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The Parish Clerk

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A remarkable feature in the conduct of our modern ecclesiastical services is the disappearance and painless extinction of the old parish clerk who figured so prominently in the old-fashioned ritual dear to the hearts of our forefathers. The Oxford Movement has much to answer for! People who have scarcely passed the rubicon of middle life can recall the curious scene which greeted their eyes each Sunday morning when life was young, and perhaps retain a tenderness for old abuses, and, like George Eliot, have a lingering liking for nasal clerks and top-booted clerics, and sigh for the departed shades of vulgar errors.

Then and now--the contrast is great. Then the hideous Georgian "three-decker" reared its monstrous form, blocking out the sight of the sanctuary; immense pews like cattle-pens filled the nave. The woodwork was high and panelled, sometimes richly carved, as at Whalley Church, Lancashire, where some pews have posts at the corners like an old-fashioned four-posted bed. Sometimes two feet above the top of the woodwork there were brass rods on which slender curtains ran, and were usually drawn during sermon time in order that the attention of the occupants of the pew might not be distracted from devout meditations on the preacher's discourse--or was it to woo slumber? A Berkshire dame rather admired these old-fashioned pews, wherein, as she naively expressed it, "a body might sleep comfortable without all the parish knowin' on it."

It was of such pews that Swift wrote in his Baucis and Philemon:

"A bedstead of the antique mode,Compact of timber many a load,Such as our ancestors did useWas metamorphosed into pews;Which still their ancient nature keepBy lodging folks disposed to sleep."

The squire's pew was a wondrous structure, with its own special fire-place, the fire in which the old gentleman used to poke vigorously when the parson was too long in preaching. It was amply furnished, this squire's pew, with arm-chairs and comfortable seats and stools and books. Such a pew all furnished and adorned did a worthy clerk point out to the witty Bishop of Oxford, Bishop Wilberforce, with much pride and satisfaction. "If there be ought your lordship can mention to mak' it better, I'm sure Squire will no mind gettin' on it."

The bishop, with a merry twinkle in his eye, turned round to the vicar, who was standing near, and maliciously whispered:

"A card table!"

Such comfortable squires' pews still exist in some churches, but "restoration" has paid scanty regard to old-fashioned notions and ideas, and the squire and his family usually sit nowadays on benches similar to those used by the rest of the congregation.

Then the choir sat in the west gallery and made strange noises and sang curious tunes, the echoes of which we shall try to catch. No organ then pealed forth its reverent tones and awaked the church with dulcet harmonies: a pitch-pipe often the sole instrument. And then--what terrible hymns were sung! Well did Campbell say of Sternhold and Hopkins, the co-translators of the Psalms of David into English metre, "mistaking vulgarity for simplicity, they turned into bathos what they found sublime." And Tate and Brady's version, the "Dry Psalter" of "Samuel Oxon's" witticism, was little better. Think of the poetical beauties of the following lines, sung with vigour by a bald-headed clerk:

"My hairs are numerous, but fewCompared to th' enemies that me pursue."

It was of such a clerk and of such psalmody that John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, in the seventeenth century wrote his celebrated epigram:

"Sternhold and Hopkins had great qualmsWhen they translated David's Psalms,    To make the heart more glad;But had it been poor David's fateTo hear thee sing and them translate,    By Jove, 'twould have drove him mad."

When the time for singing the metrical Psalm arrived, the clerk gave out the number in stentorian tones, using the usual formula, "Let us sing to the praise and glory of God the one hundred and fourth Psalm, first, second, seving (seven), and eleving verses with the Doxology." Then, pulling out his pitch-pipe from the dusty cushions of his seat, he would strut pompously down the church, ascend the stairs leading to the west gallery, blow his pipe, and give the basses, tenors, and soprano voices their notes, which they hung on to in a low tone until the clerk returned to his place in the lowest tier of the "three-decker" and started the choir-folk vigorously....