The Works of the Rev. Jonathan Swift/Volume 9/Considerations upon Two Bills Relating to the Clergy

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I HAVE often, for above a month past, desired some few clergymen, who are pleased to visit me, that they would procure an extract of two bills, brought into the council by some of the bishops, and both of them since passed in the house of lords: but I could never obtain what I desired, whether by the forgetfulness or negligence of those whom I employed, or the difficulty of the thing itself. Therefore, if I shall happen to mistake in any fact of consequence, I desire my remarks upon it may pass for nothing; for my information is no better than what I received in words from several divines, who seemed to agree with each other. I have not the honour to be acquainted with any one single prelate of the kingdom; and am a stranger to their characters, farther than as common fame reports them, which is not to be depended on; therefore I cannot be supposed to act upon a principle of resentment. I esteem their functions (if I may be allowed to say so without offence) as truly apostolical, and absolutely necessary to the perfection of a christian church.

There are no qualities more incident to the frailty and corruptions of human kind, than an indifference or insensibility for other men's sufferings, and a sudden forgetfulness of their own former humble state, when they rise in the world. These two dispositions have not, I think, any where so strongly exerted themselves, as in the order of bishops with regard to the inferiour clergy; for which I can find no reasons, but such as naturally should seem to operate a quite contrary way. The maintenance of the clergy throughout the kingdom, is precarious and uncertain, collected from a most miserable race of beggarly farmers; at whose mercy every minister lies to be defrauded. His office as rector or vicar, if it be duly executed, is very laborious. As soon as he is promoted to a bishoprick, the scene is entirely and happily changed; his revenues are large, and as surely paid as those of the king; his whole business is, once a year to receive the attendance, the submission, and the proxy money of all his clergy, in whatever part of the diocese he shall please to think most convenient for himself. Neither is his personal presence necessary, for the business may be done by a vicar general. The fatigue of ordination, is just what the bishops please to make it; and as matters have been for some time, and may probably remain, the fewer ordinations the better. The rest of their visible office consists, in the honour of attending parliaments and councils, and bestowing preferments in their own gifts; in which last employment, and in their spiritual and temporal courts, the labour falls to their vicars general, secretaries, proctors, apparitors, seneschals, and the like. Now, I say, in so quick a change, whereby their brethren in a few days are become their subjects, it would be reasonable at least to hope that the labour, confinement, and subjection, from which they have so lately escaped, like a bird out of the snare of the fowler, might a little incline them to remember the condition of those, who were but last week their equals, probably their companions or their friends, and possibly as reasonable expectants. There is a known story of colonel Tidcomb, who, while he continued a subaltern officer, was every day complaining against the pride, oppression, and hard treatment of colonels toward their officers; yet in a very few minutes after he had received his commission for a regiment, walking with a friend on the mall, he confessed that the spirit of colonelship was coming fast upon him; which spirit is said to have daily increased to the hour of his death.

It is true, the clergy of this kingdom, who are promoted to bishopricks, have always some great advantages; either that of rich deaneries, opulent and multiplied rectories and dignities, strong alliances by birth or marriage, fortified by a superlative degree of zeal and loyalty: but however, they were all at first no more than young beginners; and before their great promotion, were known by their plain Christian names among their old companions, the middling rate of clergymen; nor could therefore be strangers to their condition, or with any good grace forget it so soon, as it has too often happened.

I confess, I do not remember to have observed any body of men acting with so little concert, as our clergy have done, in a point, where their opinions appeared to be unanimous; a point, wherein their whole temporal support was concerned, as well as their power of serving God and his church, in their spiritual functions. This has been imputed to their fear of disobliging, or hopes of farther favours upon compliance; because it was observed, that some who appeared at first with the greatest zeal, thought fit suddenly to absent themselves from the usual meetings: yet we know what expert solicitors the quakers, the dissenters, and even the papists have sometimes found, to drive a point of advantage, or prevent an impending evil.

