Project Canterbury

The Starvelings: A Study in Clerical Poverty

By F. J. Hammond

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

Chapter VII. Some Proposed Reforms

Taking my cue from Shakespeare, my proposal, as will be seen, is "Reform it altogether." Discussions with my brother clergy, who do not always see eye to eye with me, for some are reluctant to quit the dignity and comfort of the large parsonage, alas, discussions with business laymen by word and correspondence, reveal a very strong desire as well as opinion on the whole subject! One and all agree that the whole position of the parson and his tenure of office requires reformation.

It must be readily and gratefully admitted that provisional steps are already being taken. The Ecclesiastical Commissioners, Queen Anne's Bounty, and diocesan organisations have already done much and continue to do much towards the augmentation of poor benefices. Bishops and patrons are fully alive to the advantage of selling glebe land and readily consent to it.

All this is so much to the good, and it can only be hoped that by means of the Enabling Act the whole business will go still farther forward. At the same time it is also to be hoped that the main point will be kept in view, viz. the abolition of all the unnecessary official expenses which are the fundamental cause of the parson's poverty.

Various schemes are afoot or suggested which seem to need consideration; of these insurance against dilapidation expenses is at once sound and practical.

This is already provided for by the Ecclesiastical [55/56] Pensions Institution, or by separate diocesan schemes, and as long as the present system of tenure remains, together with the unwieldly houses, must be more or less a necessity.

But there are two objections. Hitherto insurance has been quite voluntary, the result being that a good many who ought to insure do not.

The difficulty of compulsion, apart from moral obligation, lies in the fact that the income of the benefice in so many cases is already eaten into so largely by rates and taxes, etc., that the poor parson really cannot afford to insure.

A diocesan scheme admitting an annual premium of £10 for five years will allow £75 at the end thereof. This, if the premises are kept in decent repair, will afford considerable help when the quinquennial inspection is made--although there may be circumstances under which the parson may have to add considerably to that sum himself. Structural defects may arise in the course of five years over which no one has the slightest control, subsidence of foundations for example, or a roof half demolished in a gale--such things have happened. In very many cases £75 will hardly pay for the necessary painting, to say nothing of structural repairs.

And not only is £10 per annum as much as the average incumbent can scrape together for a premium, but it is more than very many can do at all. And since insurance is voluntary, he lets it go and takes his chance. [As a matter of fact the incumbent may put into a diocesan scheme any sum he likes from £5 upwards. I specify £10 because that in five years will bring in a reasonable amount. No doubt some men pay in much more. But the point is that the man who as a rule most needs to insure is already so impoverished that he cannot raise even the £10. After he has paid his compulsory expenses he has nothing left for voluntary obligations.]

[57] On the other hand, if insurance is made compulsory, as in theory it should be, another burden is laid on an already over-burdened man. Thus arises a dilemma out of which there seems but one way, viz. a more simple residence which at best or worst will not cost so much to keep in repair.

It has been frequently suggested that the Ecclesiastical Commissioners should take over and administer all glebe property, which of course includes the glebe houses. I believe it was suggested also that the incumbent should be charged a proportional rent towards cost of upkeep--virtually an insurance, actually a rent--the Commissioners being responsible for repairs. Thus the Commissioners would become the landlords.

This sounds a very practical scheme, yet again it does not wholly meet the difficulty. The incumbent would certainly be spared the cruel weight of dilapidations, but still assuming the usual size of house, outbuildings and garden, etc., he would be spared nothing in the way of rates and taxes.

Please observe my contention still remains that we are paying away huge sums for wholly unnecessary accommodation. Any scheme which aims at the continued maintenance of the large vicarage and grounds is a bad scheme. Every proposal for the alleviation of clerical poverty I have yet encountered works back to the same thing without exception. The root cause is the size of the property--including house--on which the parson is condemned to live, and which involves two things: either he must have private means, or be always fighting financial difficulties.

The question of private means has already been incidentally referred to. Basically it ought not to enter into consideration. Naturally every man is better,


because more independent, if he has private resources, but the whole position of the Christian ministry is such--as I at least understand it--that it should not be virtually closed to those who have not.

