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If I Were a Clergyman…or If I were a Layman…
by Dr Miriam Moffitt
What do the clergy think of the laity and what do the laity think of the clergy? Honest answers to these questions are rare but a series of articles published in the Church of Ireland Gazette 100 years ago provides unusual insight into what two of the three orders (created by the post–disestablishment Church of Ireland Constitution, and the third of which being the bishops) thought of each other. Entitled ‘If I were a clergyman’ and ‘If I were a layman’, they were published in early 1918. They make for revealing reading.
The series began with two columns ‘If I were a clergyman’ on 18 and 25 January, with a third on 8 February. Most laypersons were united on one opinion: they expected their clergyman (and he was of course a man at this time) to have a good grasp of scripture and doctrine and promised that, if they were in his place, they would equip themselves with the necessary training and knowledge. However, this is probably the only lay opinion of clerical life on which there was consensus and diverse suggestions were made regarding the Church’s association with wealth, home visiting, the income of the clergy, and the Church’s connection with the laity. Some lay correspondents claimed they understood the difficulties associated with clerical life: one writer went so far as to exclaim that ‘it be so difficult to combine the spirit of the dove and the spirit of the serpent at one time’.
Some clergy were outspoken in their responses. A few revealed they did not always hold their parishioners in high regard and many criticised the lack of lay involvement in parish life. Clergy regularly outlined the range of personalities they encountered among the laity. Indeed the Revd William Ellison (rector of Fethard–on–Sea, county Wexford, 1908–18) explained these could range from those disengaged from their parish to the ‘ecclesiastically–minded’ layman whom Ellison described as ‘worse than a parson, and whom no parson cares to have in his parish because he thinks he knows how things ought to be done better than the parson himself’. Clergy correspondents admitted vying with each other to produce the worst lay specimens when they discussed the ‘sins and imperfections’ of their ‘godly laymen’ at clerical meetings and in each other’s homes; they welcomed the opportunity to voice their opinions as they could not normally respond to lay criticism without turning their pulpit into a ‘coward’s castle’.
Most lay correspondents insisted that, were they a cleric, they would minister to poor as well as rich, pledging to ‘avoid the contempt of the rich and proud by not pandering either to wealth or station’. Some promised to abandon the system of paid seating (still apparently in practice at this time – see an earlier presentation Please Be Seated on payments for seats at this link) or stated that they would make all pews available once a service was underway. Others pledged to rotate parish offices annually so that all men (and soon all women) could play an active role, while many were highly critical of the way in which persons of wealth dominated church societies and influenced the workings of the parish. A Belfast layman, for example, was ‘dead against snobbery and patronage …. would make it so hot it could not live in my Church’; but, appreciating the Church’s reliance on wealthy parishioners, he further wondered about the feasibility of adopting such an independent approach. In spite of this, he promised to rotate positions on the parish vestry annually because he had seen how people often lost interest on account of the ‘disastrous habit … of annually electing the same officer … out of a particular class or circle’.
It is very clear that lay persons did not always appreciate outspoken or dogmatic clergy. One Dublin layman for example suggested greater tolerance, promising never to ‘teach what I had not learned nor dogmatise where there was good ground for a variety of opinions’; and pledged to cultivate a sense of humour rather than become some sort of ‘sanctified humbug’. Another layman promised to keep away from issues unless he understood the topic lest he bring about ‘the sneers and the contempt which intemperate, ill–informed letters from the parson frequently produce … The clergyman is often found to rush in where the professional expert fears to tread …’. Others believed the clergy should steer clear of politics, a Belfast layman believing that thousands of laymen had left the Church ‘because of political bias, and interference by the parson, where he has no business’.
Many correspondents commented on the emotional distance between the clergy and the laity. The Revd William Ellison believed that clerical dress imposed a psychological barrier between a clergyman and his parishioners: ‘His very dress is sufficient to keep all the seamy side of human nature at arm’s length, away out of his ken … His coat warns away everything of the sort’. The net result of this distancing was that a clergyman formed ‘an idea of every–day life that is far too rosy–coloured and quite unlike the reality … and is proportionately disappointed when laymen fail to take his Utopian views of life’. Lay contributors echoed this view, accepting an invisible distance between the cleric and his congregation; it was suggested that clergy should mingle incognito with the wider population to get an appreciation of the world of the laity, and that they should take up golf or billiards for this purpose.