I have not seen any extract from the two bills introduced by the bishops into the privy council; where the clergy, upon some failure, in favour, or through the timorousness of many among their brethren, were refused to be heard by the council. It seems, these bills were both returned, agreed to by the king and council in England, and the house of lords has with great expedition passed them both; and it is said, they are immediately to be sent down to the commons for their consent.

The particulars, as they have been imperfectly reported to me, are as follow:

By one of the bills, the bishops have power to oblige the country clergy to build a mansion house, upon whatever part of their glebes, their lordships shall command; and if the living be above 50l. a year, the minister is bound to build, after three years, a house that shall cost one years and a half's rent of his income. For instance, if a clergyman with a wife and seven children gets a living of 55l. per annum, he must, after three years, build a house that shall cost 77l. 10s. and must support his family, during the time the bishop shall appoint for the building of it, with the remainder. But if the living be under 50l. a year, the minister shall be allowed 100l. out of the first-fruits.

But there is said to be one circumstance a little extraordinary; that if there be a single spot in the glebe more barren, more marshy, more exposed to the winds, more distant from the church, or skeleton of a church, or from any conveniency of building; the rector or vicar may be obliged, by the caprice or pique of the bishop, to build, under pain of sequestration (an office which ever falls into the most knavish hands) upon whatever point his lordship shall command; although the farmers have not paid one quarter of his dues.

I believe, under the present distresses of the kingdom (which inevitably without a miracle must increase for ever) there are not ten country clergymen in Ireland, reputed to possess a parish of 100l. per annum, who for some years past have actually received 60l. and that with the utmost difficulty and vexation. I am therefore at a loss what kind of valuators the bishops will make use of; and whether the starving vicar shall be forced to build his house with the money ne never received.

The other bill, which passed in two days after the former, is said to concern the division of parishes into as many parcels as the bishop shall think fit, only leaving 300l. a year to the mother church; which 300l. by another act passed some years ago, they can divide likewise, and crumble as low as their will and pleasure will dispose them. So that instead of six hundred clergymen, which, I think, is the usual computation, we may have in a small compass of years, almost as many thousands to live with decency and comfort, provide for their children, be charitable to the poor, and maintain hospitality.

But it is very reasonable to hope, and heartily to be wished by all those who have the least regard to our holy religion, as hitherto established, or to a learned, pious, diligent, conversable clergyman, or even to common humanity, that the honourable house of commons will, in their great wisdom, justice, and tenderness to innocent men, consider these bills in another light. It is said they well know this kingdom not to be so overstocked with neighbouring gentry, but a discreet learned clergyman, with a competency fit for one of his education, may be an entertaining, a useful, and sometimes a necessary companion. That, although such a clergyman may not be able constantly to find beef and wine for his own family, yet he may be allowed sometimes to afford both to a neighbour without distressing himself; and the rather, because he may expect at least as good a return. It will probably be considered, that in many desolate parts, there may not be always a sufficient number of persons, considerable enough to be trusted with commissions of the peace, which several of the clergy now supply, much better than a little, hedge, contemptible, illiterate vicar from twenty to fifty pounds a year, the son of a weaver, pedlar, tailor, or miller, can be presumed to do.

The landlords and farmers, by this scheme, can find no profit, but will certainly be losers. For instance, if the large northern livings be split into a dozen parishes or more, it will be very necessary for the little threadbare gownman, with his wife, his proctor, and every child who can crawl, to watch the fields at harvest time, for fear of losing a single sheaf, which he could not afford under peril of a day's starving; for, according to the Scotch proverb, a hungry louse bites sore. This would, of necessity, breed an infinite number of wrangles and litigious suits in the spiritual courts; and put the wretched pastor at perpetual variance with his whole parish. But, as they have hitherto stood, a clergyman established in a competent living, is not under the necessity of being so sharp, vigilant, and exacting. On the contrary, it is well known and allowed, that the clergy, round the kingdom, think themselves well treated, if they lose only one single third of their legal demands.

