The Parochial System (Wilberforce, 1838)/Section 2



The facts adduced in the last section, show plainly that a monstrous evil exists among us. It has grown up silently and unobserved, as in the darkness of the night, until men look one upon another with equal astonishment and awe, and find themselves surrounded with a population, which, except in name, can be regarded as little better than heathen. And it is surely a token for good, that the fact, as soon as it has been made known, has awakened so great interest and attention. In this view we may hail the attempts which have been made to apply remedies, which must we know be delusive, because devised on unsound principles. They show at least that men are awakening, and although their eye has been caught not by the sun itself, but by the painted clouds which herald his rising; they are at least looking in the right direction, and are no longer content to lie still and slumber while thousands are perishing around them. Yet we must not shut our eyes to the fact, that some of these undertakings are of positively injurious tendency, and others, although highly useful, are only fitted to hold a subordinate place, and must never be esteemed the primary instruments for reducing our population to the obedience of Christ. For projects[1] wholly independent of our Diocesan and Parochial system, which regard our cities or counties as a heathen mass, out of which individuals are to be snatched by desultory and irregular labours; however well-intended, cannot but be hurtful in the end. They are so, because they substitute a faulty for a sound principle, and divert us from the only means from which we can hope for large and beneficial results. And again, when individuals or associations labour to supply the deficiency of pastoral superintendence in a parish of thirty, fifty, or sixty thousand souls, (as is the case with our District Visiting Societies and the like,) they do well indeed for the season; they afford an aid which the pastor cannot but hail thankfully; yet after all it is but a temporary expedient. The remedy is inadequate; not because the labours of the laity, and of every one of Christ's people are unacceptable to Him, or useless to His Church; but because their place is as fellow-labourers in aid of the appointed ministers of God's word and Sacraments, not (as they are practically in these cases) to be substitutes for them. If God has promised His especial blessing on His own ordinance, the priesthood and ministry of His Word, our plans will prosper, as they are blended into, and subordinate to this. Our steps must be retraced; and as the evil has arisen from the neglect of our ancient parochial system, the remedy must be its restoration. We must supply to the dwellers in every street and lane and cottage of our land, efficient pastoral superintendence, and the public ordinances of the Church; and having done this, we shall still find abundant scope for the labours of every layman. "He that gathereth most shall have nothing over."

And the work by God's blessing is already begun. New churches have arisen in every part of our land, and are everywhere rising; so that a consecration is sure to meet our eyes in every periodical report of our ecclesiastical proceedings. The augmentation again of the number of the labourers in God's vineyard is at this moment the object of the most strenuous exertions. What we have already done is invaluable as a pledge of greater things, although in any other view it would no more deserve mention than a drop taken from the ocean. For instead of absorbing the multitudes which had outgrown the capabilities of our old churches, we have not yet succeeded in providing fully for the annual increase of our population. After all our exertions, our church room, and our parochial ministry are less adequate than they were twenty years ago[2]. Should we now abandon the work, every church already built would witness against us, for we need them now more than ever. May it go on and prosper!

The first practical step towards the greater exertions which are still necessary, will be to measure the work before us. That it is great, very great, we well know; but how great it is we still need to be informed. Men are not roused to a true sense of their responsibility by vague and general statements. We must be told what we have to do, and in particular, how many additional churches and pastors are required. This can be shown only by exact local information detailing the wants of our several towns and districts. Whatever pains have already been taken in collecting and publishing these details have been abundantly rewarded. The recent plan of the Lord Bishop of London, which forms an æra in the history of the English Church, owes much of its value to the statement of facts on which it is founded. But the greater part even of this preparatory labour remains to be performed. Our Church statistics should be more uniform and systematic. Let it be established as a principle that the population of no parish should exceed some definite amount[3], perhaps three thousand; and let us then ascertain how many churches must be erected in each diocese, before the towns shall be thus far provided. And again, whatever standard be applied to our villages; if we determine, for instance, that no hamlet of three hundred souls ought to be two miles from its parish church; let us be informed how far we are from realizing the principle so laid down. The more accurate our knowledge, the better will our work proceed.

