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LETTERS FROM THE VICARAGE.
In my last letter I ventured to recommend, as a measure calculated to restore vigour and unanimity to the counsels of the Church of England, that the Convocation should be replaced upon the footing which it occupied previous to the accession of the House of Hanover to the throne of these kingdoms. That this arrangement would secure for the established church a degree of respect from her very enemies, such as she hardly expects at present from her best friends, cannot, I think, be doubted; whilst its effect, in putting an end to those useless controversies in which the established clergy too much indulge, would, of itself, prove a benefit of no ordinary magnitude. Were the Convocation restored to the full exercise of its powers, men of all denominations would see that the Church of England really possesses a spiritual authority within herself, independent of the authority which she derives from the state as the establishment: thus having an assembly existing, competent to determine on all questions, what are, and what are not, the doctrines of the church; her own members would look to its decisions, rather than to the mere ipse dixit of this or that leader of a party, for the genuine tenets of the society in whose communion they had been educated.
The revival of Convocation is not, however, the only measure affecting the discipline of the Church, which the state of public opinion appears to demand. I cannot help thinking that the institution of diocesan Synods, to advise with the Bishop when necessary, and to aid him in maintaining order and decorum among his clergy, would prove highly advantageous to the Church of England. That the powers of a Bishop are, if fully exercised, already competent to regulate the affairs of his diocese, may be perfectly true; indeed, it is quite true, that the external structure of the Church of England forms, altogether, when regarded in the abstract, one of the most beautiful theories which have ever been invented. But between arrangements admirable in theory, and perfect in application, there is the widest possible difference; nor will the almost total absence of ec
clesiastical discipline from amongst us, suffer us to connect our own with the latter, rather than with the former class. Bishops are but men, and, like other men, are liable to be swayed, by compassion, by family influence, and by the fear of unpopularity, to treat with leniency proceedings highly injurious to public virtue. Hence the very few instances on record of profligate and unworthy clergymen in England being deprived of their prefer ment, or deposed from their offices. But a public body can hardly be guided by such considerations, inasmuch as its members are severally exempted from any odium which might perhaps attach to an act of the whole. The institution of diocesan Synods, therefore, with full power to hear and to examine into all complaints against the clergy, not only in cases of open immorality, but in cases of neglect of duty, or adherence to practices unsuitable to the dignity of the profession, would be attended with the best possible results. The people would know where to carry their complaints, whenever ground of complaint existed against the priesthood; whilst the latter, aware that the days of discipline had returned, would become more than ever circumspect in their ordinary proceedings. Nor would it be the least advantage of this arrangement, in the particular case of the Church of England, that the Bishops would thereby be brought into more frequent and more intimate intercourse with their clergy. At present such intercourse is a great deal too slender and too formal, nine-tenths of the clergy of a diocese seldom seeing their pastor, except once in four years, when he holds his visitation.
But these arrangements, however necessary they may be, and however calculated to excite among the clergy an increased esprit de corps, and a quicker zeal, are not, I fear, sufficient of themselves to restore to the Church of England that preponderating influence which she once enjoyed, and which, as the national establishment, she ought still to enjoy, throughout society at large. To bring this back to its former footing, and to adapt her condition to the taste of the times,
other changes must be effected, and that in matters where the very idea of change has hitherto been scouted; at least, some subjects must be thrown open to free and unprejudiced discussion, the bare mention of which has hitherto been regarded with indigna
hood, and to attach the laity to the establishment.
I have no hesitation in placing in a prominent situation among these, as a subject which cannot be too candidly or too openly discussed, a consideration of the mode by which the established clergy are paid, though quite aware that there is no subject, to a free and unprejudiced discussion of which, the generality of churchmen, and of good churchmen too, are more averse. Touch, indeed, ever so slightly upon the question of tithes, presume ever so delicately to doubt, not the justice, but the expediency of continuing the system,-throw out the most remote hint that you regard it as unsuitable to the present age of the world, and the existing temper of men's minds, and you run no small risk of being classed with the Radicals of the day, and overwhelmed, not by argument, but by invective. It is deeply to be regretted that the case should be so. But for this circumstance, it cannot be doubted, that the matter would have been long ago subjected to a very different kind of inquiry from any which has yet been applied to it; and had this inquiry been applied, it can as little be doubted that an entire change of system would have been the consequence. As no reflecting person can possibly suspect you, Mr North, of the most distant leaning in favour of radicalism, or hostility towards the constitution in church or state, a discussion of a question so delicate could not perhaps be undertaken anywhere with a better grace than in the pages of your miscellany. I hope, therefore, you will spare a few of your columns for the insertion of my suggestions.