The honourable house may perhaps be inclined to conceive, that my lords the bishops enjoy as ample a power, both spiritual and temporal, as will fully suffice to answer every branch of their office; that they want no laws to regulate the conduct of those clergymen over whom they preside; that if nonresidence be a grievance, it is the patron's fault, who makes not a better choice, or caused the plurality. That if the general impartial character of persons chosen into the church, had been more regarded, and the motive of party, alliance, kindred, flatterers, ill judgment, or personal favour, regarded less, there would be fewer complaints of non-residence, want of care, blamable behaviour, or any other part of misconduct; not to mention ignorance and stupidity.

I could name certain gentlemen of the gown, whose awkward, spruce, prim, sneering, and smirking countenances, the very tone of their voices, and an ungainly strut in their walk, without one single talent for any one office, having contrived to get good preferment, by the mere force of flattery and cringing: for which two virtues (the only two virtues they pretend to) they were, however, utterly unqualified; and whom, if I were in power, although they were my nephews, or had married my nieces, I could never, in point of good conscience or honour, have recommended to a curacy in Connaught.

The honourable house of commons may likewise perhaps consider, that the gentry of this kingdom, differ from all others upon earth, being less capable of employments in their own country, than any others who come from abroad; and that most of them have little expectation of providing for their younger children, otherwise than by the church; in which there might be some hopes of getting a tolerable maintenance. For, after the patrons should have settled their sons, their nephews, their nieces, their dependents, and their followers invited over from the other side, there would still remain an overplus of smaller church preferments, to be given to such clergy of the nation, who shall have their quantum of whatever merit may be then in fashion. But by these bills, they will be all as absolutely excluded, as if they had passed under the denomination of tories; unless they can be contented at the utmost with 50l. a year; which, by the difficulties of collecting tithes in Ireland, and the daily increasing miseries of the people, will hardly rise to half that sum.

It is observed, that the divines sent over hither to govern this church, have not seemed to consider the difference between both kingdoms, with respect to the inferiour clergy. As to themselves indeed, they find a large revenue in lands let at one quarter value, which consequently must be paid while there is a penny left among us; and the publick distress so little affects their interests, that their fines are now higher than ever: they content themselves to suppose, that whatever a parish is said to be worth, comes all into the parson's pocket.

The poverty of great numbers among the clergy of England, has been the continual complaint of all men who wish well to the church, and many schemes have been thought on to redress it; yet an English vicar of 40l. a year, lives much more comfortably than one of double the value in Ireland. His farmers, generally speaking, are able and willing to pay him his full dues: he has a decent church of ancient standing, filled every Lord's day with a large congregation of plain people, well clad, and behaving themselves as if they believed in God and Christ. He has a house and barn in repair, a field or two to graze his cows, with a garden and orchard. No guest expects more from him than a pot of ale: he lives like an honest plain farmer, as his wife is dressed but little better than goody. He is sometimes graciously invited by the squire, where he sits at an humble distance: if he gets the love of his people, they often make him little useful presents: he is happy by being born to no higher expectation; for he is usually the son of some ordinary tradesman, or middling farmer. His learning is much of a size with his birth and education; no more of either, than what a poor hungry servitor can be expected to bring with him from his college. It would be tedious to show the reverse of all this, in our distant poorer parishes through most parts of Ireland, wherein every reader may make the comparison.

Lastly, the honourable house of commons may consider, whether the scheme of multiplying beggarly clergymen throuigh the whole kingdom, who must all have votes for choosing parliament men (provided they can prove their freeholds to be worth 40s. per annum, ultra reprisas) may not, by their numbers, have great influence upon elections; being entirely under the dependence of their bishops. For, by a moderate computation, after all the divisions and subdivisions of parishes, that my lords the bishops have power to make by their new laws, there will, as soon as the present set of clergy goes off, be raised an army of ecclesiastical militants, able enough for any kind of service except that of the altar.

