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The Starvelings: A Study in Clerical Poverty

By F. J. Hammond

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

Chapter III. The Parson's Tithe

[On the whole subject of this chapter let me commend very heartily A Text Book of Tithes and Tithe Rent Charge, by Rev. G. Brocklehurst, Rector of Newchurch, Kent. Published by Bale & Co., New Romney, Kent. It is quite an invaluable little work, to which I am greatly indebted.]

The ownership and occupation of land is regarded as part of the parson's income. It has been shown, I hope, that while such income must by its nature be precarious, the ownership adds much to the parson's cares. The most important part of his income arises from tithe rent charge.

There is no necessity here to go into the origin of tithes; it should be sufficient for the purpose to state that they are a legal charge made upon the owners of land for the maintenance of the parish priest and based upon a septennial average of the price per bushel of wheat, barley and oats. The Commutation Acts (1836, etc.) have fixed the charge upon every piece of land in the [32/33] parish, but the amount yielded varies according to the current value of tithe for the year. The whole history and business of tithe is very intricate and need not detain us.

The parson on entering his benefice obtains from his predecessor a list of tithe payers with the amount of their several commutations.

There is also an official tithe map of the parish with schedule attached. This in most cases, owing to deaths and changes of ownership, rearrangements of property by sales and so forth, needs very careful study and revision, and the new incumbent can anticipate many weary hours in the work of readjustment unless his predecessor has kept his tithe book up to date.

He may collect his tithe himself or may employ an agent to do so for him. The latter is the better way even if it costs a little--which is allowed for in the very numerous "returns of income" he is called upon to make.

The tithe is payable half-yearly, but as three months' grace is allowed the payers he is not in the happy position of an assistant-curate in getting one cheque for his half year's income and thus knowing where he is. As a matter of fact the country parson never knows where he is, for his income comes in in driblets, and a good deal of it is anticipated by enforced expenditure. The only occasion on which he really knows his position is when he receives a note from his banker reminding him that his account is considerably overdrawn. Until the war put prices up tithe was a good deal below par. When I entered my own benefice £100 of tithe was worth only about £66. Things in this respect are now improved, but although for many years the clergy have received far less than was due to them, a new and [33/34] temporary arrangement for five years prevents them benefiting from the automatic rise in tithe value.

The whole business of tithe as the main source of the country parson's income is in my opinion most unsatisfactory. Like the ownership of land, it was all right at the time it began. As a legal charge perfectly well understood by landowners and farmers, it is of course possible to justify it. But the fact still remains that any system which requires the parson to have these financial transactions with his parishioners for the purposes of his own personal income is undesirable. I do not know a more unsatisfactory way of getting a living. Occasions arise, they must inevitably arise, when with one or another friction is caused. The fact that this man or that habitually delays payment until the last minute must cause unpleasantness; the fact that there are cases now and then, though I believe happily rare, when payment has to be enforced by law cannot promote harmony in any parish. The known fact that the parson can claim his due with the law's support is bad for the parson. It is one of the many things which tell against his spiritual work and influence.

Speaking from personal experience I can only say that until I cut myself free of it by handing over the collection of my tithe to an agent there was no duty more repulsive to me than the half-yearly finance. Every single thing which will relieve a man in a purely spiritual position from the suggestion of grasping at the last penny, or holding out for his just and legal rights, should be done.

It may be true that the laity little know how very necessary it often is for the parson to rake in that last penny, but the fact remains that the system which compels him to do so is a bad one.

[35] Not for one moment would I admit the charge of being too sentimental in these affairs. Business is business undoubtedly. But the ground of complaint is that all these things, and others yet to be dealt with, reduce a high and sacred calling to a mere matter of business. Taking a living has become neither more nor less the same thing as taking any other business; and so much so that with all the best intentions in the world the business very quickly assumes priority of place.

In Retreats one hears, and in books on the Pastoral Office one reads, high ideals of the priestly life and vocation. The parish priest is urged to avoid being entangled by the things of this world and so forth. But from the time he enters his benefice until the time he is laid in the churchyard he cannot escape entanglement. It is a case of business first and business always, a constant and very wary eye on £ s. d.

And beyond all this the parson is badly hit by the taxation of his tithe. As a patriotic Englishman he does not object to pay income tax when his tithe requires it. But regarding tithe as income in cash, as it undoubtedly is, he does very strongly resent it being assessed as land for local taxation. All who know the facts agree upon this. Legislation has so far admitted the injustice as to permit the Inland Revenue to pay one half. But there it remains, that the parson has to pay rates on his income--a very heavy drain in these days--just as he does on his house and land. Thus his income from tithe is considerably reduced--and in pre-war days when tithe was of much less value than now it was a very serious matter indeed. It is still serious because manifestly unjust. It is one of the many things bearing upon clerical poverty which require immediate attention.

Is there any remedy? Can this particular difficulty [35/36] be so reorganised and readjusted as to remove all grievances? Yes there is, for tithe can be redeemed, and frequently is. A landowner by paying down a definite sum equivalent to twenty-five years' purchase can free his land from the obligation of tithe for all time. The capital sum is invested by Queen Anne's Bounty and the interest--equivalent to the original tithe--paid half-yearly to the parson. Under present circumstances it would clearly be to the advantage of landowners to redeem their tithe in this way. The half-yearly cheque to the parson would be also to his advantage--and I presume would no longer be assessed for rates, as it would be invested money and not tithe in its original sense.

It is perhaps hoping too much to anticipate anything like compulsory redemption through legislation, but wherever the opportunity offers in individual cases, especially with regard to small tithe-payers, the clergy should certainly make the most of it, and thus free both the tithe-payer and themselves of a serious burden.

If it could be done wholesale--as it were--it would go a long way towards giving the parson the fixed income which is so much talked about just now. It is obvious that his financial position is unsatisfactory because so largely uncertain. A bird in the hand is worth a good many up a tree, and a half-yearly cheque for a known and fixed sum is worth more, really, than the same sum which merely dribbles in.

It is very probable that any united effort of the powers that be to carry this out would involve a severe struggle. Legislation on such a question might prove a delicate matter. But nothing worth doing can be accomplished without effort, and who shall say this is not worth doing?

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