Meanwhile, let us resolve that as God shall prosper us, no success shall satisfy us, or cause us to remit our exertions, until we have attained the standard proposed, and have provided a church and a pastor for every one of our population. Our crusade against the powers of darkness must be unwearied, unsparing, and inveterate, like the sword of Joshua against the nations of Canaan. Let us look before, not behind us. Great undertakings have ever been accomplished not by pausing to rejoice in that which is effected, but by a resolution intently fixed on that which remains to be done. So must it be here. Let an annual report be published in every diocese, stating the number of churches[4] built in the year past, and of those which are still required; and, under the latter head, specifying by name every existing parish which exceeds the due measure of population, and every hamlet in which a church is requisite. We should then stand pledged to supply the wants of our whole people. If men neglected them, they would do it with their eyes open, and every Christian (instead of feeling something of surprise at the number of churches erected, and the frequent calls for aid), being continually reminded of those which were still required, would rather be ready to wonder and regret that so few are annually undertaken. Now he measures the work done; then he could not withdraw his eye from that which remains.

But besides adequate churches, the parochial system requires the residence of the clergy. In the country districts this can of course be secured only by providing a house as near as may be to each church; but in our great towns it seems possible to adopt a plan at once less costly and more efficient. That every parish should have its appointed pastor is indeed essential, but not that in every instance he should reside within its bounds. In many parts of our great towns, where immortal beings are crowded with unexampled density, the proposed parishes will be of very small extent. The existing evil is in their population, not their size; and were 30,000 souls assigned to ten separate cures instead of one, the present house of residence would very often be not inconveniently situated with regard to each of them. In these situations, meanwhile, every inch of land is sought with so eager a competition, that the rental or erection of a house in each parish would be peculiarly onerous. Many advantages, then might be united, if something of a collegiate establishment were provided for the clerical body, open to as many of them as chose to avail themselves of it, and leaving to all others the liberty of a separate residence. That such a plan would be highly economical is obvious; for, besides the erection of one building instead of many, the daily cost of providing for a number of persons in a common hall is known to be far less than would be incurred by them in separate establishments. A considerable saving, again, would result from the great diminution of the number of necessary servants; and each of the clergy would be freed from much expense in the purchase of books, too often a serious charge on a very slender income. But in such an experiment, the moral and religious results would surely far outweigh any merely economical. It is not good for man to be alone; and who is so painfully alone, as he upon whom the care of thousands is ever pressing, who is contending day by day against vice and misery, instructing the ignorant and warning the obstinate; while for himself, as for our first parent in Paradise, no equal friend, companion, and counsellor is found; none of like mind and pursuits, and furnished with a congenial education, with whom he may take sweet counsel, "and walk in the House of God as friends." The biographer mourns over the departure of the meek Hooker "from the tranquillity of his college, from that garden of piety, of pleasure, of peace, and of sweet conversation, into the thorny wilderness of a busy world, into those corroding cares that attend a married priest and a country parsonage;" but how much more corroding, how much more sickening to the heart, the cares of a priest in a poor town population. And how many are there who, worn down by them day by day, are without the solace and refreshment of domestic life. Their number, too, must of course be greatly increased, if we plant in a great town thirty, forty, fifty, or even an hundred new churches, each of which is to have its minister, and often two; while the endowments, for a time at least, cannot be expected to be large. How dear to them would be such a society as has been suggested; the bond between its members drawn closer by daily social prayers and all the blessed intercourse of religious fellowship; and how beneficially would such colleges affect the Church at large; which, besides other functions too numerous to be here detailed, would afford to candidates for the ministry a school at once for theological study and for the practice of the pastoral care; and that (as it might easily be arranged) at so low a cost, as to remove the only serious objection, which has hitherto prevented the English Church from providing for every candidate, something of a professional as well as a liberal education.

