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BradingIn the 1980s I served as the vicar of country parish of Brading on the Isle of Wight in England. One of my predecessors was The Rev’d Christian William Hampton Weekes—known affectionately as Hampy. Born in 1880 and educated at Charterhouse and Trinity College, Cambridge, he was the Vicar of Brading from 1935 to his death in 1948.

Hampy was a bachelor. He lived in the five bedroomed Victorian vicarage set in about ten acres of garden. He was from a wealthy family, and employed a housekeeper, cook, gardener and chauffeur-handyman as well as several part time workers. His successor was Rev’d Ted Roberts–who went on to become the Bishop of Ely. Ted had retired to Brading during my tenure and told me that when he took over from Hampy he moved into the vicarage with his wife and five children. When he announced that he expected the parish to pay for new church doors they were shocked. Hampy had paid for everything.

The old timers in the village told me how Hampy would go visiting the poor of the parish in his Rolls Royce driven by the chauffeur. If he was going out to one of the outlying hamlets he’d stop by their house and pick up the children to go out and visit their grandma who lived on one of the farms nearby. “Hampy would always have a bag of sweets for us, and we’d ride out to Grandma’s then he’d pick us up for the return journey.”

I never knew Hampy, but I knew English aristocrats like him. They were some of the most genuine, generous and humble people I’ve ever met. They may have been rich, but they were poor in spirit.

If Hampy was like the ones I’ve known he would have kept the Rolls Royce because it had been handed down to him by his uncle and it would seem mean spirited to look a gift horse in the mouth. Also, if he didn’t have the Rolls he wouldn’t be able to offer young Watkins a job as chauffeur, and he knew that Watkins was a bit of a dimwit who couldn’t get another job and had a widowed mother to support. Hampy would have considered a bright new car to be far more ostentatious than the reliable old Rolls.

Did Hampy have a cook, housekeeper and a gardener? Well, cook always catered for the parish events and housekeeper helped to clean the church. Gardener was also the grave digger and kept the churchyard mown and grew all the altar flowers. The fruit and vegetables gardener raised always found their way to the kitchens of the villagers.

Was the Rolls a luxury? Perhaps, but then few of the villagers had cars, and if there was an emergency you could always call on Hampy and he’d send Watkins so the car doubled as a kind of village bus service or even an ambulance.

Like the aristocrats in Downton Abbey, Hampy lived out the principle of noblesse oblige—which is a fancy way of saying, “To whom much is given much shall be required.” Aristocrats who were responsible stewards of their wealth knew their duty was to help the whole community with their time, talent and treasure. Such feudalism with the “rich man in his castle and the poor man at his gate” is alien to our egalitarian age, but it is not inherently unjust. It recognizes the reality of economic disparity, understanding that you will not only “have the poor with you always” but you will also have the rich with you always. Recognizing that reality, its success or failure relies on personal virtue; but this is a universal principle: any economic and social system is only as good as the people within it.

Progressive egalitarians may sneer at the principle of noblesse oblige, but the way Hampy lived and ministered in an English village in the middle of the last century exhibited the basic principles of a just and workable economic and social system. The principle of solidarity existed because the members of the village community lived, worked, prayed, and played together. The village was a network of extended families who fought and forgave one another and who lived out the drama of quotidian life together.

Hampy was one of them as were the other wealthy families who lived in the two country houses outside the village. These aristocrats not only provided the employment, they funded the local old folks home, ran the village school, nurtured the social life of the village, motivated the charitable works of the church and made sure no one was excluded. As they lived together they not only lived out the principle of solidarity, but also the principle of subsidiarity—the idea that problems should be solved and initiatives taken at the lowest, most local level possible.

In his own way, Hampy also lived out a third economic principle: simplicity. “What!—with his Rolls Royce, chauffeur, servants and grand house?” Yes. G.K.Chesterton wrote, “There is more simplicity in a man eating caviar because he likes it than a man who eats grape nuts on principle.” Hampy was “to the manor born.” He was brought up with a certain way of life, and for him to affect poverty would have been ostentatious and hypocritical. Instead he lived his life in an authentic manner—being a good steward of the blessings he had inherited in a dignified and simple way. His life was one of ordinary charity in everyday life.

Contrast this with modern charity fundraising—in which wealthy people attend gala dinners to bid on donated luxury items with their “donation” going to fund some administratively heavy charity which “helps the needy” by employing a staff of secretaries and social workers. Contrast this with modern philanthropy in which billionaires establish foundations to channel funds to government agencies to “solve problems” in the developing world. by throwing technology at the problem. Contrast this with the typical middle class charitable giving in which we send a check to a charity that has mailed us yet another begging letter. These methods of charity lack simplicity, solidarity, and subsidiarity. There is no simplicity in these charitable attempts. We are cut off from the people to whom we are ministering and we are attempting to solve problems with large, expensive, bureaucratic solutions.

