Our Churches and Chapels

Churches and Chapels by Atticus (Contents)

Their Parsons, Priests and Congregations

It is important that something should be known about our churches and chapels; it is more important that we should be acquainted with their parsons and priests; it is most important that we should have a correct idea of their congregations, for they show the consequences of each, and reflect the character and influence of all. We have a wide field before us. The domain we enter upon is unexplored. Our streets, with their mid-day bustle and midnight sin; our public buildings, with their outside elaboration and inside mysteries; our places of amusement, with their gilded fascinations and shallow delusions; our clubs, bar parlours, prisons, cellars, and workhouses, with their amenities, frivolities, and severities, have all been commented upon; but the most important of our institutions, the best, the queerest, the solemnest, the oddest – the churches and chapels of the town – have been left out in the cold entirely. All our public functionaries have been viewed round, examined closely, caressed mildly, and sometimes genteely maltreated; our parochial divinities, who preside over the fate of the poor; our municipal Gogs and Magogs who exhibit the extreme points of reticence and garrulity in the council chamber; our brandy drinkers, chronic carousers, lackered swells, pushing shopkeepers, otiose policemen, and dim-looking cab-drivers have all been photographed, framed, and hung up to dry long ago; our workshops and manufactories, our operatives and artisans, have likewise been duly pictured and exhibited; the Ribble has had its praises sung in polite literary strains; the parks have had their beauties depicted in rhyme and blank verse; nay – but this is hardly necessary – the old railway station, that walhallah of the gods and paragon of the five orders of architecture, has had its delightful peculiarities set forth; all our public places and public bodies have been thrown upon the canvas, except those of the more serious type – except places of worship and those belonging them. These have been neglected; nobody has thought it worth while to give them either a special blessing or a particular anathema.

There are about 45 churches and chapels and probably 60 parsons and priests in Preston; but unto this hour they have been treated, so far as they are individually concerned, with complete silence. We purpose remedying the defect, supplying the necessary criticism, and filling up the hiatus. The whole lot must have either something or nothing in them, must be either useful or useless; parsons must be either sharp or stupid, sensible or foolish; priests must be either learned or illiterate, either good, bad, or indifferent; in all, from the rector in his silken gown to the back street psalm-singer in his fustian, there must be something worth praising or condemning. And the churches and chapels, with their congregations, must likewise present some points of beauty or ugliness, some traits of grace or godlessness, some features of excellence, dignity, piety, or sham. There must be either a good deal of gilded gingerbread or a great let of the genuine article, at our places of worship. But whether there is or there is not, we have decided to say something about the church and the chapel, the parson and the priest, of each district in the town. This is a mere prologue, and we shall but hint at the general theme “on this occasion.” Churches and chapels are great institutions in the land. Nobody knows the exact time when the first was thought of; and it has not yet transpired when the last will be run up. But this is certain, we are not improving much in the make of them. The Sunday sanctums and Sabbath conventicles of today may be mere ornate, may be more flashy, and show more symptoms of polished bedizenment in their construction; but three-fourths of them sink into dwarflings and mediocrities when compared with the rare old buildings of the past. In strength and beauty, in vastness of design and skill of workmanship, in nobility of outline and richness of detail, the religious fabrics of these times fall into insignificance beside their grand old predecessors; and the manner in which they are cut up into patrician and plebeian quarters, into fashionable coteries for the perfumed portion of humanity, and into half-starved benches with the brand of poverty upon them for the poor, is nothing to the credit of anybody.

All the churches and chapels of the land may profess Christianity; but the game of the bulk has a powerful reference to money. Those who have got the most of the current coin of the realm receive the blandest smile from the parson, the politest nod from the beadle, the promptest attention from that strange mixture of piety and pay called “the chapel-keeper;” those who have not got it must take what they can get, and accept it with Christian resignation, as St. Paul tells them. This may be all right; we have not said yet that it is wrong; but it looks suspicious, doesn’t it? – shows that in the arena of conventional Christianity, as in the seething maelstrom of ordinary life, money is the winner. Our parsons and priests, like our ecclesiastical architecture and general church management, do not seem to have improved upon their ancestors. Priests are not as jolly as they once were. In olden days “holy fathers” could wear horse-hair shirts and scarify their epidermis with a finer cruelty than their modern successors, and they could, after all that, make the blithest songs, sing the merriest melodies, and quaff the oldest port with an air of jocund conscientiousness, making one slyly like them, however much inclined to dispute the correctness of their theology. And the parsons of the past were also a blithesome set of individuals. They were perhaps rougher than those mild and refined gentlemen who preach now-a-days; but they were straightforward, thorough, absolutely English, well educated, and stronger in the brain than many of them. In each Episcopalian, Catholic, and Dissenting community there are new some most erudite, most useful men; but if we take the great multitude of them, and compare their circumstances – their facilities for education, the varied channels of usefulness they have – with those of their predecessors, it will be found that the latter were the cleverer, often the wiser, and always the merrier men. Plainness, erudition, blithesomeness, were their characteristics. Aye, look at our modern men given up largely to threnody-chiming and to polishing off tea and muffin with elderly females, and compare them, say, for instance, with –

The poet Praed’s immortal Vicar,
Who wisely wore the cleric gown,
Sound in theology and liquor;
Quite human, though a true divine,
His fellow-men he would not libel;
He gave his friends good honest wine,
And drew his doctrine from the Bible.

Institute a comparison, and then you will say that whilst modern men may be very aesthetic and neatly dressed, the ancient apostolic successors, though less refined, had much more metal in them, were more kindly, genial; and told their followers to live well, to eat well, and to mind none of the hair-splitting neological folly which is now cracking up Christendom. In old times the Lord did not “call” so many parsons from one church to another as it is said He does now; in the days which have passed the bulk of subordinate parsons did not feel a sort of conscientious hankering every three years for an “enlarged sphere of usefulness,” where the salary was proportionately increased. We have known multitudes of parsons, in our time, who have been “called” to places where their salaries were increased; we know of but few who have gravitated to a church where the salary was less than the one left. “Business” enters largely into the conceptions of clergymen. As a rule, no teachers of religion, except Catholic priests and Methodist ministers, leave one place for another where less of this world’s goods and chattels predominate; and they are compelled to do so, else the result might be different. When a priest gets his mittimus he has to budge; it is not a question of “he said or she said,” but of – go; and when a Wesleyan is triennially told to either look after the interests of a fresh circuit or retire into space, he has to do so. It would be wrong to say that lucre is at the bottom of every parsonic change; but it is at the foundation of the great majority – eh? If it isn’t, just make an inquiry, as we have done. This may sound like a deviation from our text – perhaps it is; but the question it refers to is so closely associated with the subject of parsons and priests, that we should have scarcely been doing justice to the matter if we had not had a quiet “fling” at the money part of it. In the letters which will follow this, we shall deal disinterestedly with all – shall give Churchmen, Catholics, Quakers, Independents, Baptists, Wesleyans, Ranters, and Calathumpians, fair play. Our object will be to present a picture of things as they are, and to avoid all meddling with creeds. People may believe what they like, so far as we are concerned, if they behave themselves, and pay their debts. It is utterly impossible to get all to be of the same opinion; creeds, like faces, must differ, have differed, always will differ; and the best plan is to let people have their own way so long as it is consistent with the general welfare of social and civil life. It being understood that “the milk of human kindness is within the pale of the Church,” we shall begin there. The Parish Church of Preston will constitute our first theme.