Considerable practical improvements, again, might be adopted in the internal administration of our parishes. The pastor, in general, stands too much alone; and, as a king who is without a senate and a body of nobility is more absolute, but less safe, so the priest, doing all himself, is often liable to exercise his unchecked authority over a body diminished by the alienation of many of his flock. In some places, indeed, the services of the more zealous laity have been thankfully accepted and wisely directed; but not being part of any general system, these instances have been little more than experiments, originating in the personal exertions and influence of an individual pastor; modelled, more or less wisely, by his own judgment, depending for their existence on his life, and for their vigor and efficiency even on his health and energies. They have been but excrescences arising in one and another instance out of our parochial system, not incorporated with it. We may surely conclude that much strength would be added to the Church, if these important labours were directed on some more uniform system. Without any invasion of the pastoral office, the services of our laity in visiting the poor of specified districts and reporting their state to the clergy; in superintending daily or Sunday schools; or in instructing the more ignorant of the adult population; might be authorized by a license from the diocesan, to be obtained on certain fixed conditions. This measure might be immediately adopted in any parish where it obtained the approbation of the incumbent and his bishop. It would strictly harmonize with the principle of the existing rule, which directs that schoolmasters and parish clerks should act under a similar authority; and its general adoption (besides the great advantage of introducing something of uniformity throughout our parishes, and regulating on system the exertions of zealous laymen,) would produce the most salutary effects both on themselves and on churchmen at large. With how much more of authority and boldness would men discharge their several functions, who were designated to them by the chief pastor of the diocese, as the parochial clergyman to the ministry of the Word and Sacraments. Meanwhile, acting on a delegated authority, and no longer tempted to rest their claims on their personal qualifications, their own dangers would be much diminished; their functions would tend to unite and attach them more closely to the Church and her ordinances, of which they would feel themselves to be a part; and they could at no time assert an independent authority, and usurp the functions of the ministry, without destroying their past influence by annulling and disowning the commission on which they had hitherto acted. Meanwhile the authority of the bishop, as the chief pastor of the whole diocese, would become a matter of experience to every member of the Church; and the mass of the laity, who now too often regard her most sacred order as unconnected with them and belonging only to the clergy, would feel that the diocesan was their own spiritual ruler, and, under God, the source of every order of religious ministration. It would be difficult in any other way to impress so widely the conviction, that to be a churchman is a real privilege; that it is not merely to attend a certain place of worship, but to belong to a definite and organized society; a society invested with the highest gifts in virtue of a charter from the King of kings. It was this feeling which induced men of old to prefer the blessing of Church-communion to all that this world can bestow; and it is a craving for something of this kind which our Church, as at present administered, does not offer, which drives multitudes into different dissenting establishments, and many into the communion of Rome.

The sacred order of deacons, finally, might be employed for many important functions, if the principle of the Church, which assigns to them an office wholly subordinate to that of the priest, were carried into effect. It is a strange anomaly in our practice, that a minister, unauthorized to perform some essential functions, and expressly charged with a secondary duty[5], should so often be intrusted with the sole care of a parish. It would be a most obvious and important reform to carry out the principle which forbids that any deacon should hold a benefice, by providing that he should never be charged with a cure where his superior is not resident. The deacons would then find their place as assistant ministers.

