Needless to say, you — let’s assume you are an American Episcopalian — are not a Victorian priest in some rather important ways. There is no Establishment. The class system and patriarchy are, even if stubbornly present, clearly weakened. But there may be surprising and disconcerting similarities. You would seem to be a middle-class professional, if not a “gentleman,” but find yourself struggling under the burdens of modest compensation and seminary debt. You confront a world that manifests a sort of Christianity, yet one marked by the replacement of doctrinal rigor and moral obligation with a therapeutic orientation and self-expression. You may have noticed the disturbing absence of the working class from your pews. They have perhaps been alienated by the “bourgeois respectability” and “family centered moral logic” still very much associated with church.

A reading of Alastair Wilcox’s very interesting The Church and the Slums: The Victorian Anglican Church and its Mission to Liverpool’s Poor (2014) suggests that the struggle of priests, Victorian or twenty-first-century American, has nearly always been to relate to their flocks — to be, in Pope Francis’ memorable phrasing, “shepherds with the smell of sheep.”

At first, Victorian Liverpool may strike us as distant, perhaps even irrelevantly so. The Establishment was more precarious than elsewhere because of the population of non-Anglican Protestants, Unitarians, and Irish immigrants. The presence of Roman Catholics could create bitter conflict. The Reverend Mr. Howard of St. Bartholomew’s decided to preach in the open-air before a mixed religious community. Once, a dead cat was thrown at him. Then, cockle and mussel shells were poured over him. He wisely constructed a disguise that included a false beard and moustache. (The Catholic presence also meant that Ritualism inevitably appeared suspect.) If this sounds very nineteenth century, so to speak, other aspects of Liverpool will seem much more familiar, depressingly so. Liverpool had pockets of poverty — barefoot children who were nourished on sugary, tinned milk — and still could be compared with Florence and Venice. Rich and poor were both there, much like they are here.

And priests, even slum priests, were at one side of this divide. They had servants. They often did not live in their poor parishes. They were learned, self-consciously “otherworldly.” The aforementioned Reverend Mr. Howard of St. Bartholomew’s once gave an informative yet ill-advised magic lantern slide show on a “holiday tour of the Lake District”. It was poorly attended. Peeved, he told his congregation that they would have benefited “morally, intellectually, and spiritually” if they had shown up, which, anyway, would have only been polite. Of course, it was still very hard to live as a priest in Liverpool, as it is sometimes hard to live as a priest now. In 1910, the Ecclesiastical Commissioners pronounced that a Liverpool living required £300 per annum, but the average stipend at the time was a mere £200.

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The class divide made home visitations difficult. Visitations were meant to create “the link of sympathy between the higher and lower classes of society,” as the writer James Kay told Manchester’s clergy. But what could a priest talk about? An early twentieth-century clerical manual lamented a characteristically English “shyness” and quoted a college don who claimed:

a thousand pities that it is not possible to leave calling cards upon our people — if one could only drive round to drop a card at every cottage, instead of having to go in and make talk, how much more satisfactory would that be.

And what of visiting contagious smallpox victims or Roman Catholics? Howard of St. Bartholomew’s called upon Catholic households within his parish only to be met with “the vilest and most vulgar scoffs;” women said that their husbands would beat him up, and one (a “noted man-fighter”) was going to beat him up all by herself. He carried a bamboo cane.

This seems atypical, but problems could confront even lay visitors. There is the story, told to Henry Mayhew, of the London City Missioner who was accused of spreading rumors about poor residents to newspapers. His mouth was filled with flour and mustard, and he was dumped into water. His trousers had been torn off. “I cannot describe,” wrote Mayhew. (I will not try.)

The distance between priests and their people inevitably meant that relief efforts could be seen as barely disguised bribery. The indefatigable Rev. Abraham Hume, whom Alastair Wilcox declared “Liverpool’s epitome of evangelical effort,” was confused that his parishioners envisioned him as “a peculiar kind of relieving officer,” expecting sixpence or a shilling after each and every attendance at church. More unfortunately, at least one Roman Catholic priest was able to denounce the Church of England Ragged School as “souperism,” darkly conjuring up the image of opportunistic proselytism during the Irish Famine.

Furthermore, the clubs that the clerics dutifully started often missed the mark. One High Church slum cleric offered boxing, but pugilism did not revitalize his church, leaving Father Dolling to imagine that he was, at the very least, purifying bodies and sweating out “evil humors.” Wilcox even suggests that an increasing Anglican focus on relief and clubs might have unwittingly caused “secularization from within” as recreation, sponsored by religion, eventually became religion.

But the Anglican slum clerics did not face an atheistic working class. In fact, the main historical value of Wilcox’s learned book is its use of local censuses from the 1850s to suggest that there was a working class presence in Liverpool’s churches. 40% of those taking part in Anglican Communion services in Victorian Liverpool were from the working class. Working class districts really had working class congregations. Nevertheless, as evidenced from the Reverend Hume’s befuddlement at the exchange of relief for church attendance, the working class often had its own ideas about religion. Nobody then spoke of “moralistic therapeutic deism,” but, as one cleric told Charles Booth about the working-class adherents of popular Christianity, “They positively bask in the sense of approbation of their indulgent deity.”

Baptism, especially, was the point of contact between official Christianity and this form of popular Christianity, though it could be the site of superstition. In his The Town Parson (1919), Peter Green wrote of parents who wanted to name their child “Ladas” after the winner of the 1894 Derby. Indeed, “luck” played an important role in baptism, which may have caused some parents to seek baptism in the first place, and, further, seek baptism on the “lucky” day of Monday. Baptism also played a civic role. The journalist Hugh Shimmin satirically described a Liverpool baptism in 1862: an artisan has no desire to baptize his child until his otherwise impious neighbors tell him that his kid needs a “proper Liverpool christening” at the relatively distant church of St. Peter’s. Of course, everyone talks and jokes during the Monday baptism.

All of this is not to criticize the slum priests. Many of them worked extraordinarily hard, especially in providing important and lasting services to the working class, and had very long tenures in inner-city parishes. But it is to point out one enduring difficulty of the priesthood: the need, whether then or now, to overcome the distance between the cleric and his or her parishioners. As Pope Francis has said, the people like to hear the Gospel touch “their daily lives” and are happy “when it brings light to moments of extreme darkness.” The priest must pray “over the realities of their everyday lives, their troubles, their joys, their burdens and their hopes.” The temptation to give a magic lantern show is perhaps gone, but priests must still strive to “go out of themselves” rather than spending time collecting “antiquities” or buried in “introspection.” To the “outskirts,” then, even if the people’s requests are “inconvenient and at times purely material or downright banal,” such as a sixpence or shilling after attending church.

I can only assume that it is no easier now than it was in Victorian Liverpool to have the “smell of sheep.”

The featured image of Blessed John Henry Newman (ca. 1863) is in the public domain. 

About The Author

Neil Dhingra, a Roman Catholic, is a doctoral student in education at the University of Maryland.

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