At the present time loud complaints are frequently heard of a lack of clergy. Rectors and vicars are sighing for assistant curates, the vast populations of our great cities require additional ministration, and the mission field is crying out for more labourers to reap the harvests of the world. It might be well in this emergency to inquire into the methods of the mediaeval Church, and observe how the clergy in those days faced the problem, and gained for themselves tried and trusty helpers.
One method of great utility was to appoint poor scholars to the office of parish clerk, by a due discharge of the duties of which they were trained to serve in church and in the parish, and might ultimately hope to attain to the ministry. This is borne out by the evidence of wills wherein some good incumbent, grateful for the faithful services of his clerk, bequeaths either books or money to him, in order to enable him to prepare himself for higher preferment. Thus in 1389 the rector of Marum, one Robert de Weston, bequeaths to “John Penne, my clerk, a missal of the New Use of Sarum, if he wishes to be a priest, otherwise I give him 20 s.” In 1337 Giles de Gadlesmere leaves “to William Ockam, clerk, two shillings, unless he be promoted before my death.” Evidently it was no unusual practice in early times for the clerk to be raised to Holy Orders, his office being regarded as a stepping-stone to higher preferment. The status of the clerk was then of no servile character.
A canon of Newburgh asked for Sir William Plumpton’s influence that his brother might have a clerkship. Even the sons of kings and lords did not consider it beneath the dignity of their position to perform the duties of a clerk, and John of Athon considered the office of so much importance that he gave the following advice to any one who held it:
[Footnote 21: Plumpton Correspondence, Camden Society, 1839, P. 66, temp. Henry VII.]
“Whoever you may be, although the son of king, do not blush to go up to the book in church, and read and sing; but if you know nothing of yourself, follow those who do know.”
It is recorded in the chronicle of Ralph de Coggeshall that Richard I used to take great delight in divine service on the principal festivals; going hither and thither in the choir, encouraging the singers by voice and hand to sing louder. In the Life of Sir Thomas More, written by William Roper, we find an account of that charming incident in the career of the great and worthy Lord Chancellor, when he was discovered by the Duke of Norfolk, who had come to Chelsea to dine with him, singing in the choir and wearing a surplice during the service of the Mass. After the conclusion of the service host and guest walked arm in arm to the house of Sir Thomas More.
“God’s body, my Lord Chancellor, what turned Parish Clerk? You dishonour the King and his office very much,” said the Duke.