The measures already suggested, be it observed, are all in our own power. The bishops of the English Church, with the co-operation of the clergy and laity, have full power to put them into immediate operation. We require no legislative authority; we need wait for no political change. We want only Christian liberality and self-denial, with a spirit of unity and order. And how might the moral condition of our land be changed. Our parochial system once restored to efficiency, the Church would arise like one raised up from a seizure of paralysis, whose every limb is once more instinct with life and energy. Her blessings and privileges being offered to all, none would be alienated but by his own free and deliberate choice. The openly irreligious and profane, who "fear not God nor regard man," and who neither desire to serve Him nor even affect the desire; these would stand aloof from her. But all others would seek and desire her communion, except such as were dissenters on principle. How few of the more orderly and peaceable of the existing dissenting body can be classed under this head! How many have become dissenters almost of necessity; have been allured to the meeting not from the Church, but from the streets and the alehouse, and remain there partly from habit, partly because the claims of Christ's Church, and the blessedness of her children, have never been set before them. Let our parochial system be made universally efficient, and we may hope that we shall soon find them among us. Who can estimate the dignity with which Religion might then raise her head; or the blessings which might be called down on our Church and nation by the continual prayers of thousands who are now aliens from God, "sitting in darkness and the shadow of death." Surely we might expect that the very face of our land would wear a brightness hitherto unknown. Even the secular and worldly condition of our poor would be changed. From the beginning, the Church relieved her own poor, and in parishes of due dimensions she might do so again. We begin a wrong course when we leave the poor in Christ to the fortuitous exercise of benevolence, and to the dole of a legal pittance. The benevolence of Christians should be wise, well-ordered, discriminating, and bountiful. Such are the alms of the Church, ennobling the giver, but not debasing the receiver; because the love of Christ towards men becomes the effectual source and motive, the model and example, of the love of men toward their brethren. We are bound indeed to do good to all men, but there are those who have a special claim—the poor members of our Lord's body. He who has promised that to those who seek first His kingdom and righteousness all other things shall be added, and who does not see fit to work by miracle, has appointed the richer members of His Church as His stewards, to fulfil His promise by clothing and feeding His poorer brethren. True it is, that if we refuse He will still work for them, but we meanwhile shall lose our high privilege—the privilege of lending to the Lord, of spending our worldly substance for Him. For while worldly liberality gives to relieve the natural sensation of compassion, the beneficence of a Christian looks farther and higher. "In Christ's poor members faith sees her Lord, and love ministers to His necessities." He who died for us still suffers hunger and thirst, cold and nakedness. He pines with sickness and is oppressed with sorrow, that we may have the blessed portion of feeding and clothing, of visiting and ministering to Him; and beyond a doubt, in proportion as our land becomes truly Christian, an antidote will be supplied to every ill even of this world.

Meanwhile the Church being once more loved and valued, as she deserves, by the mass of our population, we should no longer be distracted with perpetual assaults; with measures introduced and forwarded, not for any benefit (real or imagined), but only because by harassing and annoying the clergy, by undermining their influence or invading their property, the interests of some political party may be advanced, and a certain measure of popular support obtained. With a few honourable exceptions, statesmen are too prone to care for none of these things; they do not love the Church of Christ for the sake of her Lord, neither in general are they decidedly hostile to her, save when some holy rule interferes with their own selfish purposes. The assaults made upon her have been for political and party ends; and if her influence were so far restored, that they would serve these purposes no longer, we "should be left in peace to husband our strength for God, not to spend it in the wretched turmoil of secular strife;" we should be "left alone with our parishes, to follow our ministerial calling, without the agitation of perpetual change and rumours of change." For the same men, who now for political purposes assail the Church, would then be ready to honour her, and fulfil the promise—"The sons of them that afflicted thee shall come bending unto thee; and all they that despised thee shall bow themselves down at the soles of thy feet, and they shall call thee the city of the Lord, the Zion of the Holy One of Israel[6]."

