Serving God: the Regency Parish

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Highlighting Historical Romance with Jude Knight who explains landowners and livings: the Regency parish

The church and the parish were important in rural England in the first part of the nineteenth century. Faith in God was a simple part of life for most ordinary people, if not for the idle rich. Besides, village life depended on farming, which revolved around the seasons, and the liturgical year and important feast that reflected the seasons. And Sunday services were still mandatory, (until the late 19th century) with non-attendance punishable by a fine.

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Ferneley I, John E.; The Ferneley Family Pew in Melton Mowbray Parish Church, Leicestershire; Leicestershire County Council Museums Service;

The parish system operated by the Church of England was an ancient one dating back to the 4th century. It evolved during medieval times to become a useful administrative unit, particularly for looking after the poor.

Why could landowners decide who headed the parish?

To someone raised in the last part of the 20th century, the concept of church livings—where a local landowner has the power to appoint the rector or vicar to his local Church of England parish—seems odd. Yet it made a lot of sense in the beginning, encouraging those with wealth to build churches.

The original donor had a say in who had would look after the moral and spiritual welfare of parishioners. The person who provided these spiritual benefits was entitled to the revenue that arose from his efforts, that is, to the temporal benefits – the tithes paid by parishioners.

The donor – and those who came after, because the power to appoint could be bought, sold, and inherited – would put a name forward to the bishop, who would decide whether the proposed cleric was a fit and proper person to hold the benefice, as it was called. You’ll have also heard it called a living..

By Regency times, Oxford and Cambridge colleges controlled nearly 5% of benefices, presenting them as gifts to fellows and masters who wished to marry and leave academic pursuits. Another 10% or so belonged to the Crown, to be presented to government supporters. Bishops and cathedral chapters possessed about 20%. The gentry and aristocracy held the largest share, on the order of 60%. Most great families had at least one or two livings at their disposal.  [Maria Grace at English Historical Fiction Authors]

A job for life?

In most circumstances, short of a serious offence and conviction in an ecclesiastical court, the appointed person held the post and all associated rights for life, including the income, the church, and the associated house.

Which didn’t necessarily mean the holder of the living actually did the work. The practice of sending younger sons into the Church, especially when the family had a living available, meant that many parishes were served by clergy who were landed gentry first and foremost, and whose parishes rarely saw them.

Furthermore, one person might hold a number of livings. The holder would delegate the duties of the parish to someone else. This practice was so widespread and led to so many abuses that the law was changed in 1838 to prevent people holding more than two benefices.

During the Regency, such abuses were at their height.

What about those poor curates, then?

Without patronage, being an ordained cleric was not a passport to a life of clover. Over a fifth of ordained clerics in late Georgian England never had a living, and a third took more than six years. A quarter died young, emigrated, or went into teaching.

If you weren’t one of the lucky 20 percent, with the well-connected friends or relatives who could see to your future by giving you a parish, or the 25 percent who died or left, you took a job as one of the working bees of the late Georgian church, as a curate.

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Curates might work alongside their vicars, or they might act instead of them, while the lucky fellow was off socialising or hunting. The curate’s wages were paid from the vicar’s own pocket. Just to confuse things, if a curate was permanently appointed to a parish that had no or an absent rector or vicar, the parishioners would often call the man ‘vicar’.

Whatever he was called, he was responsible—at the very least—for church services: Sunday services, weddings, baptisms, and funerals, plus visiting the sick. And, of course, the very least was what some did.

But, according to at least some commentators, the bulk of them were decent men, doing their best. Maybe they were not exciting. Indeed, the exodus to more enthusiastic forms of Christianity offered by the Wesleyans and others grew in strength through the Georgian period. But:

The bulk of the English clergy then as ever were educated, refined, generous, God-fearing men, who lived lives of simple piety and plain duty, respected by their people for the friendly help and wise counsel and open purse which were ever at the disposal of the poor.  [Henry Wakeman in An Introduction to the History of the Church of England]

Meet Barney Somerville

The hero of the story I’m currently working on is a curate. The story is for next year’s Bluestocking Belles box set, and Barney is the son of the man who actually holds the living for this parish and several others. As long as Barney pleases his father, he has a job. As long as he pleases his father’s patron, he has a good chance of inheriting the living. But Barney is up to something that will annoy them both, which leads to a bit of plot tension.

