|Anthony Trollope by Spy (1873).|
The Parson of the Parish is the fifth essay in Anthony Trollope's 1866 Clergymen of the Church of England, Trollope's essays on the Church of England first published anonymously and serialised in the The Pall Mall Gazette from November 1865 to January 1866. Trollope begins by defining what a parson is, and what he not:
The word parson is generally supposed to be a slang term for the rector, vicar, or incumbent of a parish, and, in the present day, is not often used without some intended touch of drollery, - unless by the rustics of country parishes who still cling to the old world. But the rustics are in the right, for of all terms by which clergymen of the Church of England are known, there is none more honourable in its origin that that of parson.... Parsons were so called before rectors or vicars were known, and in ages which had heard nothing of that abominable word incumbent. A parson proper, indeed, was above a vicar, - who originally was simply the curate of an impersonal parson, and acted as priest in a parish as to which some abbey or chapter stood in the position of parson.
He goes on to write that the parson has "full charge of his parish" and "the full benefit derivable from the tithes [one tenth of annual produce or earnings donated to the Church of England]" and,
In speaking, therefore, of the parson of the parish, let us be understood to mean the parish clergyman, who has that full fruition of his living which is given by freehold possession.
After a little more to-ing and fro-ing, which I must admit was rather confusing, he finally begins his observations.
The parson of the parish is the proper type and most becoming form of the English clergyman as the captain of his ship is of the English naval officer.
By this, Trollope suggests that the parson is able to devote himself wholeheartedly to the task in hand with no distractions faced by, for example, a bishop in the House of Lords and, "as simply parish parson, he fills the most clerical office of his profession". This man, often with his Oxbridge education, was assuredly at the very least a gentleman. Trollope continues in what is surely one of his most surreal passages:
And in no capacity is a gentleman more required or more quickly recognised than in that of a parson. Who has not seem a thrifty household mistress holding almost unconsciously between her finger and thumb a piece of silk or linen, and telling at once by the touch whether the fabric be good? This is done with almost an instinct in the matter, and habit has made perfect in the woman that which was born with her. Extactly in the same way, only much more unconsciously, will the English rustic take his new parson between his finger and thumb and find out whether he be a gentleman. The rustic cannot tell by what law he judges, but he knows the article, and the gentleman he will obey and respect, in the gentleman he will believe.
Returning to the point, yes, the Parson is more often than not of Oxbridge stock, and is either a son of a parson or the younger son of a squire. He is attune to the zeitgeist of the community, will let slip a little drunkenness or Sabbath breaking, but is happy to terrify the community with sermons on the afterlife. He is often a bigot, but not a fanatic nor a zealot, and would be happier if some Act of Parliament would make all men members of the Church of England. Trollope continues:
The parish parson generally has a grievance, and is much attached to it, - in which he is like all other men in all other walks of life. He not uncommonly maintains a mild opposition to his bishop, upon whom he is apt to look down as belonging to a new order of things, and whom he regards, on account of this new order of things, as being not above half a clergyman. As he rises in years and repute he becomes a rural dean, and exercises some small authority out of his own parish, by which, however, his character as a parish parson, pure and simple, is somewhat damaged. He is great in the management of his curate, and arrives at such perfection in his professional career that he inspires his clerk with mingled awe and affection.
And then, Trollope concludes that the role of the parson will "soon cease to become", yet:
The homes of such men are among the pleasantest in the country, just reaching in well-being and abundance that point at which perfect comfort exists and magnificence has not yet begun to display itself. And then men themselves have no superiors in their adaptability to social happiness. How pleasantly they talk when the room is tiled, and the outward world is shut out for the night! How they delight in the modest pleasures of the table, sitting in unquestioned ease over a ruddy fire, while the bottle stands ready to the grasp, but not to be grasped too frequently or too quickly. Methinks the eye of no man beams so kindly on me as I fill my glass for the third time after dinner as does the eye of the parson of the parish.
This was quite a tricky essay I must say. I freely admit I'm rather distracted right now with the old General Election thing (at present we in the UK is very much into voting for big things that surely end in misery), but even so I didn't get on terribly well with this one. As we Trollope fans know Trollope does like to wander about when writing, but this, even for me, was excessive. It is humorous and had a nice, nostalgic air to it, but it was an effort to read and I frankly had a miserable time trying to sum it up. All the same, these essays are interesting and so far, until this, have been largely enjoyable. I'm not put off though, I will look forward to reading another and seeing if this was a slightly unfortunate one off. But it won't be next week - next week's Deal Me In Challenge title is Bookshop Memories by George Orwell.