The Georgian Clergy (Part 2)


This Parish Clerk is keeping a close eye on at least one member of the congregation.

Part one of this series dealt with the distinctions between the various categories of clergy and the sources of their income. In this one, I’m going to try to look more closely at the Sunday-to-Sunday aspects of the Anglican Church and how much attention it paid to its religious duties.

Church Services

Spending time in church in the eighteenth century was very different from doing the same thing today, whether you were a member of the congregation or the person taking the service. Forget ‘audience participation’ or anything like that. When Georgian parsons wrote about ‘reading Evensong’ or ‘reading the service’, they were speaking literally. The Anglican Book of Common Prayer of 1662 contained everything needed to conduct services: the prayers, linking admonitions, exactly where to find the lessons for the day in the Old and New Testaments (and precisely which verses to read — those and no others), and the psalms to be read (rarely chanted, save in the grandest churches). In most rural parish churches there would be no music, such as hymns. Aside from giving the prescribed responses at set points (and these would probably be given mostly by the parish clerk, with a few mumbles from elsewhere), the role of the congregation was to sit and listen.

Quite often, the only ‘fresh’ element in a service would be the sermon. Georgian sermons tended to be lengthy affairs, running sometimes to an hour or more (In the more evangelical and dissenting churches, the sermon could last for up to three hours!). That’s because it was seen by many churches and clergymen as the most important part of the service. Is it any wonder that people were often seen to ‘nod off’ during the sermonising — unless the preacher was of the ‘hell-fire and damnation’ variety, roaring and yelling from the pulpit in an attempt to frighten people into righteousness!

Such new Anglican churches as were constructed at this time, as well as nearly all the chapels for the non-conformists and dissenters, featured the pulpit at the expense of the altar or any other such ‘popish’ nonsense. These buildings well deserve the title of ‘preaching boxes’, being plain, rectangular halls, sometimes with galleries, with the focus entirely on the pulpit.

Conditions in Church

These can be summed up in three words. Cold, damp, dark. The majority of English parish churches still dated from the Middle Ages. They had no heating, wooden bench pews (or high-sided box pews) and were made of stone. The only artificial lighting came from a few candles, often tallow candles, which gave a poor enough light when used in houses. Imagine how little illumination they gave in churches, with their grey walls, dark wooden fittings and roof beams maybe twenty to thirty feet above. Add small windows, some still filled with coloured glass, and on a dull day the place must have been singularly unwelcoming. Evensong was sometimes scheduled for one or two in the afternoon in the winter, to economise on candles and allow parishioners to get home before it grew really dark.

Damp meant the walls grew moulds and moss. The whitewashing of interiors may indeed have been more to do with reflecting what little light there was and discouraging the mould than any puritanism about the few surviving mediaeval wall paintings. That the practice sometimes did preserve what the extremists of Oliver Cromwell’s time had left untouched is our gain. Parson Woodforde, in Norfolk, had to pay a man to periodically ’scrape the mould from the (inside) walls’ of the chancel of his church. Indeed, he seems to have been more punctilious than many in discharging his duties as rector in this regard.

According to arcane rules surviving from centuries before, the rector was responsible for the maintenance and repair (or rebuilding) of the chancel (the eastern part of a church containing the altar). All the rest of the building was the responsibility of the parishioners themselves. The surviving records of the visitations made periodically by the official of the diocese called the archdeacon reveal a sorry tale of neglect: cheap patches in place of proper repairs, broken windows boarded up, leaking roofs. The archdeacon could mandate that action should be taken, but his orders were too often ignored. However, before assuming this was yet another instance of a moribund church, it’s as well to consider the most general cause.

Ecclesiastical Poverty

Financing the established church was based on a system of taxes, known as tithes, levied on the produce of the land in each parish. The word comes from ‘tenth’ and refers back to the biblical notion of a tenth of each harvest being offered to God. By the eighteenth century, tithes were generally paid in cash, though some rectors and vicars might be willing to accept a small degree of payment in kind. Like all taxes, those who had to pay them did so with varying degrees of unwillingness; nor were they exempt from efforts to evade or minimise the amounts paid over. It was up to the rector’s representative — or the man himself — to collect the tithe and chase arrears.

One problem arose from a lengthy series of bad harvests during the period. The tithe was not a fixed amount — remember it was a tenth of the value of the harvest — so lean years meant smaller tithes. Another was the effect of centuries of tithes being legally taken away from the parish itself. This process, called impropriation, saw tithe income diverted into other hands: maybe to prove income for the bishop or other senior churchmen; quite often to bodies such as the colleges of Oxford and Cambridge; and sometimes into the pockets of lay landowners. It was all quite legal under the ecclesiastical law of the time, so there was nothing parishioners could do about it. As a result, the official number of ‘poor livings’, where the clergyman was in receipt of “Queen Anne’s Bounty” soared. Queen Anne’s Bounty was a payment established in 1704 by Queen Anne to augment the incomes of the poorer clergy. It used the annual amount of money once paid by the English Church to the Pope. That sum had been seized by Henry VIII and used for his own benefit. Queen Anne, a fervent Anglican, gave it back. In 1736, 47.5% of the clergy livings in England and Wales were receiving payments under this scheme. That gives you a clear idea of how many Anglican clergy were living in something close to genteel poverty.

Not Quite Such a Dark Picture

It would be easy, as many have done, to paint a picture of the Georgian church as being in near-terminal decline. It was certainly not in robust health, but it’s amazing what efforts the majority of the clergy still made to provide regular services and support to their parishioners, despite all their problems.

How many people went to church? It’s hard to say. One usual measure of church attendance — the number of people receiving communion — can be especially misleading, since communion services at this time were held infrequently — weekly communion services were considered a ‘popish’ practice and could be condemned by the bishop. In the middle years of the century, the dioceses of Hereford and York, for example, recorded 62% and 72% of parishes respectively holding only three or four communion services a year.

Most parish churches held at least one Sunday service each week, usually Mattins (morning prayer) or Evensong (evening worship), together with one or two special services on major church festivals like Christmas, which could fall on a weekday. Bad weather might cause occasional cancellations, but this was uncommon. Parishioners sometimes also attended neighbouring churches, either for convenience or variety. If a sermon was not included in the local weekly service, people were drawn to nearby churches where it was — or where there was a ‘star’ preacher. In the families of educated men, it was not uncommon for the head of the household himself to hold Sunday prayers for his family and servants, thus removing the need to attend the parish church.

The emphasis on regular public worship from the nineteenth century onwards may well have created a perception of the ‘failings’ of the eighteenth-century Church which is misleading. The Established Church had not become wholly secular or abandoned any christian ministry; nor did its clergy lack all enthusiasm in parish matters. There were ‘hunting parsons’ who preferred chasing foxes to saving souls; and neglectful rectors who fobbed off their parishioners with occasional services performed by underpaid curates. All large organisations have their ‘bad apples’. However, compared with earlier centuries, there is little evidence of any significant decline in pastoral care or parochial worship. The Anglican Church had been under attack since Cromwell and before and the growing number of Non-conforming and Dissident sects undermined it further during the years in question. It is to those new versions of Christian teaching and worship that I will turn to in part three of this series.

Please Note: I shall be taking a break from blogging for a short while. I need to finish the latest instalment in my historical mystery series and doing both has become too onerous.