They used to tell American boys that they could do anything if they put their mind to it. You could be an astronaut or a big league ball player. You could be president of the United States or make a million dollars if you made up your mind to do it. “If you can dream it you can do it!” said the wonderful Walt Disney.
My dream was, I admit, somewhat unusual. By my senior year in college I knew what I wanted to do. I was going to be an Anglican country parson. If you remember your Chaucer, the parson was the simple, virtuous parish priest who lived with and worshipped with his people. Unlike the pardoner, friar and monk, the parson was the bon pastor—the good shepherd of the flock.
At college I was studying Speech and English, and Chaucer’s attractive parson became the first source of attraction. George Herbert was the next. Living in the first half of the seventeenth century, Herbert was born into a wealthy and influential family. At the age of twelve he was off to Cambridge, and was chosen by King James for a career in politics.
Herbert’s attraction to ordained life persisted, and in his mid thirties he left his secular ambitions, was ordained and spent the rest of his days in the tiny parish of Fugglestone St. Peter with Bemerton near Salisbury. He cared unfailingly for his parishioners, bringing the sacraments to them when they were ill, and providing food and clothing for those in need. His fellow metaphysical poet, Henry Vaughan said Herbert was “a most glorious saint and seer”. Herbert died at the age of thirty-nine from consumption.
Herbert’s delicate precision of phrase, charming conceits, quietly dramatic language and subtle passion reflect not only his own gentle and dignified personality, but the serene beauty of the English countryside. You can still visit his grave in Bemerton church today and see the old rectory across the street where Herbert lived. From the back garden in the distance you can see the spire of Salisbury cathedral—a view that Herbert would have known and loved.
It was George Herbert I wanted to emulate, and when the chance came to study at Oxford to prepare for Anglican orders I was sure that I was headed to a quiet village in the English countryside to reside in a rambling old rectory, saying my prayers in a church more ancient than I could imagine, visiting the villagers and pondering poems which would one day be appreciated.
Filled with this romantic notion I spotted in the bookrack at Pusey House a paperback edition of The Diary of a Country Priest by the French novelist George Bernanos. Alas, his vision of the life and ministry of the country parson was not so idyllic. Bernanos’ novel, written in the 1930s portrays a dirt poor country priest who struggles to connect with his people. The parishioners are lustful, proud, worldly and vain. The priest himself is inept, sentimental and poorly educated. He makes little progress, leaves the parish and dies of cancer with an ex priest who is living with a woman.
I was aghast. This was not the sort of country parson I wanted to be! On re-reading it however, I accepted Bernanos’ fictional Gallic Catholic vision of the priesthood as the shadow side of my vocation—one which taught deeper and more realistic lessons about human nature, redemption and the necessary sacrifices of the priesthood.
The bleakness of Bernanos’ vision of country priesthood is countered by the actual diary of the eighteenth century parson James Woodeforde. Born in 1740, Woodeford was the son of a Somerset clergyman. After completing his studies at New College, Oxford he led an uneventful and unambitious life as the Rector of Weston Longeville in Norfolk. The only thing remarkable about his obscure life is that for forty-five years he kept a diary which is a delightful chronicle of English country life in the eighteenth century.
Parson Woodeford wrote short notes of his daily life, keeping track of his accounts, the weather and most famously, the banquets he enjoyed. Amusing details of country life abound. There are pigs getting drunk on rotten apples, encounters with traveling gypsies, quarrels with lazy parishioners, disappointment at low church attendance and the on going drama of life in a tiny, hard working and very human rural community.
Woodeford’s Christian commitment was conventional, scholarly, kind and shrewd. He did his duty, disliked the Methodists and served his people with the down to earth nobility that was one of the greatest traits of the English upper classes. The naturalness and humility of his charity is revealed in this typical entry from 1786: “It being Christmas Day, I had the following old men dine at my House on roast beef & plumb Pudding and after Dinner half a Pint of strong ale and a shilling to each to carry home to their Wives.”
My romantic vision of the country parson came into full flower with my discovery of another real diary of a country priest. Born one hundred years after James Woodeforde, Robert Francis Kilvert was also the son of a clergyman. His father was the rector of Langley Burrell near Chippenham in Wiltshire, after Oxford Kilvert was ordained and worked as a country priest in the beautiful borders of England and Wales. He served in Clyro, St. Harmon and finally as Vicar of Bredwardine in Herefordshire.
Kilvert’s three volume diary is a beautiful, touching and personal portrait of life in the English countryside in Victorian times. Writing in a poetic and high romantic style, Kilvert offers intimate descriptions of his walks across the hills to outlying farms to visit his people. Along with the sweeping descriptions of the natural beauty are the accounts of the simple pleasures and problems, the joys and sorrows of country life. Here the description of the whole village turning out for ice skating to the light of Chinese lanterns and torches while the brass band plays. There a visit to Cornwall or the Isle of Wight complete with harrowing carriage rides, bathing in the beach and climbing desolate moors. Here a visit to a madwoman locked in the family’s attic and there a charming account of children singing as they wander down the lanes from school.
Kilvert’s diary is a hidden gem of English literature. Written with a Wordsworthian appreciation for nature and with a Dickensian eye for the grotesque, commonplace, hilarious and poignant, it also reveals the author to have the same gentle spirit of George Herbert. Kilvert, like Herbert was a simple, saintly man—engraved by grace with genuine innocence and love for his country, his religion, his family and his parishioners. Like Herbert, Kilvert died at the age of thirty-nine just a few days after returning from his honeymoon. He is buried in Bredwardine churchyard.
My own adventure to become a country parson was fulfilled when I was made Vicar of Brading and Yaverland on the Isle of Wight. The American elders were right. You could dream it and do it. So I wound up in a large country rectory, praying in a church that was as old as the conquering Normans, and I even scribbled a few poems.
I was therefore delighted, when I borrowed Kilvert’s diaries to discover that he visited the Isle of Wight and recorded a detailed account of his walk through Yaverland and his visit to Brading and both of my churches. Years later when our family moved to Chippenham I was surprised to bump into Kilvert again. We lived just down the road from the home and parish where he was born and raised. My final connection with Kilvert was on the sad event of my sister’s death. Denise had also moved to England, married an Anglican priest and become an expert in the poetry and life of Thomas Traherne. She loved the Welsh borders and owned a cottage in Bredwardine. After a valiant struggle with cancer she was buried in the same beautiful country churchyard where Kilvert lies.
The country parsons—from Bernanos’ sad but faithful priest to the gentle poet George Herbert, the robust Parson Woodeford and the lyrical and comical Kilvert reveal the simplicity, humility and faithfulness noticed and admired by Chaucer of his Canterbury pilgrim parson. The fact that Woodeford and Kilvert were historical is a practical reminder that down to earth sanctity and genuine humility are possible even today, and that there was something deeper and wider about my attraction to the country parson than a romantic nostalgia for the arcadia of a bygone age.
Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.