Trials of a Country Parson
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A COUNTRY PARSON
AUGUSTUS JESSOPP, D.D.
“ONE GENERATION OF A NORFOLK HOUSE,”
“HISTORY OF THE DIOCESE OFNORWICH,” &c., &c.
T. FISHER UNWIN
BY THE SAME AUTHOR.
FOR BETTER FOR WORSE.
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The COMING of the FRIARS,
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In a volume which I published three yearsago1 I attempted to give a faithful pictureof the habits and ways of thinking, thesuperstitions, prejudices and grounds fordiscontent, the grievances and the trials,of the country folk among whom my lotwas cast and among whom it was my dutyand my privilege to live as a countryclergyman. I was surprised, and not alittle pained, to hear from many who readmy book that the impression produced uponthem was exactly the reverse of that whichI had desired to convey. On returning tovia country village after long residence in alarge town, I found things greatly changed,of course; but I found that, though thecountry folk had not shared in the generalprogress which had been going on in thecondition of the urban population, they stillretained some of their sturdy virtues, stillhad some love for their homes, still clungto some of their old prejudices whichreflected their attachment to their birthplace,and that if they were inclined tosurrender themselves to the leadership ofblatant demagogues, and to dwell uponsome real or imagined wrongs coarsely exaggeratedby itinerant agitators with theirliving to get by speechifying, it was notbecause there was no cause for discontent.The rustics were right when they followedtheir instincts and these told them thattheir lot might be easily—so very easily—mademuch happier than it is, if philanthropistswould only give themselves a fairviichance, set themselves patiently to studyfacts before committing themselves to crudetheories, try to make themselves reallyconversant with the conditions which theyvaguely desire to ameliorate, go to work inthe right way and learn to take things bythe right handles.
The circumstances under which I commencedresidence in my country parishwere, unhappily, not conducive to myforming a favourable judgment of mypeople. I was at starting brought face toface with the worst side of their characters.They were and had for long been in badhands; they had surrendered themselves tothe guidance of those who had gone veryfar towards demoralizing them. I couldnot be blind to the faults—the vices if youwill—which were only too apparent. Icould not but grieve at the altered tonewhich was observable in their language andtheir manners, since the days when I hadviiibeen a country curate twenty years before.But while I lamented the noticeable deteriorationand the fact that the rustics wereless cordial, less courteous, less generous,less loving, and, therefore, less happy thanthey had been, I gradually got to see thatthe surface may be ruffled and yet theinner nature beneath that surface may havesome depths unaffected by the turmoil. Thecharity which hopeth all things suggestedthat it was the time to work and wait.It was not long before I learnt to feelsomething more than mere interest in mypeople. I learnt to love them. I learnt—
In ill success; to sympathize, be proud
Of their half-reasons, faint aspirings, dim
Struggles for truth, their poorest fallacies,
Their prejudice, and fears, and cares, and doubts,
Which all touch upon nobleness, despite
Their error, all tend upwardly though weak,
Like plants in mines which never see the sun,
But dream of him, and guess where he may be,
And do their best to climb and get at him.
ixI was shocked when friendly critics toldme I had drawn a melancholy picture, andthat to live in such a community, and withsurroundings such as I had described, mustbe depressing, almost degrading, for anyman of culture and refinement.
The essays which follow in this volumewere written as a kind of protest againstany such view of the case. I think the twovolumes—this and my former one—shouldin fairness be read each as the complementof the other. In “Arcady” I have drawn,as best I could, the picture of the life of therustics around me. In this volume I havesketched the life of a country parson tryingto do his best to elevate those among whomhe has been called to exercise his ministry.
I hold that any clergyman in a countryparish who aims exclusively at being aReligious Teacher will miss his aim. Hemust be more, or he will fail to be that.He must be a social power in his parish,xand he ought to try, at any rate, to be anintellectual force also. It is because I amstrongly convinced of this that I havebrought so much into prominence the dailyintercourse which I have enjoyed with mypeople on the footing of a mere friendlyneighbour. I cannot think that I haveany right at all to lift the veil from thoseprivate communings with penitents whoare agonized by ghastly memories, withpoor weaklings torturing themselves withreligious difficulties, or at the bedside of thesick and dying. These seem to me to bemost sacred confidences which we are boundto conceal from others as if they hadbeen entrusted to us under a sacramentalobligation of impenetrable silence.We all have our share of miserableexperiences of this kind. We have noright to talk of them; they never canbecome common property without some onealive or dead being betrayed. In the singlexiinstance in which I may seem to havedeparted from this principle, it was theexpressed wish of the poor woman whosesad story I told that others should learnthe circumstances of the case which I madepublic.
