singers, and try to prevent them from treating the Clergyman disrespectfully or resisting his authority, if ever they should be so disposed. I must say much the same about the bellringers. Who does not know that these persons sometimes claim the right of going into the Tower and ringing the bells when they please? Yet the control of the bells belongs to none but the Clergyman and Churchwardens. Of course all the servants of the church, whether yourself, or singers, or bellringers, ought to live in good will and fellowship: but in case any of these should act in a way you know to be wrong, you must be bold enough to leave them to themselves and to side always with lawful authority.

Font: how to be filled.

13. I take it for granted that your Font has a drain and plug, as our Church orders. In this case it will be your duty to see that, when wanted, it is filled with pure water: the best thing in which to bring it (if your church has not a worthier vessel for that purpose) is, I think, a plain stone pitcher, which should he used for nothing else, and should be kept in the church. As during the service of Baptism the Clergyman does not kneel down till after the child is baptised, you had better not put a hassock before him till then: else it is apt to be in the way. And you will put it on the West side of the Font.


14. In burials you will have much to do with the decency and order of the arrangements; and if you are also Sexton, almost every thing depends on you. It is shameful to see a Clerk, while waiting for a funeral, laughing and talking with the bell-ringer. You should be careful to make every one in the churchyard at the time take off their hats, and behave soberly and reverently. You ought also to spare the feelings of the mourners as much as possible. Therefore the sides of the grave ought to be well and evenly cut, lest (as I have sometimes seen) stones should be knocked out when the coffin is let down, and fall in upon it. And the grave should be a little larger than is quite necessary, to prevent that scraping and rubbing against the sides which it is so very painful to hear. Your ropes, too, should be long enough to be kept at the top: they are too often so short, that the ends have to be let down into the grave. Above all, remember that as it is in the church, so it is in the churchyard; "the rich and the poor meet together" as equals: and you should be as careful in ordering and managing the funeral of a pauper child from the Union in his plain deal shell, as you would be in that of the first nobleman in the land, with his pall and plumes and escutcheon and silver coffin-plates. You should provide a place for the Clergyman at the West end of the grave, so that in reading the Prayers he may turn to the East.


15. So much of your time must be passed in the church or the churchyard, that you will be able to tell pretty well how people behave in coming into them or passing through them. It was once the custom, as it still is in some parts of England, to take off the hat on coming into the churchyard; but though this has now-a-days gone out of fashion, there are many ways in which you may lead people to remember that it is holy ground. With the Churchwardens to back you, you may put a stop at once to all shouting and playing in the churchyard, jumping over the tombstones, or playing at hide-and-seek behind them; and you should give in the names of those who do so to the Clergyman.

Birds not to be shot there.

16. Also, though I much wish that daws, as I said before, could be banished from the Tower, I do not mean that they should be shot in the churchyard. Besides the danger of breaking the church-windows, there is something very unseemly in this. And as to shooting swallows or martins as they fly round the Tower, it is a cruel and barbarous custom: neither ought their nests to be taken away from the eaves, for they do no great harm; and, from having chosen the church as their home, seem to have a kind of claim to be taken care of.

Dressing the church at Christmas with holly. The yew not a melancholy tree.

17. At Christmas you will take care that the church is adorned handsomely with holly, laurel, and yew. (Mistletoe is not a proper plant.) Do not put very little twigs in every hole and corner: but let there be here and there and especially round the Altar, a large handsome bunch. In some churches they take them down at Twelfth Night; in others, they let them stay till Septuagesima Sunday; beyond which they should never be kept. In some parts of the country they also put up flowers at Easter and Whitsuntide, and a very good custom it is. There is generally a yew-tree in the churchyard, which was planted for the very purpose of having boughs and branches cut from it for the church: and therefore it is a very foolish thing, when, as I have sometimes known, the parish does not like any of its branches to be taken. One word more I must say about yews: many people now-a-days look on it as a sad and melancholy tree, because they often see it in churchyards. But this is quite a mistake: the reason it used to be planted there is this, that being an evergreen, and bearing fruit in the winter, it seemed to be a good type or figure of Immortality. Therefore it is very fit to be used at joyful times.

