18.5.1 The Ministry of Anglican Clergy in 19th Century England

It sometimes surprises me to find Christian history and theology in unusual places. My son gave me Bill Bryson’s book AT HOME, and there on page thirteen the author goes into quite a bit about Anglican clergyman in the year 1851. He says there were 17,621 Anglican clergymen at the time. A country rector would only have about a parish of 250 souls, but would enjoy an income of 500 pounds – “as much as a senior civil servant like Henry Cole, the man behind the great exhibition.”[i] He goes on to explain that for many English gentleman becoming an Anglican minister was one of only two default career moves, the other being the military. He goes on to expound about how the clergyman of England got their income. You see there were two types: rectors and vicars.  And depending on which type you were greatly influenced your income. Rectors received what were called “great tithes” which came from the main crops like wheat and barley. Vicars received those which were called the “small tithes” which were considerably less.  (Actually the clergy were paid a fixed annual sum that was the rough equivalent of an average tithe, so that their income was very stable as compared to the farmers who are paying these amounts.)

Now comes the interesting part.   Bryson relates how these Anglican clergyman performed their ministry. Even though ordination in the Church of England required a university degree most recipients never studied divinity. They had no training on how to preach or counsel. A common practice was for them just to buy a big book of prepared sermons and read from them once a week.

So what did these ministers do?  They did all kinds of things completely unrelated to ministry. They wrote novels, taught classes, raised chickens, and became experts in various fields.  Bryson recounts the story of Reverend Thomas Bayes, who by his account was a “shy hopeless preacher”, but is now quite famous for his Bayes theorem which advanced the study of mathematics in his day.

If you read the book you will be surprised at the wide variety and depth of accomplishment of this class of people.

What is sad, however, is that they were doing so many things other than ministering, and ministering was reduced to reading a canned sermon on Sunday morning.  Its not that ministers sometimes need to work to pay the bills.  Many do.  Even Paul worked a day job at times to keep himself going.  But his focus was on ministry.

The whole story is a comment on how far Christianity had deviated from original, primitive Christianity under the dominion of Christendom.

In the book of acts we read how ministers were ordained under the guidance of the spirit. The book of Timothy goes into depth on the spiritual qualifications of ministers. And numerous sections in the epistles emphasize the charges given to ministers to fulfill their ministry.   Timothy is charged by Paul:

I charge thee therefore before God, and the Lord Jesus Christ, who shall judge the quick and the dead at his appearing and his kingdom; Preach the word; be instant in season, out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort with all longsuffering and doctrine. For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but after their own lusts shall they heap to themselves teachers, having itching ears; And they shall turn away their ears from the truth, and shall be turned unto fables. But watch thou in all things, endure afflictions, do the work of an evangelist, make full proof of thy ministry.  (2 Timothy 4:1-5)

Look at the intense charge given here, to preach the word in season and out, to reprove, rebuke, exhort with all long suffering and doctrine.

None of these  biblical  guidelines  apparently were in play in the Anglican church that Bryson describes. After all, this was a world that was Christian by their own definition.  To defy the Church was social suicide, if not treason and possibly death.  So everyone was a Christian outwardly, and ministers read a canned sermon once a week, lived well, and did what they pleased the rest of the time.

Bryson’s point was to emphacise the great achievements of these Anglican ministers which greatly helped the world, and while I am thankful for any achievement that helps men I am sad to read about a Christian denomination where the work of the ministers was to raise chickens and write mathematical proofs.

[i] At Home, Bill Bryson, Doubleday, New York, 2010, P. 4-20

© copyright 2011 Mark W Smith, all rights reserved.

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