Less happy times

May 13th, 2007 | By | Category: Church of Ireland Comment

The Irish Times carried a piece to mark the 50th anniversary of the Fethard-on-Sea boycott.

It made me ponder what ministry fifty years ago was like.

The Rector of a parish in rural Ireland would have led a fairly frugal existence. A good suit for Sundays and an older one for weekdays, perhaps a sports jacket and trousers to add variety; a black stock and starched white linen clerical collar underneath the jacket. Casual clothes were a luxury, time off would have spent in the clothes that were no longer for good wear.

Rectories were Victorian, too big for a salary of a few hundred pounds a year. No more than a couple of rooms could be heated with meagre coal fires. Draughts penetrated every window frame and doorway; if electricity had reached the parish, it would have been used sparingly, it would be one more bill that there would be a struggle to pay.

The Rector’s wife was expected to have time for the great and the good, to attend morning coffee and afternoon tea, but constantly made to feel that she was there under sufferance, that she had been invited because they felt it was the right thing to do. Dublin-dressed ladies would have looked down on her home sewn outfits; they would have regarded her appearance as dowdy and would have noticed her worn shoes.

Being a member of a Rectory family was fairly bleak. There was never money for anything. Boarding school education was possible through the bequest of people long dead and through Protestant charities, but the education only exacerbated a sense of isolation, when others talked of all they had and all they did, the Rectory child had no hope of joining the conversation.

Churches were often in poor repair, the dwindling numbers unable to maintain the fabric. The exodus of much of the Protestant population in 1922 followed by decades of economic depression left little money in any parish. The Rector was expected to somehow keep everything going, even when no-one could suggest how this might be possible.

Yet in the midst of the bad things, ministry was easier. People came to church, they said their prayers, they still believed in the God to whom they prayed at Morning Prayer each Sunday morning. Many of those who sat in the pews Sunday by Sunday needed no Prayer Book; they knew the 16th Century prose of Thomas Cranmer off by heart.

Fifty years ago, we had not lost our soul.

I am going to France in August; after Christmas, I am going skiing for a week with friends; things unimaginable for my counterparts half a century ago. Yet there are moments when I sometimes wish that I was driving an Austin A30 on potholed roads to conduct a morning service for a dozen ageing people.

But then, the people who shaped my picture of fifty years ago would tell me that none of them would wish to return to such times.

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