It’s easy to assume that the whole gamut of Georgian clergymen were like either the oily Mr Collins, in Pride and Prejudice, or Rev. Gilbert White, happily recording his nature observations in Selborne — basically fairly prosperous and on at least acquaintanceship terms with the local gentry. It’s true that clergy of the established, Anglican church were treated as ‘honorary gentlemen’. Most would have attended Oxford or Cambridge universities. Quite a few were younger sons or cousins of landed gentry families. However, this was far from being universal and certainly did not apply to the many Dissenting Ministers, who served in non-conformist chapels. Nor should prosperity be assumed. There were three main categories of Anglican clergy. In a rough descending order of income, these were rectors, vicars and curates. Dissenting Ministers make up a confusing category of their own.
Rectors and Vicars
I’ve put these together, because the distinction, while important, is less than between the other categories. Collectively, parsons from both groups (plus Perpetual Curates) might be referred to as the ‘incumbent’: literally the man who lay down in the living — or, at least, the rectory, vicarage or parsonage attached. Yes, the upper two categories got a free house for life as well; sometimes quite a grand one.
Rectors ‘held’ the living, in the sense that they could retain it for life, had a legal right to the associated income and could not be forced out, save on the most serious disciplinary grounds. They were not deputies, like vicars, who might in theory be dismissed by the rector for whom they deputised. The rector could also lay claim to all the income from the living; the vicar only the part of it allowed him by the rector.
This income came from two sources. Most parishes included a small farm, called ‘glebe land’. This was a hangover from mediaeval days, when parish priests had to grow the bulk of their own food. By Georgian times, few, if any, parsons farmed their glebe personally. Most either came to an arrangement with a local farmer to manage the land for them, in return for a share of the produce, or rented it out. Either way, it should produce spare income as well as provisions for the kitchen.
The bulk of the money associated with the living came from the tithe: a church tax of ten percent, levied on certain lands, produce or property in the parish. It was mostly paid in cash by this time, but sometimes till in kind. Either way, agreeing the tithe (it could vary according to the value of that year’s crops), as well as collecting it, formed part of the incumbent’s tasks — whether he was rector or vicar. It might be the incumbent’s right to demand payment, but he still had to get it — and deal with defaulters and late payers. Generally, it was collected on two fixed days in the year, with those owing money coming to bring it in person — and expecting a good (free) meal and plenty of drink in return!
To sum up, rectors were the clergy who had the right to the whole income of the living and operated only under the supervision and control of the diocesan bishop. Vicars were formally ‘deputies’ to a rector, in cases where the rector was either unable or unwilling to serve the parish himself. This applied mostly where the rectorship was owned by an institution, such as an Oxford or Cambridge college, or by a lay-person. In such cases, the right to collect the full tithe lay with the rector, who would share it with the vicar in an agreed proportion.
The term ‘curate’ can be confusing and difficult to define precisely. Etymologically, it means an ordained person responsible for the ‘cure of souls’ in a parish — i.e. the parish priest. In that sense, the term applied equally to rectors (unless lay ones) and vicars. In practice, it had come to mean a salaried assistant, deputy or locum: i.e. someone paid a stipend or salary directly by the rector/vicar, and not having a right to any part of the tithes. Since the Anglican Church was, and is, full of oddities, some parishes were served by ‘Perpetual Curates’, in full charge and deputy to no one, but still paid a stipend, rather than having a right to any of the tithe. This stipend was usually funded by an endowment or charitable body. However, by later Victorian times, the term fell out of general use and they were classed as vicars.
Most curates were either young, recently-ordained clergymen, waiting to find someone willing to present them to a living, or those without a source of ‘interest’ or patronage, and hence unable ever to gain a living of their own. They eked out a precarious existence on stipends as low as £30 to £50 a year (£6,000 to £10,000), often needing to act as curate to several neighbouring parishes to drum up enough to live on. Generally, the vast bulk of parish duties fell on them — conducting services in bad weather or remote churches, handling burials, christenings and marriages, visiting the sick, teaching the catechism and Sunday School. The rector or vicar would reserve the most important duties — that usually meant those most visible to the local gentry — to themselves. That is, if they did much at all. It wasn’t unknown for some rectors, in particular, to spend more time fox-hunting and hobnobbing with the local squirearchy than undertaking any religious duties; hardly surprising when younger sons often saw the church simply as source of income and entered it without any great religious vocation or interest.
