Project Canterbury

The Starvelings: A Study in Clerical Poverty

By F. J. Hammond

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

Chapter II. The Parson and Poverty

The parson is instituted and inducted to his benefice. The former is done by the bishop, who, as having charge over the spiritualities of the whole diocese then assigns to the parson the care of one particular part of it, the parish, in matters spiritual. He is thus sent upon the direct authority of the bishop to minister to the people of that place.

But the parson must live, and have somewhere to live and some provision for his maintenance. The allocation of land in times past for this purpose was the commencement of property holding by the parish priest; it exists now in glebe land, and also in another sense in tithe valued upon certain produce of the land in the parish generally. There is also the provision of a house, rectory or vicarage, known technically as the glebe house. These are the "temporalities" to which the parson is admitted, and of which he becomes the freeholder by his induction. The induction is performed by the archdeacon or someone representing him, and the parson signifies to the parish that he has taken possession of his freehold by ringing the church bell.

Having granted the spiritual nature of the parson's work we can understand the necessity of the ceremony of institution. It sends him to the work with a special commission and authority from the bishop.

In the present day the institution not infrequently takes place in the parish church itself, and then the [24/25] people learn something of the position in which their parish priest stands towards them.

But the induction is another matter. It places the man in ownership. There is land in the parish known as glebe land, which always has belonged to the parson. There is a house in which the parson always has lived. The people themselves very probably do not know why this should be so, the history of the evolution of the whole thing is a long story, and they no more question it than they question the possession of the land owned by the squire or anyone else.

But the time has come when the whole business of the possession of property of this nature by the parish priest, as parish priest, requires thinking out and discussing. It is one of those fundamental things affecting the whole question of clerical poverty--one of those basic things which makes the frequently airy proposals of newspaper correspondence or clerical discussion so futile.

The original idea which gave the parson land and house and so forth was undoubtedly right at the time it arose. But we are no longer living in Saxon or mediaeval days, and the very altered circumstances of modern times seem to call for readjustment of these as well as of many other matters.

The idea, as I understand it, was to provide the parish priest with a definite maintenance and a more or less enclosed and quiet home in which he might live as free as possible from worldly cares, and "serve the Lord without distraction."

There is even to-day something to be said for the parson's freehold; but not very much. The one thing it does is to give him security of tenure in his office. It is a legal security, recognised just as is all other freehold. [25/26] That, as far as experience has taught me, is all that can be said in its favour.

On the other hand the holding of property, especially when it consists of land, buildings--as in the case of glebe farms--and a very considerable house and its surroundings, involves very many cares, worries, and anxieties which the whole circumstance of possession necessitates, any landowner will tell you that, from all of which a man engaged in a purely spiritual work should certainly be free. It adds nothing to his work either in value or effect, that he should be troubled either with the cares of a landlord if he lets his land, or of a farmer if he farms it himself.

It is sometimes said, quite seriously, that the holding of property brings the parson in touch with business men, and gives him the opportunity of showing how business may be conducted in a Christian manner as against its usual methods.

But this is idle talk, for although it is in every sense right that the parson should be a good man of business and equally a Christian, he was not ordained for the purpose of being a business man. Indeed not a few have relinquished a business life in order to be ordained. And also what the ordinary business man teaches the parson when he comes in contact with him on business matters is generally a good deal more than the parson teaches him.

In the present day, when the claims upon the parson in respect of his own special work as parish priest are so pressing, it is clearly desirable, and more and more desirable, that the transactions necessitated by possession of property should be eliminated.

We teach that no man can serve two masters. Property soon becomes a master. Dealing with tenants, [26/27] questions of rents, repairs, neglected cultivation, upkeep of farm or cottages and so forth must prove to any high-minded cleric distasteful in the extreme. Certainly they should so appear. There is no doubt about it--whether we care to admit it or not--they do net tend to exalt the ideal of his ministerial life. So far from that they lower it. I have no doubt now that the whole thing is in every way detrimental to both the man and his work. Whatever may be said in favour of the association of the parson in business matters with farmers and tenants, it must not be forgotten that it places him always at a disadvantage. He is a very "straight" man who does not feel justified in "having" the parson over a deal. And it must also be more or less difficult to accept in the proper spirit on Sunday the ministrations of a clergyman with whom during the week you have been pig dealing, or with whom, as your landlord, you have not seen eye to eye in the matter of rent or repairs. No, it is better in every way that the parson should not hold real estate.

Let us go further. As a freeholder the incumbent not only has all the usual cares, he also has, with limitations, the rights as such. He can add to or sell, he can let or he can cultivate his property himself. Yet it is only his freehold while he remains in possession of the benefice, therefore in law, although occupying a freehold, he is regarded as tenant.

As tenant he is responsible for the upkeep and maintenance of all the property whether let or not, and must not cause "waste," i.e. must not allow it to deteriorate. [In the past unlet glebe land has been a very serious matter indeed for the parson, and has put him in great difficulty.] He is subject to inspection by the diocesan surveyor, who regards him in his reports as tenant, and has an eye to the usual tenant's repairs.

[28] Now a tenant implies a landlord, and I have never yet been able to determine to my own or anyone else's satisfaction who the landlord is! This is one of the many anomalies in the Church. Incumbents know they are responsible to the bishop of the diocese and the patrons of the benefice in respect of these things--yet I venture to express very considerable doubt whether either of them would claim to be regarded as landlord.