The sources from which the established clergy of England derive their revenues at the present time are four; namely, Tithes, House-dues, Easterofferings, and Fees. Of these, the first and last only are, generally speaking, exacted in country parishes; the second, third, and fourth, in parishes situated within a town or city. Let us see how far their exaction tends to support the respectability of the priest
That the clergy are legally entitled to the revenues which arise from one and all of these sources, is just as certain as that the fund-holder is entitled to the interest of his funded capital, or the merchant to the profits of his mercantile speculations. Nothing, indeed, can be more absurd than to imagine that the minister who demands his tithes or dues, demands anything which is not, and has not always been, his own, or more utterly groundless than the complaints which we too often hear, of the iniquitous rapacity of the clergy. With respect to tithes, it is beyond dispute, that the most ancient tenure in the kingdom is that by which the parson asserts his right to the tenth part of the produce of all the lands and domesticated animals within his parish; and hence that the tenth sheaf, and pig, and lamb, are quite as much his property as the remaining nine are the property of the cultivator, or the rent of the farm is the property of the landlord. Whatever mutations landed property may have undergone, (and the whole land of the kingdom has repeatedly changed its owners since the establishment of the rights of the clergy,) each purchaser has bought his estate subject to the burthen of tithes. of the existence of that burthen he was fully aware at the period when his purchase was made, and he paid for it accordingly. In like manner, every farmer hires his fields, knowing that he is to enjoy only nine out of ten parts of their produce. He consequently offers to his landlord a smaller sum, in the form of rent, than he would have offered had not the tithe been deducted; nor has either he or his landlord the slightest cause to murmur, when the tithe, which the one has never purchased, and the other never leased, comes to be demanded.
Again, though the right of the clergy to the House-dues, Easter-offerings, and Fees, may not, perhaps, admit of demonstration so distinct as that right which secures to them the possession of the tithe, they are nevertheless as justly entitled to claim the one by prescription, as to claim the other by positive grant. To question the legality of these demands, therefore, is to take the bull by the horns, or, to speak less familiarly, is to attack the system on its
strongest point, and tends only to perpetuate customs, which, if the stability of the church be desired, and the moral influence of the clergy esteemed, cannot too soon be omitted. I propose to consider the matter in a new light, to attack fairly, and without exaggeration, some of the consequences which attend the present system, and to inquire whether it would not be better for the cause of religion in general, of the established church in particular, and last, though, in these days of economy, not least, of the agricultural interests of the country-nay, whether the clergy themselves would not be benefited, considering them, not individually, but as a body, were that system abolished, and another, founded not in theory, but in experience, substituted in its room.
The only benefits which are usually said to arise from the payment of the clergy by tithes, lie here,-that their revenues keep pace exactly with the state of the times, whilst a species of property is secured to them which renders them perfectly independent of their people. That the latter benefit is, in an especial manner, attained by the particular mode of payment now prevalent in England, must, however, be a great mistake, since no church can be said to be by law established, whose clergy, whatever may be the channel through which their revenues are immediately derived, are not placed on a footing of perfect independence towards the people. When, therefore, we speak of the advantages attendant upon the tithe-system, we must, I apprehend, confine ourselves entirely to the effect which it produces, in causing the wealth of the clergy to fluctuate as the prices of provisions rise and fall; and that this is a decided advantage, no one will deny. But even here, the English mode is not singular, as I shall take occasion to show, in a proper place.
