The Churchgoer (1851)

By Fred C. Melton

Our British brethren, for the most part, have a traditionally strong aversion to what they refer to as the “one man ministry” or the clergy system and it must be said with all due respect that they come by it honestly. The slightest hint of a class system, especially in religion, many times touches off reactionary feelings stemming from long historical abuses.

I ran across the following description of English church life around the middle of the nineteenth century in a volume called Bristol’s Earliest Photographs by Reece Win stone: “I reached Christ Church in Clifton Park before 11 o’clock. `Have you got a ticket, sir?’ inquired a policeman as I was about to enter the West Porch. I told him I had not, for I was not aware a ticket was necessary. `I’m sorry for it,’ said the young man civilly enough, `for my orders are not to admit anyone without a ticket,’ `And you may rest assured,’ replied I, `that I have too great a regard for your cloth to ask you to exceed them,’ and I turned away to wait until my friend, John Henry, by the Grace of God, Bishop of Gloucester and Bristol, made his appearance, as I knew I might effect an entrance under the shelter of his lawn sleeves.”

In his indignation at being refused entry to Christ Church, the Churchgoer is joined by an old lady and a reporter, who express their annoyance very loudly. However, on the stroke of eleven, the doors are flung open and everybody enters, the old lady and the reporter still voicing their indignation until lost in the crowd. Another old lady, who was his pew-mate, whispers to him that there is not a pew left to be rented. “I’m told the first ten or twelve pews have given over one hundred pounds each to the church, and a friend of mine, who gave thirty is half-way down the nave.” To which the writer replies moderately that all cannot have the first pew and it is only fair the highest sums should have the highest seats. (One hundred pounds equals about $235.00 at the current exchange.) The old lady agrees and says that she hears that the poor people are to be allowed to pay a half-crown for their sittings in the aisle. The Churchgoer, after noticing the large attendance, the serious attention of all present, the mode of conducting the service, the character of the minister, and expressing his deep gratifications, goes off at a full gallop about the grievances of the poor. He complains that the High Church aristocracy, and the Evangelical aristocracy each have their own churches, but they have both “up to the present moment, overlooked the spiritual exigencies of their humbler brothers.” In short, there is no Poor Man’s Church in Clifton, and Mr. Leech (the “Churchgoer”) “is righteously indignant.” At Clifton “old Church,” the nose of the Beadle (usher) almost curled at the approach of a poor man: the aristocracy filled the pews, and their “pampered menials” the free seats. The Churchgoer, on visiting St. Andrews, the old parish church, afterwards rebuilt only to be demolished by Hitler’s bombs, gives a racy account of a “lofty, perked up looking dowager” (widow with a title) who is attended by a pageboy “so packed and squeezed into his jacket and trousers” that one fears he risked “bursting forth in native fulness and form to the world.”

The gentry and the rich merchants of Clifton went to service on Sunday attended by their servants, who carried the Prayer and Hymn Books, and after escorting their ladies to their pews, took up their places in the free seats at the back, to the detriment of the poor whom the seats were intended for. He mentions the crowds of “feathered fashionables,” visitors who owned no “sittings” waiting anxiously at the bottom of the nave until the busy pew-openers could find them accommodation. Mr. Leech was fortunate in his visit to the parish church, for he heard the great Dr. Pusey “read the Communion Service.” This gentlemen was the protagonist of what we now call ritualistic worship, and by one faction was looked upon as a saintly reformer and by the other as a heretical bugbear.

Is it any wonder then, when today one observes the crumbling old buildings of the orthodox church many times preserved only for their beauty or historical value seemingly avoided by both rich and poor alike?

Truth Magazine XVIII: 6, p. 93
December 12, 1974