Project Canterbury

The Starvelings: A Study in Clerical Poverty

By F. J. Hammond

London: The Society of SS Peter and Paul, 1921.

The following pages will, it is hoped, justify themselves in telling their own story. It is not a pretty story by any means; rather it is a very sad story, which ought to be told and told frankly.

The question of the poverty of the clergy of the Church of England is before us in these days and needs settling for good and all. I believe it can be settled, but it can only be so where those who are responsible boldly face it and get to the root of the evil.

In our daily and ecclesiastical papers we are constantly met by it. The examples offered are particularly sad. It is terrible to know of clergymen in the bankruptcy court, in the workhouse, or dying insane through the worry of their position--yet so it is, and there is every reason to believe the half is not told, and that worse remains behind.

It is not because the powers that be are unsympathetic that things are not remedied. All sorts of schemes are put forward to alleviate, but, as I hope to show, with the best possible intentions those schemes do not touch the real cause of the trouble.

Directly the question comes up the papers are flooded with correspondence in which everyone hath a doctrine, [17/18] from celibacy to bee-keeping. But no one, as far as I know, has yet got down to fundamentals and diagnosed the case at its source. There is always a cause for every disease; once the cause is found treatment can follow. Granted the difficulties under which many clergymen, especially country incumbents, are living, difficulties which amount to very real and serious poverty, we must find the real cause.

Being a rural incumbent myself, with over twenty years' experience of things at first hand, it is possible for me to record not only where the shoe pinches, but why. It is a misfit.

These pages, then, deal mainly with the rural incumbent, who for convenience shall be referred to as the country parson--also, inter alia, they may apply also, in some respects, to town vicars as well.

Now, we shall never solve the problem of clerical poverty until we rightly understand the parson's position. There is a theoretical and a practical point of view. It does not in the least follow that one is borne out by the other, nor does it in the least follow that either are generally understood by the laity.

But I want to get as clear as may be what the position of the parson is with regard to the parish. Why is he there at all? What is he there for? The gentry, the farmers, the labourers, take him more or less for granted. Theoretically they have some voice in his appointment, although practically they have none. But they take him for granted and put up with it. As a matter of fact, he has to justify himself; either the people like him or they don't. If they do, so much the better; if they don't, they are simply indifferent--if not actually, but rarely, hostile, and they leave it at that.

He is instituted and inducted to his benefice with [18/19] time-worn and time-honoured ceremonies, in which the bishop or archdeacon is careful to emphasise the spiritual nature of his office and work.

The first thing, then, that I want to enforce is that the only reason why the man occupies the office at all is a spiritual one. He is there in the parish as the minister of Christ, in the apostolic succession, to minister to the people of that parish in spiritual things and for no other purpose whatsoever.

For this purpose he was ordained. At his ordination he was very solemnly called and set apart to this as the one and only work of his life. He is, by virtue of that ordination, dedicated a minister of Christ, and not only pledged to follow his Master, but to set to others the example of his Master.

There's no other reason, believe me, for his presence in the parish but that. And that being so, what sort of life should he live?

Remember, I am treating of the theoretical view only at present; we shall come to the practical side presently.

What sort of life should this man live who, like the apostles, with whom he claims succession, is there for spiritual purposes only? We will rule out matters of personal devotion as being obvious. He must be a man of piety, conscious always of his vocation--that also needs no insistence.

His life should be a continual exhibition of simplicity. If anyone should live "the simple life," surely the parish priest should of all men. And by "the simple life" I do not mean the life of a crank. Whether he is a teetotaller, a non-smoker, or a vegetarian, is purely a matter for his own conscience. He is not bound to any. His Master lived a social life, so much so that it was [19/20] commented upon by his enemies. True. But for all that he lived a simple life. The servant, I honestly feel, is called upon to do the same. More than this, it should be expected of him, and every possible opportunity should be given him of doing it.

Let me examine this simple life a little more. What do I mean by it? I mean this, that, although an "educated gentleman," the parson has voluntarily accepted the service of Christ. It is a service that calls for self-denial. His whole life and the ordering and environment of it should be quite deliberately of a piece with that service.

He may be a man of great personal humility, but the place in which he lives and the manner in which he lives should be humble too. Perhaps the greatest difficulty one has in even seriously thinking of the Pope's claim to be the successor of St. Peter and the Vicar of Christ on earth is the fact of his living in the Vatican. One feels that if he was really honest in his claim he would be living near the Tiber with a boat and a fishing-net.

