THE PARISH CLERK
OLD-TIME CHOIRS AND PARSONS
A remarkable feature in the conduct of our modern ecclesiastical services is the disappearance and painless extinction of the old parish clerk who figured so prominently in the old-fashioned ritual dear to the hearts of our forefathers. The Oxford Movement has much to answer for! People who have scarcely passed the rubicon of middle life can recall the curious scene which greeted their eyes each Sunday morning when life was young, and perhaps retain a tenderness for old abuses, and, like George Eliot, have a lingering liking for nasal clerks and top-booted clerics, and sigh for the departed shades of vulgar errors.
Then and now—the contrast is great. Then the hideous Georgian “three-decker” reared its monstrous form, blocking out the sight of the sanctuary; immense pews like cattle-pens filled the nave. The woodwork was high and panelled, sometimes richly carved, as at Whalley Church, Lancashire, where some pews have posts at the corners like an old-fashioned four-posted bed. Sometimes two feet above the top of the woodwork there were brass rods on which slender curtains ran, and were usually drawn during sermon time in order that the attention of the occupants of the pew might not be distracted from devout meditations on the preacher’s discourse—or was it to woo slumber? A Berkshire dame rather admired these old-fashioned pews, wherein, as she naively expressed it, “a body might sleep comfortable without all the parish knowin’ on it.”
It was of such pews that Swift wrote in his Baucis and Philemon:
“A bedstead of
the antique mode,
Compact of timber many a load,
Such as our ancestors did use
Was metamorphosed into pews;
Which still their ancient nature keep
By lodging folks disposed to sleep.”
The squire’s pew was a wondrous structure, with its own special fire-place, the fire in which the old gentleman used to poke vigorously when the parson was too long in preaching. It was amply furnished, this squire’s pew, with arm-chairs and comfortable seats and stools and books. Such a pew all furnished and adorned did a worthy clerk point out to the witty Bishop of Oxford, Bishop Wilberforce, with much pride and satisfaction. “If there be ought your lordship can mention to mak’ it better, I’m sure Squire will no mind gettin’ on it.”
The bishop, with a merry twinkle in his eye, turned round to the vicar, who was standing near, and maliciously whispered:
“A card table!”
Such comfortable squires’ pews still exist in some churches, but “restoration” has paid scanty regard to old-fashioned notions and ideas, and the squire and his family usually sit nowadays on benches similar to those used by the rest of the congregation.