How much the ‘living’ (the right to tithes in full or part from a parish) was worth varied enormously. The income from a rich living could be greater than the income of many of the minor landed gentry. A poor living might pay less than £100 a year (perhaps £15,000 to £20,000 in today’s money) — barely enough to keep up even a modest, middle-class lifestyle. Similarly, the vicar’s share of the tithes could vary from generous to niggardly. That’s why the records show some clergymen swapping livings with one another, trying to move up from poorer to richer when the could.
Another way to increase your income was pluralism. This meant holding more than one living simultaneously, using salaried curates to do the extra work. Officially, it was frowned upon, but it certainly happened — and not as an exception either. Once again, to manage to be a pluralist required sufficient “interest” (i.e. patronage), firstly to be presented to the second living (sometimes even a third), and to persuade the diocesan bishop to accept and confirm the presentation.
The award of livings, like almost everything else in Georgian days, depended on patronage or access to influence. The patron ‘presented’ a clergyman to the living, leaving the diocesan bishop to accept or deny the presentation (unless that living was in the gift of the bishop himself). This system meant the great families made sure of the best livings, since the right of presentation could be bought and sold. They would then use them as a form of assured income for younger sons. Any which were ‘surplus’ to this need would be used to grant patronage where bring most benefit.
Oxford and Cambridge colleges used the livings to which they had the right of presentation to provide a career for favoured fellows or alumni. Landed gentry bestowed what they owned on family members or other favoured individuals. These were ‘jobs for life’. They had to be, since there were no clergy pensions. Unless an elderly clergyman had some other source of income, he had to hang onto his living until he died, perhaps, like Parson Woodforde, paying a succession of curates to do the work when he had become too frail to manage himself.
Theological zealots and reformers saw the 18th-century Anglican church as religiously moribund and riddled with apathy. Parish roles (livings) were viewed primarily as a source of assured income and the ability to purchase, sell and exchange various rights within the Established Church had far more influence on appointments than religious vocation or scholarship. The power of patronage and influence was paramount, as it was with more senior positions too (archdeacons, deans, bishops). Even today, Anglican bishoprics, though formally in the gift of the Queen as head of the church, are actually allocated by the Prime Minister of the day.
The principal differences between these and Anglican clergy were twofold: social status and security of income. Dissenting Ministers were definitely not treated as gentlemen of any sort, honorary or otherwise, even though their ranks included some of the finest thinkers, scientists and teachers of that, or any other, age. Dissenters were banned from attending the English universities. Their own Academies, though providing excellent education in their own right, were scorned by the establishment. The best that could be allowed them was that they were protestants, which set them above Roman Catholic priests. Very few of the nobility or gentry were dissenters, although some were technically such: a significant group still clung to Roman Catholicism — a religious practice best pursued only domestically, since rabid anti-Papist sentiment was never far below the surface in Georgian times.
As a result, dissent was most prevalent amongst artisans and the lower middle classes, as well as being more common in certain localities than others. Dissenting Ministers were appointed by their congregations and paid by them as well. Their security and income were in the hands of the chapel elders, or whatever group were charged with administering chapel and congregation. Some chapels used no ordained ministers at all, relying on laymen to lead services and act as preachers. Others mixed lay preachers with occasional visits from ordained ministers. In nearly all cases, preaching was what mattered most. A powerful preacher could fill a chapel or command a huge open-air gathering, as John Wesley did. A mediocre one might find himself let go, if there was a chance of getting someone better. Being ordained, in sects where this was possible, guaranteed nothing, since communion services (which still usually required an ordained person to preside) were often either extremely infrequent or absent altogether.