Now I think we are coming to the practical part of the question. The parish priest should live a very simple life, which for his own sake should be helped by very simple surroundings. That does not mean he should live either in abject poverty or in discomfort. But it does mean, most emphatically, that he should not live in any way which suggests or implies association with wealth and luxury.

I want to be as clear as possible upon this, for, as will be seen, it is really the bedrock principle or cause of the whole trouble. We admit in theory the self-abnegation and call to simplicity of the parson's office; while in practice we go clean contrary to both.

[21] Now think again. When the Lord of all became incarnate he had all the world in which to choose where and how to carry out his design. He chose a village girl for his mother, a country village for his home. Curious! Curious! Yes, very much so, for--in spite of the theologians--there are such obvious advantages in being born in the purple. Position, rank, station, wealth--all have their advantages in furthering a "cause." We recognise that when we get together our committee of influential people--for our bazaar for the new organ, and so forth. But the Lord of all in his omniscience ignored all that--quite deliberately ignored it. He said, "My kingdom is not of this world "; also, "The servant shall be as the Master." His servant, his followers, are to forsake all--father, mother, houses, lands--for his sake. To have nothing, yet in him possess all things.

Once more. When he chose his personal adherents--his future apostles and "preachers of the Gospel"--he seems to have carefully avoided rank and wealth, He chose ordinary working men and a tax-gatherer. The latter may have been moderately well off, but none of them certainly belonged to anything approximating to the upper classes. It is so obvious that he set no store by wealth or position, that he regarded them not so much as wrong, but as a hindrance. Those who would follow him, even if they possess these things, must be quite prepared, if necessary, to forsake them, "sell all that they have."

To say these are counsels of perfection is to beg the question. To say they do not apply to the twentieth century is to say what is not true. All this is the teaching of one who claimed to be the truth. He is for all time, not for one age. His teaching is for all time. But, alas! that it should be so, his Church has either [21/22] begged the question or ignored the teaching, and has ended in worshipping wealth, rank, and position, and whether it is the Holy Father in the Vatican, His Grace at Lambeth, bishops in their palaces or vicars in their vicarages, they give the lie to the teaching of him they profess to serve.

There is a distinct appeal to-day all the world over to get back to Christ. That is just exactly the one thing the world wants. But if the Church of Christ means business in getting the world back to him, it must begin by dealing with its own affairs and setting its own house in order by bringing the ideal into actual practice.

We have seen briefly the ideal of the Christian minister in relation to his parish. It will, I think, be admitted as correct.

How do we carry it out? Leave the higher powers out of it, and let us concern ourselves only with the country parson. What do we do with him?

We begin by binding him hand and foot with all sorts of property; we worry him to death with business affairs in the way of tithe and land and so forth; we overburden him with a house and surroundings absolutely and entirely the reverse of simple; we compel him, in consequence of this and for no other reason, to pay away huge sums in taxation, rates, and other things which eat up a very large proportion of a very inadequate income.

Now, personally he may be--and probably is--a very sincere, humble-minded Christian man. But he finds it extremely difficult to live a humble-minded Christian life when his righteous soul is vexed day by day with cares which are wholly unnecessary.

If he is the right sort of man, with an apostolic [22/23] appreciation of his office and calling, he would much prefer a more humble environment in which to live. Mark that. If he has an apostolic appreciation of his calling.

If, on the contrary, he has not, then it must be admitted that no effort is made to enkindle it, but everything possible that can be done is done--as things are--to encourage worldliness, pride of place, love of position, and association with "the quality" on the part of the minister of Christ. The country vicar becomes at once upon his induction one of the quality, however much he may regret it. He can't help himself. In position he is as far removed as he possibly can be from any of the fishermen of Galilee, with whom he claims official connection, as His Holiness of Rome, in all his pomp and panoply, from the cabman in the street outside.

The country vicar immediately approximates to the landed proprietor; he has a freehold property, very probably a certain amount of glebe land, a good well-to-do-looking house, a spacious garden, stable, outbuildings, greenhouse, and heaps of other things which Peter the fisherman and apostle--like the vicar--didn't have and didn't want; and St. Peter's successor doesn't want them either.

This may appear plain speaking and hard hitting; but the time has passed in which to speak smooth things. I have tried to establish the country parson's position as it should be, in all simplicity and godliness of living, and as it is by force of circumstances.

The ideal and the real are by no means in concatenation--they are as wide asunder as the poles. And until every effort is made to get back to the ideal there will be no getting back to Christ. The intolerable burden under which the ministers of Christ groan to-day will still have to be borne.

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