Alas, we cannot return to the idyllic life of an English village, nor can we all live like Lord Grantham in Downton Abbey, but we can learn the underlying lessons in the old tradition of noblesse oblige. We can remember that to whom much is given much shall be required. Instead of simply writing checks to large charities we can get involved in the lives of those in our own community who are struggling. We can treat our employees with generosity, respect, and concern—as members of our community—not just factory workers who deliver the product.

Through our local churches and communities we can foster small scale, personal initiatives in which we don’t simply throw money at the poor, but get involved in the hard work of transformation so that they are no longer poor. Most of all each one of us can strive to be a bit more noble in our own lives by fulfilling our basic obligations to our fellow travelers.

Books related to this topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.

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5 replies to this post
  1. Thought provoking article, Father. Catholic Social Teaching instructs as that both private charity and government initiatives (to the extent they do not interfere with prior institutions like the family) are necessary for the achievement and maintenance of economic and social justice. In the pre-industrial age social and economic justice was accomplished through the “Nobless oblige” philosophy underlying pre-modern European society– the feudal system in the country and the guilds in the cities cared for the poor by functioning simultaneously as both public institutions and personal associations.

    Today there is a clearer distinction between private charity of individuals and the initiatives of the state. Unfortunately it seems there is too much emphasis on the latter (which is certainly necessary) to the exclusion of the former. Private charity, it would seem, is preferable to public assistance. (the State cannot love, people can). But when the rich shirk their responsibilities and devote their lives solely to the pursuit of pleasure, prestige and domination, there is no other option but for the State to step in.

    For what its worth, Pope Leo XIII seemed to recognize the importance of a virtuous wealthy class. In Rerum Novarum he says that the wealthy are not required to give away all their excess wealth but should keep enough to maintain their “station”:

    “But if the question be asked: How must one’s possessions be used? – the Church replies without hesitation in the words of the same holy Doctor: ‘Man should not consider his material possessions as his own, but as common to all, so as to share them without hesitation when others are in need. Whence the Apostle with, ‘Command the rich of this world… to offer with no stint, to apportion largely.’ ) True, no one is commanded to distribute to others that which is required for his own needs and those of his household; nor even to give away what is reasonably required to keep up becomingly his condition in life, ‘for no one ought to live other than becomingly.’ But, when what necessity demands has been supplied, and one’s standing fairly taken thought for, it becomes a duty to give to the indigent out of what remains over.” (R.N. 22)

  2. I highly refommend Ivan Turgeniev’s Fathers & Sons for an idyllic vision of country aristocracy and some of the moral dilemas surrounding the phenomenon.

    The English were very fortunate, unlike the Russians, Prussians and Poles (to name a few) to have never been afflicted by “Land Reforms” and Collective Farming, which whiped out the Landed Aristocracy in Eastern Eurasia. I delight in the English precisely for this reason more than any other. America also has her natural aristocracy, in spite of industrialization and proleterization, very much in tact relative to Eurasia. There, she is slowly reborn, primarily in the form or the Neuvoux Riche, whom it will presumambly take several uninterrupted generations to breed liberal gentlemen like Turgeniev’s Arkady or the esteemed Hampy of this piece.

    If we are spared revolutions and other violent tumult, such societies and habits as this article describes will arise again (and hopefuly retain themselves where they already have taken root), for they are natural.

    That said, I personally prefer more urbane walks of life, although Warsaw, like most Polish cities, is so rustic and slow (although I seem to be alone in this view amongst the citizens, 1/3 of whom were not born here and thus find it to be a modern, fast paced metropolis), that living in Warsaw has all of the joys of country living and urban technology rolled up in one.

  3. Since, Tis the Season, and “A Christmas Carol” in one or more of its many incarnations is most likely in our future, it would be apropos, regarding this essay, to recall that Scrooge did not cease from being a wealthy businessman, merely that he ceased being a miser and that he found a use for his wealth beyond racking up points on the Scoreboard of Success.

    As Mister Rieth suggests, our American nouveau riche (which really includes about all of them) have a few generations more to rise to their wealth. (Assuming everything isn’t leveled by social upheaval, planetary disaster, or political collapse.)

    In either “The Mote In God’s Eye”, or “The Gripping Hand” (I don’t have the books readily available), one of the minor characters chastises one of the aristocrats for failure to perform the job he was born to. Can anyone imagine such a rebuke to a member of “The 1%” in America today? Nor can I, any more than one can imagine such being offered to one of the thugs and bandits which established the Great houses of England. (His tenth-generation descendant, perhaps, the founder, no.)

    Given the present population of the earth, and given the incessant “churn” demanded by current mercantile activity, it seems that agrarianism is as dead as the former lives of the squirearchy. (Alas and I grew up thinking so fondly of Kipling’s “An habitation enforced”.)

  4. I noticed at the bottom of this article, it says that books associated with this topic may be found in the bookstore. I was wondering if there were any book that I could be more directed towards on the topic of this subject.

    The article itself is wonderful though and extremely thought-provoking.

  5. We all oblige, the noblesse maybe a bit more. That’s what the concept of the tithe is about. And it’s to God, who cares both about “society” and those who ate marginalized by “society”

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