I am indeed in some concern about a fund for building a thousand or two churches, wherein these probationers may read their wall lectures; and begin to doubt they must be contented with barns; which barns, will be one great advancing step, toward an accommodation with our true protestant brethren, the dissenters.

The scheme of encouraging clergymen to build houses, by dividing a living of 500l. a year into ten parts, is a contrivance, the meaning whereof has got on the wrong side of my comprehension; unless it may be argued, that bishops build no houses because they are so rich: and therefore the inferiour clergy will certainly build, if you reduce them to beggary. But I knew a very rich man of quality in England, who could never be persuaded to keep a servant out of livery; because such servants would be expensive, and apt in time to look like gentlemen: whereas the others were ready to submit to the basest offices, and at a cheaper pennyworth might increase his retinue.

I hear, it is the opinion of many wise men, that before these bills pass both houses, they should be sent back to England, with the following clauses inserted.

First, that whereas there may be about a dozen double bishopricks in Ireland, those bishopricks should be split and given to different persons; and those of a single denomination be also divided into two, three, or four parts, as occasion shall require; otherwise there may be a question started, whether twenty-two prelates can effectually extend their paternal care, and unlimited power, for the protection and correction of so great a number of spiritual subjects. But this proposal will meet with such furious objections, that I shall not insist upon it: for I well remember to have read, what a terrible fright the frogs were in, upon a report that the sun was going to marry.

Another clause should be, that none of these twenty, thirty, forty, or fifty pounders may be suffered to marry, under the penalty of immediate deprivation; their marriages declared null, and their children bastards: for some desponding people, take the kingdom to be in no condition of encouraging so numerous a breed of beggars.

A third clause will be necessary, that these humble gentry, should be absolutely disqualified from giving votes in elections for parliament men.

Others add a fourth; which is, a clause of indulgence, that these reduced divines may be permitted to follow any lawful ways of living, which will not call them too often or too far from their spiritual offices; for, unless I misapprehend, they are supposed to have episcopal ordination. For example; they may be lappers of linen, bailiffs of the manor; they may let blood or apply plasters for three miles round: they may get a dispensation to hold the clerkship and sextonship of their own parish in commendam. Their wives and daughters may make shirts for the neighbourhood; or, if a barrack be near, for the soldiers: in linen countries they may card and spin, and keep a few looms in the house: they may let lodgings, and sell a pot of ale without doors, but not at home unless to sober company, and at regular hours. It is by some thought a little hard, that in an affair of the last consequence to the very being of the clergy in the points of liberty and property, as well as in their abilities to perform their duty, this whole reverend body, who are the established instructors of the nation in Christianity and moral virtues, and are the only persons concerned, should be the sole persons not consulted. Let any scholar show the like precedent in Christendom, for twelve hundred years past. An act of parliament for settling or selling an estate in a private family, is never passed, until all parties give consent. But in the present case the whole body of the clergy is, as themselves apprehend, determined to utter ruin, without once expecting or asking their opinion; and this by a scheme contrived only by one part of the convocation, while the other part, which has been chosen in the usual forms, wants only the regal permission to assemble, and consult about the affairs of the church, as their predecessors have always done in former ages: where it is presumed, the lower house has a power of proposing canons, and a negative voice, as well as the upper. And God forbid (say these objectors) that there should be a real separate interest between the bishops and clergy, any more than there is between a man and his wife, a king and his people, or Christ and his church.

It seems there is a provision in the bill, that no parish shall be cut into scraps without the consent of several persons, who can be no sufferers in the matter; but I cannot find that the clergy lay much weight on this caution; because they argue, that the very persons from whom these bills took their rise, will have the greatest share in the decision.