On the other hand, the great evil of the system is, that it brings the clergy into constant collision with those very classes among their parishioners, with whom every well-disposed minister would especially desire to be on a friendly footing. We all feel and admit, that a clergyman is fully justified in endeavouring to make the most of his living;-Heaven knows that most is, in many instances, little enough; but what is the effect of such endea
vours? If at any time he presume to raise the terms of his composition, (for in nine cases out of ten compositions in money are accepted in lieu of tithe,) he does so in defiance of the entreaties, the remonstrances,-sometimes the open hostility, of his flock; of those persons whose affections he would naturally desire to conciliate, for the purpose of attaching them to the establishment, and leading them in the paths of virtue and holiness. I do not say that the people act either with candour or wisdom, when they remonstrate against the fair demands of their Rector; far less when they quarrel with him because he seeks his own. I merely state the fact as it exists, and I appeal to the experience of every English incumbent for a confirmation of the truth of my statement. Under these circumstances a country clergyman has, in too many instances, only a choice of evils submitted to him. Either he must relinquish his rights, by accepting a composition far below the real value of the tithes, and sacrifice the interests of his family to a sense of duty; or he sacrifices his influence among the people, and enjoys, to their full amount, the temporalities of his benefice, at the expense of becoming utterly useless, in a spiritual point of view, to vast numbers among his parishioners.
Nor is the evil less, if he take his tithe, as he is entitled to take it, in kind. In this case, indeed, he not only irritates the farmer whose crops are decimated, but the very peasantry, though they have no personal interest in the proceeding, look with a degree of distaste, amounting sometimes to disgust, upon the man, who, having contributed in no ostensible manner towards the expenses of cultivation, coolly sends his waggon into a field, and removes every tenth sheaf of corn into his own barn. Then the chances of being involved in law-suits,-the risk of prosecution for trespass,-the necessity of becoming himself the prosecutor, when the tithe has not been properly set out, or impediments have been thrown in the way of its removal, all these circumstances, whilst they keep the minister himself in a state of almost feverish anxiety, effectually alienate from him the goodwill of his people, and defeat his chances of becoming morally useful in his vocation.
But if such be the case in parishes where the great or rectorial tithes are due to the incumbent, still more galling to all parties is the process of collecting vicarial tithes. These, as most of your readers probably know, consist, among other things, of the tithe of milk, eggs, apples, cabbages; of every thing, in short, which contributes to the maintenance of the most industrious and hard-faring class of the community,-petty farmers, market-gardeners, and labourers. Demand from these men the full value of their tithes, and you will exact a guinea or a guinea and a half per acre, from a person whose entire subsistence depends upon the produce of perhaps two or three acres of garden-ground; or a similar sum upon the cow which supports his family-and suppose he refuse to comply with your demand? Why, then, your agent must repair twice a-day to the cottage, to receive the tenth part of the morning's and evening's milking; he must decimate the apples and cabbages as they are gathered, and the eggs as they are laid; by which means the Vicar becomes, of necessity, not only a minister of the gospel, but a dealer in garden stuffs, and a dairyman.
Were there no other mischief attendant upon a system like this, than that it degrades the individuals who have recourse to it in the eyes of the people, that alone were cause sufficient for its abolition; but the degradation occasioned by it to individuals is the least of its evils. The petty farmers, market-gardeners, and daily-labourers, form the great majority of our country population, and are the very persons who come, for the most part, to church, not because they are churchmen upon principle, but because they esteem their parson. On the other hand, whenever they take a dislike to the officiating minister, they invariably revenge themselves by quitting the Church, and joining some class of Dissenters; and what is so likely to produce that effect as a constant jarring of interests between them and their pastor? I write the following words with reluctance, because I am not blind to the inferences which may be drawn from them; but having entered upon the subject at all, candour demands that they should be written. Let a clergyman's powers of oratory be what they may, let his
moral conduct be ever so unimpeachable, his example ever so worthy of imitation, and his general attention to his duties ever so minute, as long as he is driven, year after year, into personal and angry contact with the illiterate part of his parishioners, as long as his interests clash directly with theirs, and the only way to be popular is to be unjust towards himself and his family, so long will the Church of England be an abomination to the mass of the people, and the moral influence of her ministers amount absolutely to nothing. For, take the matter in another point of view, and suppose that a Rector or Vicar, for the sake of peace, gives up one-half, or more than onehalf, of what he is by law entitled to claim, what follows? He ceases, indeed, to be an object of hatred, but he becomes an object of contempt; being despised as one ignorant of the ways of the world, and too much of a' fool to manage his own affairs. It is a sad alternative this for a national clergy to choose between, the contempt or the hatred of their parishioners; but it is the only alternative which the tithe system leaves to the clergy of England.