In the case of sale of glebe land the incumbent as owner must produce his title of ownership as in any other sale of land. This means that it must be shown that the land has been held by the incumbent of the parish for at least so many years past. The consent of bishop, patrons, and a good many other people is also required. Selling glebe land is a very intricate and bothering business, but the incumbent is wise if he sells every possible square yard the authorities will permit.

Yet for all its cares of ownership the freehold does possess, as has been already stated, a certain advantage, viz. that it affords absolute security of position and tenure. Except for proved bad conduct the incumbent cannot be turned out. Unless he accepts another benefice he is there for life, and can take all he can get out of it.

An assistant curate is liable to six months' notice to quit--yet in most respects he is far better off than any incumbent. But the one great thing which impels a curate to accept a living--even a small one--is the security of tenure and independent sphere of work it affords him. When he finds himself a freehold property owner he realises he has made a mistake.

The disadvantages appear to me to outweigh the one and only advantage very considerably. In thinking over [28/29] the condition of ecclesiastical affairs in the present day the conviction has steadily gained in my own mind that the Church in England is being forced back into the position of the Church in early Christian times.

In the earlier days of the Church in this country when all the people practically belonged to it there was something to be said for gifts of land as endowments for the parish priest. The whole circumstances of the age differed from those of to-day. It is admitted by all who know the facts that the Church is in England but no longer of it. It is for all practical purposes a Church in a heathen land fighting for its Master, fighting for its very life. We are undoubtedly on the eve of great changes, which will, as it appears, necessitate eventually the long-needed separation of Church and State in their official connections. A privileged religion is a tied and bound religion. It is tied and bound by the very privileges which impede its freedom. If the Church is to do its proper work in England it must be free and untrammelled. The possession of landed property clogs and hampers it just as much as it does individuals.

It is a truism, perhaps, but I state it without hesitation, that the less you have the more free you are. And the happier you are too. If therefore the Church is to be free in fact as well as in name it must, like its Divine Master, be without possessions. It must get back to first principles, "forsake . . . lands for my sake." "Sell all that thou hast ... and follow me." The gradual acquisition of property and wealth synchronised with the days when the Church attained material rather than moral power. It lost its moral power as it gained in material well-being.

And this holds true to-day. The fact that he is a freeholder and owner of property adds nothing whatever [29/30] to the parson's moral power and influence. With his better class parishioners and in the eye of the law he may be a greater man and in a better social position than the Nonconformist minister, while his power and influence among the humbler members of his flock may be a very great deal less.

From this, then, the highest point of view there appears a very serious disadvantage in the holding of property in any shape or form. It is quite open to question, and very serious question too, whether in the near future the clergy of all ranks will not be compelled to relinquish much they already possess, and like the Apostles of old go forth to their work free from all these entanglements. To get rid of the burden of property would be a great act of faith, but I do think it will have to be made; certainly if we are all we profess to be we ought to make it. For the parish priest property appears to me to be clean contrary to the first principles of the Kingdom of Heaven.

Further than this the fact that he owns property of this nature which naturally involves heavy taxation adds a burden to his anxieties which will be treated later in its proper place. It is clear that a man cannot do work which calls for high powers of mind and spirit when burdened by financial problems.

The most serious objection lies in placing the man in an entirely wrong position. It is--let it be frankly admitted--a heritage from the past. It comes to us from days when the clergy were associated with the "quality" by virtue of their position.

There is no reason why the clergy should not be gentlemen: there is every reason why they should. But there was a time when the word gentleman was associated in probably most minds with a certain degree of position [30/31] and material possession. [Well illustrated by a quite intelligent class of boys once in answer to my question "And who are your 'betters'?" "People who wear tall hats!"] Happily we are becoming more and more democratic, and I hope are ceasing to take this view. We are eliminating the words of the hymn which bids our children sing of "the rich man in his castle and the poor man at his gate," with the implication that the one is a gentleman and the other is not. We are beginning to realise that all men may be gentlemen and all women ladies. A gentleman is a man who behaves as such, a gentle-man; he does not require the hall mark of acres or broadcloth.

To put in the position of a little country gentleman with property, important house and all complete, a man who is in the parish only as parish priest, and who--I must insist upon it--is there for no other reason or purpose, is to put him in a wrong position--one which gradually but certainly is becoming intolerable to all who have a right view of their ministerial office.

If in consequence of the position in which he finds himself he approximates to the "quality" he can hardly be blamed, unless for falling into a temptation he should endeavour to resist. But it militates against his vocation. He loses the spiritual zeal of missionary enterprise--unless he is a very strong man--which should characterise every messenger of Christ. The present times need John Baptists, but when that illustrious plain speaker went into the fray he went very lightly armed. There is not much of the characteristic of John Baptist about a man who owns so many acres of glebe, is careful about his rents, and lives in one of the most, if not the most, important looking houses in the parish.

The original idea that all this provision is that the [31/32] parish priest may have sufficient maintenance and live an "enclosed" life without distractions has been falsified by the results. To attain anything of the ideal and set the man free, every acre of glebe should be sold and the money invested with the Ecclesiastical Commissioners or Queen Anne's Bounty; their half-yearly cheque will save the parson an infinite deal of worry in the management of land. Having done it, I write as one who knows; and a wiser thing I have never done.

Project Canterbury