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Hallo again to all.

April 1874

Then the Vicar of Fordington told us of the state of things in his parish when he first came to it a half century ago. No man had ever been known to receive the Holy Communion except the parson, the clerk and the sexton. There were 16 women communicants and most of them went away when he refused to pay them for coming. They had been accustomed there at some place in the neighbourhood to pass the cup to each other with a nod of the head.

At one church there were two male communicants. When the cup was given to the first he touched his forelock and said, 'Here's to your good health, Sir'. The other said, 'Here's to the good health of our Lord Jesus Christ'.

One day there was a christening and no water in the Font. 'Water, Sir!' said the clerk in astonishment. 'The last parson never used no water. He spit into his hand.'*

Fast Day
A fast day in the early 19th century
in the Church of England

There is much at present in the Anglican Communion about which we can be gloomy. But since the 19th century, in matters of church basics, we've made enormous advances. We take for granted an understanding of the importance of the two dominical sacraments of baptism and Holy Communion in parish liturgical life. To a greater or lesser degree, parishioners have an informed understanding of those sacraments. The primacy of the Eucharist is established in most parish churches; just a short time ago, historically speaking, it was likely a four-times-a-year occurrence or, in advanced parishes, perhaps once a month. From Kilvert's Diary again:

The Archdeacon on a Visitation tour came to a small upland parish in the diocese of Salisbury. He asked the clerk how often the Holy Communion was administered in the year. The clerk stared. 'What did you please to say?' he asked. 'The Holy Communion,' repeated the Archdeacon. 'How often do you have it in the year?' The clerk still stared open-mouthed in hopeless bewilderment. At length a suspicion of the Archdeacon's meaning began to dawn faintly upon him. 'Aw,' he blurted out, 'aw, we do never have he. We've got no tackling.'*

'Tackling' is assumed in most parishes now! Yet it's easy to forget that our present liturgical state is the result of hard-won victories. From the early high-church heroes who risked gaol (in England) and presentment, trial, and opprobrium elsewhere to advance the understanding of sacramental liturgy, to the Oxford movers-and-shakers whose concentrated energies burst onto the world and made theological tracts best-sellers, from clergy who daringly risked for the 'adornment' of churches and argued a return, to more historically correct ecclesiastical vesture — all these made the parish church the place we know today.

When we're tempted to be glum and weary about the struggles and strife in the Communion in our own time, just remember that not long ago, in the mother church of the communion:

  • people could be paid for coming to Holy Communion;
  • spit could be used in baptism;
  • clergy could 'forget' Ash Wednesday, or not offer Divine Service on rainy days;
  • livings and advowsons could be bought and sold;
  • the Bishop of Bristol, Dr George Pelham, could send his butler to ordination candidates and tell them to 'write an essay' (1807);
  • churchyards were let for grazing animals; at Chipping Norton, Oxfordshire, one lady refused to buy mutton that had been grazed there, for it 'had a deathly taste'§ (1856);
  • the Reverend Sydney Smith could be offered the parish of Foston-le-Clay in Yorkshire, where there had been no resident parson since the reign of Charles II (1809); and 'when he thumped the cushion of his pulpit he claimed that the accumulated dust of 150 years made such clouds that he could not see his congregation for several minutes'§;
  • more than twenty parsons in Devon kept packs of hounds (1860s).

Take heart! Life is better now. Whatever our problems be today, they seem more refined than those of a century or two ago. Perhaps the source of the problems will never change — human nature — but the problems themselves do evolve.

This week let us not 'forget' Candlemas. And we'll see you next week.

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Last updated: 28 January 2007

*Kilvert's Diary, 1870-1879. Selections from the Diary of the Rev. Francis Kilvert. Chosen, edited and introduced by William Plomer (1944)

§The Flesh is Weak: An Intimate History of the Church of England, Andrew Barrow (1980)

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