When the payment of tithes was first introduced into this and all other Christian countries, it constituted not only the most convenient, but the only convenient method which could have been devised, for the support of the priesthood. In those rude and barbarous times, when a circulating medium was, comparatively speaking, hardly known, and all commerce consisted only in an exchange of one species of goods for another, it would have been extremely difficult, if not utterly impossible, to remunerate the clergy in any other way than by admitting them to a participation in the fruits of the earth; whilst the case of the Jewish priesthood, to whom a tithe had been assigned by God himself, very naturally suggested itself as a fit example to be followed with respect to the Christian priesthood. Besides all which, the lands being then cultivated by serfs and vassals, for the exclusive benefit of the baron, no angry feeling could possibly arise between the cultivator and the priest, when the latter came to demand his portion of the produce. On the contrary, it was to the vassals a matter of congratulation, that at least a
moiety of the fruits of their toil went to benefit the priest, whom they loved and respected, rather than that all should be swallowed up by the baron, whom they dreaded and abhorred; nor would a murmur have escaped them, had one-fifth, instead of onetenth, been dedicated to that use. In this, however, as in other matters, the lapse of ages has gradually wrought a change. Our fields are no longer cultivated by the many for the benefit of the few; every man has a personal interest in his own labour; and hence each exaction, no matter from what quarter it may come, which directly tends to diminish the profits arising from their labour, is regarded by the labouring classes as an oppression. Hence it is that the tithe-system, which was once admired, is now detested; for though all educated and enlightened men know, that its most striking peculiarity is the insuperable obstacle which it opposes to undue exaction on the part of the clergy, you cannot persuade of this, men who are neither educated nor enlightened. These, and it is from these that the clergyman is compelled to collect his tithes, either cannot, or will not, view the measure in any other light, than as a direct tax upon their industry, and they consequently look with disgust, not only upon the individual to whom the tax is paid, but upon the religious establishment for whose support it was first invented.
Such is the effect of the present mode of paying the clergy in countryplaces; the manner in which they are paid in towns is still more mischievous to the interests of the establishment. With the exception of the metropolis, there is hardly a town in England where the clergy are not left, in a very great degree, to the mercy of the laity. By the law of the land, buildings, such as dwelling-houses, barns, stables, &c. pay no tithe, tithe being claimable only on the produce of the earth, on domestic animals, and certain mills. Hence the rector of a parish, which extends not beyond the bounds of a town or city, draws tithe only from gardens or other cultivated spots attached to the houses. In these cases, it is true, that custom is pleaded, and the citizens are called upon to pay to the incumbent certain annual sums of money, because their predecessors had paid similar sums to his. VOL. XVII.
Then, again, there are Easter-offerings which vary in amount from twopence to fourpence from each inhabitant of a house, or are definitely fixed at fourpence from the master of the family, or a half-penny from each of his children and servants. But even these paltry payments may be, and frequently are, disputed; nor is it by any means clear to me, that courts of law are competent to enforce the liquidation of House-dues, whatever may be the fact with respect to Easter-offerings. The consequence is, that in large towns,-in places where, above all others, a clergyman, to be useful, ought to enjoy a liberal income,-English livings are almost invariably poor, averaging between L.40 and L.150 per annum, which wretched pittances are scratched together in a way at once painful to the feelings of him who collects them, and in the highest degree detrimental to the interests of that religion of which he is guardian. His clerk, or agent, goes round once or twice a-year, partly to demand, partly to solicit, that the customary offerings shall be made. If the householder be disposed to comply with the demand, all is well; if not, he either refuses to pay at all, or diminishes his subscription at pleasure; nor do I know how the unfortunate clergyman is to proceed, in order to bring matters back to their former condition. This is a sad state of things, and calls loudly for reform.
With respect, again, to Fees, which are exacted both in town and country parishes, I cannot but consider them as even more derogatory to the dignified station which the established minister ought to fill, than even the House-dues and Easter-offerings themselves. Only think of a fee of one shilling being due from every poor woman, who comes to the house of God to return thanks for safe deliverance from child-birth; of half-a-crown for the burial of a corpse; of five shillings for a wedding, &c. &c. I by no means blame the clergy for accepting these fees, they are the right of the order, and individuals who refuse to accept them are guilty, in my opinion, of treachery towards their order. But they are seldom taken, I sincerely hope, without violence being done to the feelings of him who takes them; at least, I envy not the state of his mind, who experiences no self-abasement