The Normal Dean of the Present Day is an essay by Anthony Trollope from his Clergymen of the Church of England, a collection of essays or sketches on the Church of England in the Victorian era first published anonymously, serialised in the The Pall Mall Gazette from November 1865 to January 1866. There are ten essays from this book and all titles are on my Deal Me In Challenge, so I should get to them all at some point!
Now, The Normal Dean of the Present Day. Defining what a dean actually is isn't the easiest tasks. Roughly, a dean is a cleric who is the chief resident cleric of a cathedral or collegiate church, and the head of the chapter of canons. Trollope begins the essay acknowledging this difficulty:
If there be any man, who is not or has not been a Dean himself, who can distinctly define the duties of a Dean of the Church of England, he must be one who has studied ecclesiastical subjects very deeply. When cathedral services were kept up for honour of God rather than for the welfare of the worshippers, with an understanding faintly felt by the indifferent, but strongly realised by the pious, that recompense would be given by the Almighty for the honour done to Him, - as cathedrals were originally built and adorned with that object, - it was natural enough that there should be placed at the head of those who served in the choir a high dignitary who, by the weight of his presence and the grace of his rank, should give an increased flavour of ecclesiastical excellence to those services. The dean then was the head, as it were, of a college, and he fitly did his work if he looked after the ceremonies of his cathedral, saw that canons, precentor, minor canons and choristers, did their ministrations with creditable grace, took care that the building was, if possible, kept in good repair, - and thus properly took the lead in the chapter over which he presided.
The mid-Victorian era was a time of great change, not least for Christianity, and Trollope goes on to touch upon this: "But the idea of honouring our Creator by the excellence of our church services, - though it remains firmly fixed enough in the minds of some of us, - is no longer a national idea". As a consequence, the role of the dean has changed.
What architect would now think it necessary to spend time and money in the adornment of parts of his edifice which no moral eye can reach? But such was done in the old days when deans were first instituted.
Thus, as secularisation creeps in the role of the dean is an uncertain one. One of the roles Trollope mentioned was to make sure the church or cathedral building was architecturally sound, and a dean may do that if it interests him, but there is no penalty for not doing it. Ambition too marks the modern dean: "Man, being by nature restless and ambitious, desires to rise; and the dean will desire to become a bishop". Yet, Trollope writes, the dean has an easier and by far more pleasant line of work than the bishop, though the bishop may as Trollope observes be handsomely paid.
From here Trollope goes on to write that the idea of "the Dean and Chapter" is most quintessentially English: "None of us quite knows what it means, and yet we love it". Their decline, one might feel, is a decline of the English way of life:
We are often told that ours is a utilitarian age, but this utilitarian spirit is so closely mingled with a veneration for things old and beautiful from an age that we love our old follies infinitely better than our new virtues.
For this, though one may struggle with defining a dean's work, we are, Trollope writes, able to define his (for they were then all men) qualities. He is a gentleman, a lover of books, has done well at university and even tutored there. He may have written a book or two and has proven he is not too liberal for his role. Once a dean he may continue to be what he is: "a dean has got no hill before him, unless he makes one for himself". For this one may feel a gentle affection for the dean, and even some degree of envy (though, again, in a gentle way).
There is still an odour there to the acutely percipient nostrils as of shovel hats and black vestments. You still talk gently as you want over its well-kept gravel, and would refrain within its precincts from that strength of language which may perhaps be common to you out in the crowded marts of the city. The cathedral, at any rate, is there, more beautiful than ever, - thanks to the old ladies and the architectural dean. The tower bells delight your ear with those deep-tolling, silence-producing sounds which seem to come from past ages in which men were not so hurried as they are now; and you feel that the resident tallow-chandler and the single gentleman with a reference have no as yet destroyed the ancient piety of the place.
Though times have changed, and there is an almost secular-sounding political bureaucracy to the election of bishops, it is how we do things, and the dean in our social consciousness remains the same however much the world is changing. Trollope concludes his essay,
Deans and chapters, though they exist with a mutilated grandeur, for the present are safe; and long may they remain so!
I love this essay for the affection and warmth with which Trollope writes, but I must say it didn't go down terribly well with the deans of the time. Henry Alford, Dean of Canterbury, wrote that Trollope was "entirely ignorant" of the clergy, no doubt smarting from Trollope's comments that to be a dean was essentially a fairly easy job. That as may be, but all the same it's interesting to read Trollope's perspective of a changing religious world. I'm looking forward to reading more from this collection, which I chose partly for the sake of Trollope but also to return to the themes of the Chronicles of Barchester having had such a miserable time with the Palliser novels. Judging by this essay alone I made a wise choice!
And that, aside from being my first review of the year was also my first Deal Me In title of the year. Next week - Confessions of a Book Reviewer by George Orwell.