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Hallo again to all.

An old anecdote (alas, we can't trace the source) sets a scene between a bishop and a candidate for Holy Orders. The crusty old bishop, whilst vesting, says to the ordinand:

'Indeed we're glad that this day we shall ordain you to the Sacred Order of Deacons, for we cannot entirely trust you with the freedom of the laity'.

And Holy Orders do indeed require its members to live in a specific place on God's earthly map: this parish, this diocese, within this 'national church'*. Freedom to labour for the Kingdom of Heaven wherever one likes at any time one likes isn't really an option for those 'under orders'. Deacons, curates, rectors, vicars, bishops — all have their allotted place. And it has been that way for centuries.

As Christianity grew and became 'Christendom', conquering and settling much of the world, parishes were plotted and boundaries determined. A priest called to a parish was provided with a church and a dwelling. In England, that was often a rambling, sometimes vast house, next to the church. The daughter churches of the Church of England adopted this pattern, mutatis mutandis. In the American wilderness in the early 19th century, a parsonage might be a rustic wooden cottage, but it could equally be a brick townhouse not out of place in a London square. In New Zealand, it might be a small dwelling that incorporated vernacular elements but carried with it a sense of English style. In India, the rectory attached to St Paul's School, Darjeeling, built in 1813, would seem quite at home in Surrey. A vicar in a parish without a vicarage was quite unheard of.

The various schemes for maintaining and repairing vicarages varied from national church to national church and changed through the centuries. For much of history, parish priests in the Church of England were expected to assume the cost of repairs. Some of this was owing to the fact that the clerks in Holy Orders were from the landed gentry; some of it was owing to the impenetrably complex system of financing the CofE before 19th-century reforms, where much income went directly to a rector or vicar. (We forebear to enter into a discussion of greater and lesser tithes, impropriations, and first fruits.)

The Old Rectory, by Arthur Jennings. Front book cover
Anthony Jennings tackles the 'great rectory disposition' in his 2009 book. The Spectator reviewed it here.

Undeniably, by the middle of the 20th century, there were numerous rectories and vicarages far too large in their size and far too costly in their upkeep. But those dwellings served frequently as public spaces for all manner of activities in the village and their visual presence was emblematic of the Church of England, whose services and clergy were accessible to all and were for all.

The enormous number of vicarages in England began to decline after the First World War, when the necessary statutes were altered to allow their sale. What began as a trickle of sales became a flood by the mid-1970s, as the Church Commissioners sought to solve the problem of too-large-and-too-costly properties by selling them. But we suspect the modern, dull replacements built in their stead provide no sursum corda either to the vicar's family or parishioners. No doubt the modern counterparts can be statistically proven to be more efficient.

By lamenting the sell-off of historic rectories and vicarages, we're not longing for a return to a pastoral Jane Austen† rectory theme park, with hoopoes on the lawn, grass tennis courts, and 'More tea, vicar?' But we do suggest that, as with so much, a balance need be struck. Meshing the needs and requirements of the modern with the historic requires grace and flexibility, not an accounting formula. As that great Anglican, William Wordsworth, famously rhymed: 'high Heaven rejects the lore / Of nicely-calculated less or more'.

In our age, when 'going to church' is something of a arcane practice and Christianity a faintly derisive proposition to the chattering classes, we can't reject calculations, whether nicely done or not. Lamenting the sale of graceful commodious vicarages§ may seem a luxury. But what was lost with them? What have we gained? We're not sure that can be 'monetized'.

See you next week.

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Last updated: 14 March 2010

*There are misgivings about this expression, as many Anglican provinces that span a particular country also includes bits outside it. But for the moment the phrase will serve.

†Who, it should be noted, grew up in a parsonage.

§We realize that some unknown number of vicarages, both in literature and in reality, were ancient, crumbling, and frankly unsafe. But we'll bet those are the exceptions. And they were likely demolished, repaired, or otherwise improved by the early 20th century.

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