I do not by any means conceive the crying sin of the clergy in this kingdom to be that of nonresidence. I am sure, it is many degrees less so here than in England, unless the possession of pluralities may pass under that name; and if this be a fault, it is well known to whom it must be imputed: I believe, upon a fair inquiry (and I hear an inquiry is to be made) they will appear to be most pardonably few; especially, considering how many parishes have not an inch of glebe, and how difficult it is upon any reasonable terms to find a place of habitation. And therefore, God knows whether my lords the bishops will be soon able to convince the clergy, or those who have any regard for that venerable body, that the chief motive in their lordships minds, by procuring these bills, was, to prevent the sin of non-residence; while the universal opinion of almost every clergyman in the kingdom, without distinction of party, taking in even those who are not likely to be sufferers, stands directly against them.

If some livings in the north may be justly thought too large a compass of land, which makes it inconvenient for the remotest inhabitants to attend the service of the church, which in some instances may be true, no reasonable clergyman would oppose a proper remedy by particular acts of parliament.

Thus, for instance, the deanery of Down, a country deanery I think without a cathedral, depending wholly upon a union of parishes joined together in a time when the land lay waste and thinly inhabited, since those circumstances are so prodigiously changed for the better, may properly be lessened, leaving a decent competency to the dean, and placing rectories in the remaining churches, which are now served only by stipendiary curates.

The case may be probably the same in other parts: and such a proceeding, discreetly managed, would be truly for the good of the church.

For it is to be observed, that the dean and chapter lands, which in England were all seized under the fanatick usurpation, are things unknown in Ireland, having been long ravished from the church by a succession of confusions, and tithes applied in their stead to support that ecclesiastical dignity.

The late archbishop of Dublin[1] had a very different way of encouraging the clergy of his diocese to residence: when a lease had run out seven years or more, he stipulated with the tenant to resign up twenty or thirty acres to the minister of the parish where it lay convenient, without lessening his former rent, and with no great abatement of the fine; and this he did in the parts near Dublin, where land is at the highest rates, leaving a small chiefry for the minister to pay, hardly a sixth part of the value. I doubt not, that almost every bishop in the kingdom may do the same generous act, with less damage to their sees than his late grace of Dublin; much of whose lands were out in fee farms, or leases for lives; and I am sorry that the good example of such a prelate has not been followed.

But a great majority of the clergy's friends cannot hitherto reconcile themselves to this project; which they call a levelling principle, that must inevitably root out the seeds of all honest emulation, the legal parent of the greatest virtue and most generous actions among men; but which, in the general opinion (for I do not pretend to offer my own) will never more have room to exert itself in the breast of any clergyman whom this kingdom shall produce.

But, whether the consequences of these bills may, by the virtues and frailties of future bishops, sent over hither to rule the church, terminate in good or evil, I shall not presume to determine, since God can work the former out of the latter. However, one thing I can venture to assert; that from the earliest ages of Christianity, to the minute I am now writing, there never was a precedent of such a proceeding; much less was it to be feared, hoped, or apprehended, from such hands in any christian country; and so it may pass for more than a phenix; because it has risen without any assistance from the ashes of its sire.

The appearance of so many dissenters at the hearing of this cause, is what, I am told, has not been charged to the account of their prudence or moderation; because that action has been censured as a mark of triumph and insult before the victory is complete: since neither of these bills has yet passed the house of commons, and some are pleased to think it not impossible that they may be rejected[2]. Neither do I hear, that there is an enacting clause in either of the bills, to apply any part of the divided or subdivided tithes, toward increasing the stipends of the sectaries. So that these gentlemen seem to be gratified like him, who after having been kicked down stairs, took comfort when he saw his friend kicked down after him.

I have heard many more objections against several particulars of both these bills; but they are of a high nature, and carry such dreadful inuendoes, that I dare not mention them; resolving to give no offence, because I well know how obnoxious I have long been (although I conceive without any fault of my own) to the zeal and principles of those, who place all difference in opinion concerning publick matters, to the score of disaffection; whereof I am at least as innocent as the loudest of my detractors.

Dublin, Feb. 24,

  1. The right rev. Dr. William King.
  2. They were rejected in the house of commons by a great majority.