It is not as other "professions" are. Unfortunately we have made the sacred ministry very much what it was never intended to be; it was meant to be a vocation, and we still delight in calling it so. We have made it pre-eminently a profession and class it with other learned professions, medicine, the law and so forth. [The Army, the Navy, the Church, and the Stage." W. S. Gilbert.]

Once get back in practice to the vocation and you realise that it is open to all or any to follow its call, independently of personal worldly goods. Indeed, if we go back to the source we find the man with "great possessions" was not always the man with the vocation. It is still very often the same.

Therefore to maintain, as is frequently the case, that we cannot offer the living of Meadowbank to the Rev. John Smith, who is so clearly the right man for the place but unfortunately has not a penny with which to bless himself, the said benefice being a mere £250 a year and a house like a barrack with an enormous garden, but that it must be offered to the Rev. the Hon. Nigel Winthorpe who is well known to have inherited wealth from his late father! Well, if this isn't Simony, what is? The reverend the honourable buys that living with his private means as surely as if he paid cash down.

Once more, then, we are brought back to the only solution. Sell the property, build a smaller house, augment the income with the balance of sale, and put the Rev. John Smith to the job.

A further suggestion has frequently, and even recently, been made, and made quite seriously, that all this [58/59] question of property could be overcome by a celibate priesthood. The proposal that rural parishes should be grouped and managed by a community of celibate clergy from a centre has also been made. But against this is the fact that the Church of England has declared for a married priesthood, and the laity on the whole unquestionably prefer it. About that I should imagine there can be little doubt now.

Assuming a celibate priest in charge of every parish, the poor man would still in most cases be overwhelmed by his residence and lost in his grounds; more so than even a married priest would he be paying rates and taxes for accommodation he did not want.

So that doesn't work. It brings us back again to where we were. That parishes might be grouped and worked by a community from a centre is of course quite feasible, but it does not remove the difficulty of the parsonage houses within the grouped parishes, unless they were let or disposed of, while the lack of that personal touch which a resident priest has with his people must also be considered with such a scheme. It might work very well in some places, but it would not be generally suitable.

As these pages are being written we read of an important deputation to the Chancellor of the Exchequer on the matter of the taxation of tithe. [Whose reply, alas, is not encouraging.] If in due time this produces its abolition--surely an ordinary matter of justice--it will be a great gain. Yet still the immense weight of rates and taxes on these large properties will remain, there will still be heavy burdens grievous to be borne.

Recognising as I frankly do the enormous difficulties in the way of reform, especially if that way lies upon [59/60] the lines indicated, I still urge it without hesitation. The poor parson's position is far too serious to be left as it is. The little country gentleman idea has gone for ever, and we need not regret it. The circumstances of the present day are driving us all back and back to greater simplicity. For the Church and her clergy it will have to come sooner or later, and it will be far wiser for the "Church" to set her house in order of her own free will than wait until, stripped perhaps of much she now possesses, she is compelled to do so by necessity.

Meanwhile let me add there is no need whatever in the world for any clergyman to be living in the cellar because he cannot afford to warm his vicarage. Such a case as that is shocking; one does not disbelieve it, but one wants to know more of the facts. What, for example, is the size of the vicarage, the garden, outbuildings and so forth? Here is a test case which if investigated would very likely prove my argument. It is more than likely that that poor man has to pay away nearly all his income in official expenses--and so cannot afford firing. And one does ask, angrily ask, what on earth are the authorities doing to allow it to go on? Have they done anything? Has anyone taken a single step in such a case to get rid of the cause of those official expenses?

It is just the same with all other cases of like nature. There is no need whatever why any clergyman should not have--with his family--one meat meal a day, why they should want gifts of old clothes, or go shabbily dressed.

You do not satisfy these claims with grants and doles, however kindly meant. The thing has gone too far, it must be reformed altogether! Grants and doles are like cocaine to a hopeless tooth; it allays the pain but [60/61] the tooth must come out eventually. Better, says the dentist, have it out now and done with. Well! it isn't a nice job--but it has to be done.

So with the poor clergy. It isn't a nice thing, it isn't a nice job; it must be faced and will have to be faced. Things cannot go on as they are. It rests with the powers that be to face it with all the pluck and spirit of chivalrous Christian Englishmen. And if they do, the whole nation of all ranks and creeds will back them up. I'll warrant that.

Project Canterbury