An excerpt~

Barney lingered over showing Miss Conroy the church, reluctant to see her leave. She exclaimed over the very features of the church he liked best, and laughed when he tried a couple of feeble jests. She asked after Annie and Daniel, too. Before long, he found himself telling her about his sister. “Louisa was nine years my elder, and was a little mother to me before I went to school. She left home when I was ten, and we lost touch until only a year or so ago. She had been widowed for a second time, and was already suffering the malady that killed her.”

Miss Conroy didn’t need to know that their father had kept him from receiving her letters, even instructing the school to burn them unopened. The Reverend Mr Matthias Somerville had no wish for his rebellious daughter to influence the son he was raising in his own image.

“My father was—is—very conscious of appearances and reputation,” he said. His father believed that the orders of society had been ordained by God, with royalty and peers of the realm at the top, Matthias Somerville and others like him a few rungs lower, and most of the rest of the population born to serve. He had never understood the burning sense of injustice that drove his daughter to campaign for better working conditions, rights for women, and the abolition of slavery.

“Mine, too,” Miss Conroy said, and a few questions soon had her sharing her stories of growing up in a vicarage in the midlands, the middle daughter of five. From the sound of it, her father was clinging on to gentry status by a fingernail, a poor country parson with insufficient connections or influence to gain a living of his own, so stuck with working in place of a wealthier minister with more than one parish, or with interests outside of his calling and the money to pay someone else to carry out parish obligations on his behalf.

Much like Barney, in fact, but at least he looked after the parish on his father’s behalf, and would probably inherit it when his father was gone. Provided his father didn’t dismiss him for the crime of taking in Daniel and Annabelle.

If Barney had to leave Fenwick on Sea, he was unlikely to find another post as a cleric. He would have to find another way to support his wards. As if she could read his mind, Miss Conroy asked, “What made you decide to become ordained, Mr Somerville.”

“My father always assumed I would follow in his footsteps,” Barney explained. But that was only a small part of the story. He wanted Miss Conroy to know the truth. He had only known her for a couple of days, but long enough. In another time and place, if he had a secure living that was not dependent on the goodwill of a man who lacked any, she was the woman above all others that he might have courted. “When I went up to university, I studied theology as instructed and discovered a vocation. To serve a parish as pastor—this is what I was made for.”

Would she laugh at him? But she was herself the daughter of a vicar, and he had seen her prayer book that first night when she was in his care in the make-shift hospital at the inn. Surely she will understand? When she nodded and smiled, he released the breath he hadn’t known he was holding.

Her smile stayed with him after she hurried away, having glimpsed the returning exploratory party from the top of the tower. “What does it mean?” he asked God. “She could be my heart’s desire, so why send her here now? Only you know if I will be allowed to stay in the parish, and even if I am, my stipend is barely enough to keep me and the two children, and certainly not enough to pay for the servant I need to look after them properly. I can’t possibly court a woman when I can’t afford a wife.”

God has a plan, his tutors would have said, but it isn’t given to us to know what it is. Barney shook his head and trudged next door to the vicarage.

About the Author

Jude always wanted to be a novelist. She started in her teens, but life kept getting in the way. Years passed, and with them dozens of unfinished manuscripts. The fear grew. What if she tried, failed, and lost the dream forever? In 2014, she swapped out fears, telling everyone she knew that she was writing a novel. Not finishing would be just too embarrassing. Eight novels later, plus 14 novella, 3 awards, and hundreds of positive reviews, the dream lives.

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Caroline Warfield, Author

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