  1. Such as the "City Mission," "Home Missionary Society," &c.
  2. This statement has frequently been repeated; it may however be illustrated by one example taken from each of the great divisions of our population. And first the town parish of St. Pancras. In the year 1815 its population was stated by Mr. Yates (Church in Danger, page 68,) at 46,333, with church room only for 400, leaving a deficiency of at least 22,766. In 1835, the church accommodation (according to the report of the Ecclesiastical Commissioners,) had been increased from 400 to 5000; but the population meanwhile had reached 103,548, leaving (on the same calculation as before,) at least 51,774 unprovided for. Again, it is stated by the Lord Bishop of Winchester, that to absorb the annual increase of population in the rural parts of that diocese would require the erection of ten churches for 500 each. Meanwhile in six years from 1830, church room has been provided for above 29,000; a little less than the required proportion.
  3. The proposed maximum may perhaps be thought too great; especially when it is remembered that the old parishes contained on an average less than 650. (See Yates's Church in Danger, page 44.) It is certainly more liable to this than to the opposite charge; but it should be remarked that every such parish ought to have at least two resident ministers, and that in proportion to the diminution of pluralities, such a nursery for curates will be urgently needed. Although therefore 3,000 souls are unquestionably too many for one pastor, they may not, when concentrated in a town, be thought too many for one parish served by two or more. By the efforts of our new societies and other means, we may hope that the requisite aid may generally be obtained.
  4. Our new churches must of course be parochial; i. e. they should be churches for the especial benefit of their own districts. In saying this, the author trusts that he may, without impropriety, express his earnest hope that this object may never be sought by the introduction of a new and vicious principle. It has been earnestly recommended, that the places in our churches instead of being free, should be let at so low a rate as to put them within the reach of the poorest, and that preference should be shown to parishioners in letting all of them. The advantages of this plan are, that men are disposed to value highly that for which they pay something; that the poor will be more independent, and entertain a greater degree of self-respect, when they feel that they have their own seat in church to which no one has any right but themselves; and, lastly, that by this arrangement we ensure that the parishioners shall never be excluded from their parish church by strangers who may sometimes occupy the free seats, especially if the church becomes peculiarly attractive by the popularity of a preacher or other causes. The last of these benefits is equally secured by the ancient rule, which provides that the churchwardens shall allot to all parishioners, without payment, their own proper places; nor is there any good reason why the free space of our new churches should not be thus allotted;—the allotment, of course, being conditional, and liable to be reversed for sufficient causes. The other supposed advantages are plainly alien to the principles of the Church and of the Gospel; for what is the Gospel, but great gifts without money and without price,—and what the first rule of the Church but this: "freely ye have received, freely give?" And of all spirits, a haughty independence is surely that which least becomes a sinner in drawing near to the Majesty of Heaven and Earth. Lastly, if it be said that the poor are not willing to occupy free seats, we may ask whether their objection is not rather to certain obnoxious distinctions connected with them than to their being free. Meanwhile shall we, without proved necessity, introduce a new principle subversive of those on which the Church has acted from the beginning—a principle which would rest the claim of men to be present at the prayers and mysteries of the Church, not upon their high privilege as Christians, but upon their rights as pew-renters; and would make the peculiar blessings of the faithful, the men in Christ [see them set forth in Bingham's Antiquities, book i. chap. v.] a matter of bargain and sale.
  5. "The Bishop.—It appertaineth to the office of a deacon, in the church where he shall be appointed to serve, to assist the priest in divine service, and specially when he ministereth the holy Communion, and to help him on the distribution thereof, and to read holy Scriptures and Homilies in the church, and to instruct the youth in the catechism; in the absence of the priest to baptize infants, and to preach, if he be admitted thereto by the bishop. And furthermore, it is his office, where provision is so made, to search for the sick, poor, and impotent people of the parish, and to intimate their estates, names, and places where they dwell, unto the curate, that hy his exhortation they may be relieved with the alms of the parishioners or others. Will you do this gladly and willingly? Answer.—I will do so by the help of God." Service for the Ordering of Deacons. It could hardly be intended that the majority of those who are taught to answer thus should be sent the next day to undertake the care of a parish without any priest over them, charged with the performance of the whole of the weekly duty, and required to preach twice every Sunday.
  6. Is. lx. 14.