Church key. Visitors to the church.

18. Lastly, although the church ought to be always open (as it once used to be) for persons to pray and meditate within its holy walls, yet, till this custom is restored, it becomes necessary to speak about the key. The Clergyman and Churchwardens ought always to have a key: but if you are entrusted with it, you should take care to be at hand when wanted. Never take it in your pocket when you go out, but let it always be left at home. And if your house is ever shut up, leave the key with one of your near neighbours. Visitors ought always to be admitted into the church by the Porch, or by the Tower door: the door in the chancel, which ought to be kept for the Clergyman only, is often the one used for common access, as giving less trouble than the great door with its large key and long old bolt, and the porch wicket besides. Never yield to so idle a motive. The more the chief door is opened the better, as it helps to air and dry the church. When you are sent for to show the church to any visitor, you will often spare yourself trouble, if you bring the key of the Tower too, as they may very likely want to see the bells. You will of course take care that no harm is done to the church: but you should be as civil as you can, and show every thing in your power, and tell every thing that you know about the church. Perhaps you are one of those old fashioned clerks who love to learn all about their church; who are buried under the chief tombs; what saints are still to be seen in the stained glass; when the whole church, or when different parts of it were built. I have seen some such who know many old stories about the church which have come down in the parish from father to son, and which have never been written in books. Now this is to have a right love of all that belongs to your church: and nothing is more wholesome than thus to bind yourselves to the memory of your fathers, whether in the flesh or the faith, by learning for yourselves and teaching others all that is known about them. At the same time let me advise you to learn the right name of different parts of the church, which you may easily do, from some of the visitors, if not from the Clergyman himself: and the same persons may tell you how old many parts of the church are. Sometimes I have been told by a clerk that his church is the oldest in England, or in the County, when I knew well that every part of it was of very late building: and upon setting him right, I have been treated with rudeness. Now you will do well to avoid all such marvellous tales about a church, because it is not right to say what is untrue, even carelessly. As I said before, when you meet a visitor who is skilled in church building, and knows the science of Architecture, he will tell you rightly about the age of the church. Also many visitors will be able to read and explain for you most of the legends or epitaphs on tombs or brasses, which you may never have been able to make out before. I have often been asked to do so: and nothing is more pleasant than to give information where it is taken kindly and turned to use.

Visitors not to be allowed to take anything away.

19. And here I wish to add a few words on a very visitors not to important subject. You must on no account allow visitors to take away from your church any fragments of stained glass, painted tiles, pieces of carved wood or stone, or bits of monumental Brasses, which may be lying loose and unemployed about the church. It is grievous to find so often portions of the most beautiful and ancient pavements torn up and thrown loose into a corner, or into a chest, or into that common but most improper receptacle for all disused church furniture, the bottom of the Tower, when they might be laid down again in the Chancel with very little trouble and expense, and add very greatly to the ornament of the church. Again, fragments of stained glass often lie about in the piscina, or in the church chest; and it is a very common, but very scandalous practice of parish clerks to let visitors carry away any number of pieces they please for a small sum of money. Now if there should be any remains of this kind in your church, if possible have all the fragments carefully cleaned and replaced; but if this cannot be done at present, you must keep them under lock and key till an opportunity shall occur. To sell the smallest portion of what has been in ancient days solemnly devoted to GOD'S service by pious men, is a very wicked thing; for you are not only selling what does not belong to you, but you are guilty of an act of sacrilege, and are shamefully betraying the trust that is reposed in you as the guardian of such things. Therefore I say very earnestly, that you must Carefully preserve, and if possible restore to its proper place, every fragment of this sort that you may find. For the value of tiles and stained glass, and such relics, is often in itself very great; and, as belonging to the church, they ought to be held doubly precious and sacred.


20. And now I have done: and I hope that what I have said may both lead you to take greater delight in your office, and show you what you ought to do, if you wish to act like a good man and an honest Clerk, and, by your care of GOD'S House, to bring down His blessing upon your own.

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