The provision of church services was another frequent theme. ‘A Lay Churchman’ promised daily services unless his church was too far from the glebe but, in contrast, the Revd Ellison criticised laymen who demanded extra services which few parishioners were in a position to attend. One clergyman from the north–west worried about the cost of heating the church for extra hours and wondered how a congregation would react if the rector took service in his overcoat. The quality and duration of sermons was also cause for comment. One layman believed each minute of a sermon warranted one hour’s preparation, some felt that lengthy sermons were the death knell of church attendance, and many insisted that the optimum length should be 12 minutes. However, a Dublin layman wanted sermons full of ‘freshness and vigour’ and believed they should not be shortened to suit the hearer. Clergymen, however, did not believe that congregations paid sufficient interest to their preaching and advised parents to set an example to children ‘to hear sermons’.
Clergy and laity alike admitted that the lay involvement in parish affairs was inadequate but did not always agree on the root causes. Most lay correspondents promised to increase clerical contact with parishioners, but differed on how this might be achieved. A Dublin–based ‘Lay Churchman’ proposed the establishment of parish societies such as a Temperance Society, Boys’ Brigade, Communicants’ meetings, Confirmation classes, Missionary Guild, etc., while a Belfast layman pledged to provide parish meetings but would ensure his own attendance was not required. These laymen also differed on the question of parish visiting; a Dublin layman promised to visit his parishioners systematically while his Belfast counterpart felt that visiting was ‘sometimes overdone’. Some clergy believed that the blame for lack of lay involvement could justifiably be placed on the shoulders of the laity. One cleric noted the ‘crying need of the Church is for live laymen’, believing:
the proportion of dull and lifeless laymen far outnumbers the same class of parsons; that the dull and inefficient clergy are the natural product of dull and inefficient Churchmen who have but transferred these inevitable characteristics from the pew, in which they have been brought up, to the pulpit; and that if the laity marshalled their resources of prayer and zeal and spiritual power and brought them to bear on dull and inefficient services and parsons, the spiritual temperature of the Church would rise and the parson either rise in sympathy or depart in disgust.
There were, though, a few examples of critical self–awareness, where both members of the clergy and laity criticised themselves. One clergyman for example wondered if he had personally alienated segments of his flock by unconsciously promoting an attitude that the ability to carry out all aspects of parish work was solely found in clergymen:
Then I thought of a good worker, but who did not quite see things from the same point of view as I did, and wondered if I had been wise in dropping him altogether for, perhaps, after all some of his ideas might have been as good as mine, and he could hardly have been wrong all the time.
The subject of clerical wives was mentioned just once when a layman – ‘A Member of our old Irish Church’ – noted that ‘the real ruler of the Parish’ was the rector’s wife. He outlined the disastrous consequences of ‘cold and lifeless’ rectories in which sub–standard clerical wives created a general environment of neglect which resulted in young men from less well–off backgrounds marrying Roman Catholic wives and defecting to the Church of Rome.
Most clerical contributions struck a rather defensive tone, generally explaining that they were hampered by inadequate housing and lack of funds. The Revd Ellison again explained that it was difficult for clergy to concentrate on parish work when their minds were focused ‘sordid considerations’ such as butcher’s and tailor’s accounts. In fact, he reminded readers eloquently that prayer, preaching and teaching were magnae mentis opus. Others felt burdened with providing funds for the upkeep of the churches in their care, regretting that they were ‘For ever begging’. An unidentified dean suggested that the laity should ensure suitably–maintained housing, and many clerical contributions agreed with a rector from the north–west who explained the workload of an impoverished clergyman:
Where a man has three or more children, and not enough money to pay a servant’s wages, he will no doubt be spending much of his time in the work of a general servant and nurse, and when he has that done, he will be doing the work of the general man outside. Neither the man nor his wife are good for much, and I ask is it any wonder that he seems tired in Services and his sermons are not well prepared?
While the burning subject of low and irregular clerical incomes was constantly raised by the clergy, not all laypersons were sympathetic. ‘A Church Worker’ (female) insisted that clergy who kept ‘growling on all and every occasion about want of money’ should have informed themselves of the reality of clerical life before embarking on their careers.
Ongoing suitability for life in ministry was mentioned just twice: a lay correspondent promised to reflect annually on his ordination vows and ‘to seek some other means of livelihood’ if he were unable to accept church doctrine; a clerical contributor, however, who clearly saw few avenues open to him revealed a depressing sense of entrapment in his role:
It is true that some of us are not gifted for the Holy Office to which we thought we were called, but we are in a great difficulty; for the time has gone by in which we could have fitted ourselves for another sphere of life, and if we are married we cannot let our wives and children starve, while we begin again at something else.
These articles did not reach a conclusion. That was never their intended outcome. They were, instead, published to spark a debate about the Church, and about the requirements and expectations of the clergy and laity. The debate, one suspects, continues to the present day.
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