An old clergyman named Field lived at Cambridge and served three country parishes—Hauxton, Newton, and Barnington. On Sunday morning he used to ride to Hauxton, which he could see from the high road to Newton. If there was a congregation, the clerk used to waggle his hat on the top of a long pole kept in the church porch, and Field had to turn down the road and take the service. If there was no congregation he went on straight to Newton, where there was always a congregation, as two old ladies were always present. Field used to turn his pony loose in the churchyard, and as he entered the church began the Exhortation, so that by the time he was robed he had progressed well through the service. My informant, the Rev. M.J. Bacon, was curate at Newton, and remembers well the old surplice turned up and shortened at the bottom, where the old parson’s spurs had frayed it.
It was this pluralism that led to much abuse, much neglect, and much carelessness. However, enough has been said about the shepherd, and we must return to his helper, the clerk, with whose biography and history we are mainly concerned.
THE ANTIQUITY AND CONTINUITY OF THE OFFICE OF CLERK
The office of parish clerk can claim considerable antiquity, and dates back to the times of Augustine and King Ethelbert. Pope Gregory the Great, in writing to St. Augustine of Canterbury with regard to the order and constitution of the Church in new lands and under new circumstances, laid down sundry regulations with regard to the clerk’s marriage and mode of life. King Ethelbert, by the advice of his Witenagemote, introduced certain judicial decrees, which set down what satisfaction should be given by those who stole anything belonging to the church. The purloiner of a clerk’s property was ordered to restore threefold. The canons of King Edgar, which may be attributed to the wise counsel of St. Dunstan, ordered every clergyman to attend the synod yearly and to bring his clerk with him.
[Footnote 2: Bede’s Hist. Eccles., ii. v.]
Thus from early Saxon times the history of the office can be traced.
His name is merely the English form of the Latin clericus, a word which signified any one who took part in the services of the Church, whether he was in major or minor orders. A clergyman is still a “clerk in Holy Orders,” and a parish clerk signified one who belonged to the rank of minor orders and assisted the parish priest in the services of the parish church. We find traces of him abroad in early days. In the seventh century, the canons of the Ninth Council of Toledo and of the Council of Merida tell of his services in the worship of the sanctuary, and in the ninth century he has risen to prominence in the Gallican Church, as we gather from the inquiries instituted by Archbishop Hincmar, of Rheims, who demanded of the rural deans whether each presbyter had a clerk who could keep school, or read the epistle, or was able to sing.