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LETTER ON THE CURATE'S SALARY BILL, * (E. Review, 1808.)
A Letter to the Right Honourable Spencer Perceval, on a Subject connected with his Bill, now under Discussion in Parliament, for improving the Situation of Stipendiary Curates. 8vo. Hatchard, London. 1808.
THE poverty of curates has long been a favourite theme with novelists, sentimental tourists, and elegiac poets. But, notwithstanding the known accuracy of this class of philosophers, we cannot help suspecting that there is a good deal of misconception in the popular estimate of the amount of the evil. A very great proportion of all the curacies in England al"G fin. with men to whom the emolument is a matter of subordinate importance. They are filled by young gentlemen who have recently left college, who of course are able to subsist as they had subsisted for seven years before, and who are glad to have an opportunity, on any terms, of acquiring a practical familiarity with the duties of their profession. They move away from them to higher situations as vacancies occur; and make way for a new race of ecclesiastical apprentices. To those men, the smallness of the appointment is a grievance of no very great magnitude; nor is it fair, with relation to them, to represent the ecclesiastical order as degraded by the indigence to which some of its members are condemned. With regard, again, to those who take curacies merely as a means of subsistence, and with the prospect of remaining permanently in that situation, it is certain that by far the greater part of them are persons born in a very humble rank in society, and accustomed to no greater opulence than that of an ordinary curate. There are scarcely any of those persons who have taken a degree in an university, and not very many who have resided there at all. Now, the son of a small Welsh farmer, who works hard every day for less than 40l. a year, has no great reason to complain of degradation or disappointment, if he get from 50l. to 100l. for a moderate portion of labour one day in seven. The situation, accordingly, is looked upon by these people as extremely eligible; and there is a great competition for curacies, even as they are now provided. The amount of the evil, then, as to the curates themselves, cannot be considered as very enormous, when there are so few who either actually feel, or are entitled to feel, much discontent on the subject. -The late regulations about residence, too, by diminishing the total number of curates, will obviously throw that office chiefly into the hands of the well-educated and comparatively independent young men, who seek for the situation rather for practice than profit, and do not complain of the want of emolument. Still we admit it to be an evil, that the resident clergyman of a parish should not be enabled to hold a respectable rank in society from the regular emoluments of his office. But it is an evil which does not exist exclusively among curates; and which, wherever it exists, we are afraid is irremediable, without the destruction of the Episcopal Church, or the augmentation of its patrimony. More than one half of the livings in England are under 80l. a year; and the whole income of the Church, including that of the bishops, if thrown into a common fund, would not afford above 180l. for each living. Unless Mr. Perceval, therefore, will raise an additional million or two for the Church, there must be poor curates, – and poor rectors also ; and unless he is to reduce the Episcopal hierarchy to the republican equality of our Presbyterian model, he must submit to very considerable inequalities in the distribution of this inadequate provision. Instead of applying any of these remedies, however, — instead of proposing to increase the income of the Church, or to raise a fund for its lowest servants by a general assessment upon those who are more opulent, — instead of even trying indirectly to raise the pay of curates, by raising their qualifications in respect of regular education, Mr. Perceval has been able, after long and profound study, to find no better cure for the endemic poverty of curates, than to ordain all rectors of a certain income to pay them one fifth part of their emoluments, and to vest certain alarming powers in the bishops for the purpose of controlling their appointment. Now, this scheme, it appears to us, has all the faults which it is possible for such a scheme to have. It is unjust and partial in its principle, – it is evidently altogether and utterly inefficient for the correction of the evil in question,- and it introduces other evils infinitely greater than that which it vainly proposes to abolish. To this project, however, for increasing the salary of curates, Mr. Perceval has been so long and so obstinately partial, that he returned to the charge in the last session of Parliament, for the third time; and experienced, in spite of his present high situation, the same defeat which had baffled him in his previous attempts. Though the subject is gone by once more for the present, we cannot abstain from bestowing a little gentle violence to aid its merited descent into the gulf of oblivion, and to extinguish, if possible, that resurgent principle which has so often disturbed the serious business of the country, and averted the attention of the public from the great scenes that are acting in the world — to search for some golden medium between the selfishness of the sacred principal, and the rapacity of the sacred deputy. If church property is to be preserved, that precedent is not without danger which disposes at once of a fifth of all the valuable livings in England. We do not advance this as an argument of any great importance against the bill, but only as an additional reason why its utility should be placed in the clearest point of view, before it can attain the assent of well-wishers to the English establishment. Our first and greatest objection to such a measure, is the increase of power which it gives to the bench of Bishops, – an evil which may produce the most serious effects, by placing the whole body of the clergy under the absolute control of men who are themselves so much under the influence of the Crown. This, indeed, has been pretty effectually accomplished by the late Residence bill of Sir William Scott; and our objection to the present bill is, that it tends to augment that excessive power before conferred on the prelacy. If a clergyman lives in a situation which is destroying his constitution, — he cannot exchange with a brother clergyman without the consent of the bishop; in whose hands, under such circumstances, his life and death are actually placed. If he wishes to cultivate a little land for his amusement or better support, — he cannot do it without the licence of the bishop. If he wishes to spend the last three or four months with a declining wife or child, at some spot where better medical assistance can be procured, - he cannot do so without permission of the bishop. If he is struck with palsy, or racked with stone, – the bishop can confine him in the most remote village in England. In short, the power which the bishops at present possess over their clergy is so enormous, that none but a fool or a madman would think of compromising his future happiness, by giving the most remote cause of offence to his diocesan. We ought to recollect, however, that the clergy constitute a body of 12 or 15,000 educated persons; that the whole concern of education devolves upon them; that some share of the talents and information which exist in the country must naturally fall to their lot; and that the complete subjugation of such a body of men cannot, in any point of view, be a matter of indifference to a free country. It is in vain to talk of the good character of bishops. Bishops are men; not always the wisest of men; not always preferred for eminent virtues and talents, or for any good reason whatever known to the public. They are almost always devoid of striking and indecorous vices; but a man may be very shallow, very arrogant, and very vindictive, though a bishop; and pursue with unrelenting hatred a subordinate clergyman, whose principles he dislikes”, and whose genius he fears. Bishops, besides, are subject to the infirmities of old age, like other men; and in the decay of strength and understanding, will be governed as other men are, by daughters and wives, and whoever ministers to their daily comforts. We have no doubt that such cases sometimes occur, and produce, wherever they do occur, a very capricious administration of ecclesiastical affairs, f As the power of enforcing residence must be lodged somewhere, why not give the bishop a council, consisting of two thirds ecclesiastics, and one third laymen: and meeting at the same time as the sessions and deputy sessions;– the bishop's licence for non-residence to issue, of course, upon their recommendations? Considering the vexatious bustle of a new and the laxity of an aged bishop, we cannot but think that a diocese would be much more steadily administered under this system, than by the present means. Examine the constitutional effects of the power now granted to the bench. What hinders a bishop from becoming, in the hands of the Court, a very important agent in all county elections 2 what clergyman would dare to refuse him his vote? But it will be said that no bishop will ever condescend to such sort of intrigues: — a most miserable answer to a most serious objection. The temptation is admitted, - the absence of all restraint; the dangerous consequences are equally admitted; and the only preservative is the personal character
* Now we are all dead, it may be amusing to state that I was excited to this article by Sir William Scott, who brought me the book in his pocket; and begged foul. attend to it, carefully concealing his name; my own opinions happened entirely to agree with his.