It may be thought, perhaps, that mysurroundings have something peculiar inthem. But, No! they are of the ordinarytype. For two centuries or so East Angliawas indeed greatly cut off from union andsympathy with the rest of England, andwas a kingdom apart. The result has beenthat there are certain characteristics whichdistinguish the Norfolk character, and someof them are not pleasing. These are survivals,and they present some difficulties tohim who is not an East Anglian born,when he is first brought face to face withthem. But in the main we are all prettymuch alike, and let a man be placed wherehe may, he will be sure to find somethingxiinew in the situation, and almost as sureto make some mistakes at starting. I donot believe that a man of average ability,who is really in earnest in his desire todo the best he can for his people, and whothrows himself heartily into his work, willfind one place worse than another. Lethim resolve to find his joy in the performanceof his duty according to his light,and the joy will come. So far fromrepining at my own lot, I have found it—Ido find it—a very happy one; and if Ihave dwelt on the country parson’s trials,I have done so in no petty and querulousspirit as if I had anything to complain ofwhich others had not—this I should disdainto do—but rather as protesting that theypress upon my brethren equally as uponmyself, and that, such as they are, somemust be, some need not be, some oughtnot to be.
As for the worries and annoyances, thexiii“trials” which are inseparable from ourposition, it is the part of a wise man tomake the best of them, and to put as gooda face upon them as he can. But withregard to such matters as ought not to beand need not be, it behoves us all to lookabout us to discover if possible some remedyfor the remediable, to find out the root andsource of any evil which is a real evil, tolift up our voices against an abuse whichhas grown or is growing to be intolerable,and by no means to acquiesce in the continuanceof that which is obviously workingto the serious prejudice of the community.While every other class is crying out forReform and getting it by simply raising thecry, it is a reproach upon us clergy—and Ifear we deserve the reproach—that we area great deal too ready to submit to thecontinuance of scandals and abuses ratherthan face the risks which any change islikely to bring upon our order. In noxivother profession is a man more certain tobe regarded as a dangerous character,wanting in loyalty and wanting in humility,who is even suspected of a desire toimprove upon the arrangements whichhave existed since time was young, or ofadvocating measures which would interferewith the order of procedure that wasgood enough for our grandfathers, andtherefore must be good enough for ourselves.It really seems to be the belief ofsome among us that our Constitution inChurch or State never grew at all, butchrystalized into its present form, anddropped from heaven in perfect panoplylike Minerva from the head of Jove. Topoint a finger at the texture of the awfulpeplos, and to hint that it was woven inthe looms of this world, is to bring upononeself the charge of impiety. And yetthese men are wrong. Organic bodiesgrow because they are alive; when theyxvcease to grow and are no longer capableof adapting themselves to the changes thatare going on around them, they die.Nothing can prolong their life. If youcramp and fetter a living thing byswathing it round about with iron bandsthat may force it to keep exactly the formit presented a thousand years ago—thenyou will kill it. It is only a question oftime when your slaying process will provesuccessful. As for the other method of“letting things slide,” that is, if possible,more foolish than the other, and certainlymore cowardly. What can be baser thanthe craven whine, “It will last our time”?An institution which has lasted through along line of centuries, and which will onlylast our time, may be approaching dissolutionfrom lack of inherent vitality, butit may also be in peril because of thedespairing supineness of its pledged defenders.
xviI have lifted up my voice against onerelic of the past which is most certainlydoomed because it has been allowed to exista great deal too long already; it is asurvival which I am deeply convinced isanswerable for much of the corruptionthat hurts us, much of the offence takenand given, much of the laxity and verymuch of the deplorable want of disciplineexisting among us.
The legal status of the beneficed clergy, invirtue of which they are freeholders for lifein their several benefices, does not quite standalone. The Parish Clerk, too, has a freeholdin his benefice, and, after formal admissionto it, he may retain it without fear of beingturned out of it as long as the breathremains in his body. These freeholds inan office have been swept away in everyother department of the public service,though they died hard and cost a gooddeal to abolish. The buying and sellingxviiof “places” and reversions or next presentationsto them was as common in theState as in the Church not so very longago. The odious system was swept awayfor ever by the simple expedient of makingevery public servant removable at pleasurefor negligence, misconduct, inefficiency, oreven less. It is only among the holdersof ecclesiastical preferment that the oldabomination survives. Because it survives,other things survive too which ought notto be tolerated. The first and foremost ofthese is the open sale of the right to presenta clerk in orders to a cure of souls. Butthat is the least mischievous consequence ofthe present system being retained. Thereare other consequences which are far moreserious. Among them is the almost entirewant of movement and change, in the livesof the country clergy; the