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Parsons’ displeasure

Despite its prosaic title, this is a humdinging page-turner of a book, revealing in livid detail the scandal of how the Church of England jettisoned onto the market what the author describes as ‘perhaps the most admirable, desirable and ascetic body of domestic buildings ever built’.

14 December 2009

12:00 AM

14 December 2009

12:00 AM

The Old Rectory: The History of the English Parsonage Anthony Jennings

Continuum, pp.296, 25

Despite its prosaic title, this is a humdinging page-turner of a book, revealing in livid detail the scandal of how the Church of England jettisoned onto the market what the author describes as ‘perhaps the most admirable, desirable and ascetic body of domestic buildings ever built’.

Despite its prosaic title, this is a humdinging page-turner of a book, revealing in livid detail the scandal of how the Church of England jettisoned onto the market what the author describes as ‘perhaps the most admirable, desirable and ascetic body of domestic buildings ever built’. Out of his reckoned 50,000 of such buildings that served England’s churches — ‘hallowed stones, if properly used, can preach a better sermon than many clergymen’ — only around 700 are left, the rest having been sold to people with little or no ecclesiastic connections and with little or no desire to nurture the religious role for which their house was originally built. They are buildings that still stand as proud symbols of that past, next to the church and in the midst of the village, physically, but no longer spiritually, the heart of the place. ‘The relationship between the buildings created a harmony intended to reflect the glory of God, not that of the hedgefund manager.’

It is a teeth-grindingly scandalous state of affairs — grimly detailed by the author — partly brought about by the grotesque mismanagement by the church and its diocesan boards, and partly by the egalitarian misapprehension that these beautiful and historic architectural treasures, blessed by the tranquillity that comes from spirituality, somehow cut the clergy off from their poor parishioners. I must declare myself a villain of the piece, in that I live in an old rectory; but I am at least aware of the silver lining, that these buildings are being loved and looked after today. As Anthony Jennings shows, the box-like and plastic-windowed replacement parsonages, so often shoddily built and almost always further away from the church, have lessened rather than increased the clergy’s links with his flock.


What is more, even in material terms the sell-offs have failed wretchedly, since ill- wrought replacement rectories suffer enormous repair bills and often are too small for anything but the rectors most private life. I myself have heard of one man of the cloth despairing that his new bedroom was not large enough for him and his wife to kneel in prayer on either side of their bed. Another new vicarage that I know of gives all the appearance of being the garage in the garden of the large old gothic vicarage now divided into flats. With such cramped and soulless quarters, how can the vicar embrace his flock?

The Church of England has engaged in what the author describes as ‘the most remarkable, continuous and wholesale divestment of valuable assets ever undertaken by a national institution’. Not only that, but by building new rectories so bereft of all presence and purpose, the church has reduced the status of the clergy. Worst of all, none of this need have happened had common sense been followed rather than doctrinal egalitarian prejudice. Take for example the 17th- century rectory at Fairfield in Derbyshire, which has been successfully divided into parish offices and the living quarters, with rooms of decent proportions for both purposes. As the author argues so eloquently, the old and the beautiful are the allies, not the enemies, of religion:

Most of us remember the rectory or the parsonage in the town or the village where we grew up. Its presence always had an impact, even if only subliminal. It was part of life, even if we were never churchgoers. That was not just because of what it symbolised, but what it was. It taught us that the church was an integral part of life, taught us about architecture and history.

‘The great 20th-century sell-off’, as it is described by Jennings, will be to the church’s eternal detriment, and short of restoring them all to their holy roles, we could have no better memorial to their importance than this book; a delightful yet doom-ridden progress through England’s cultural and spiritual, social and architectural history. Densely comprehensive, it is also exhilarating, moving and poetic, thoroughly enjoyable and important, yet always deeply depressing that such policy should have been allowed to come to pass — and in the name of the church:

The bishops and bureaucrats remain resolutely sceptical of the importance of architecture and history, heritage and tradition, and the part they play in our life. Some take positive pride in that . . . Financial and pastoral considerations, heating costs, maintenance costs, are debated ad infinitum. The humanity, grace and propriety of the traditional parsonage is what really matters, but that cannot even be discussed.

With this book Jennings tells us all that we could ever wish to know; with such details as the 19th-century Rev. Stephen Hawker of Morwenstow designing five of his rectory chimneys as his favourite church towers. ‘The sixth’, he wrote, ‘perplexed me very much, till I bethought me of my mother’s tomb; and there it is, in its exact shape and dimensions’. With many laughs — such as the 17th-century Rector of Uggeshal being thrown out of his church for eating custard after a scandalous manner — this book delights in the parsonages and their incumbents. Starting with the Saxon Priest’s House we are taken on a scholarly parade past these little beacons of British architecture from the 11th century to 21st. It was the High Victorians, he writes,

who excelled in . . . creating some [parsonages] of the subtlety and grandeur, the quality and complexity of the great house in the shell of something much more modest in scale . . . but it is these very qualities that are fixed in the church’s mind today as outmoded.

Jennings’ collection of diocesan anti- parsonage quotes makes one’s hair stand on end.

It has long seemed remarkable that while the stately piles and picturesque cottages of England have becomes so beloved a part of our national heritage, our rectories, vicarages and parsonages enjoy no such cherished status in the public mind. Two organisations, Save our Parsonages and The Rectory Association, have recently been founded to try to rectify this lamentable state of affairs. Whereas books by the million have been written on architectural subjects as diverse as cricket pavilions, dovecotes, letter-boxes and lavatories, the number of books on rectories are less than could be counted on one hand. Anthony Jennings has made up for this with incomparably interesting knobs on.


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