Still hurting Tess

Oct 7th, 2008 | By | Category: Ministry

Miriam returned to boarding school last night after being home for a long weekend.  Having developed a passion for Nineteenth Century writers that was not inherited from her father, she has worked her way through Jane Austen and is now on Thomas Hardy.  On Sunday she was watching the BBC adaptation of Tess of the d’Urbervilles. Hardy was distressing when I was a teenager, as a seasoned cleric, he is even more difficult to read.

Tess baptizes her little baby when she realizes he is dying, but this is not sufficient to earn mercy from the local vicar.  Her dignity in the face of the refusal of the vicar to bury her baby is an astonishing piece of writing,

Tess, who mused on the christening a good deal, wondered if it were doctrinally sufficient to secure a Christian burial for the child. Nobody could tell this but the parson of the parish, and he was a new-comer, and did not know her.  She went to his house after dusk, and stood by the gate, but could not summon courage to go in.  The enterprise would have been abandoned if she had not by accident met him coming homeward as she turned away.  In the gloom she did not mind speaking freely.

“I should like to ask you something, sir.”

He expressed his willingness to listen, and she told the story of the baby’s illness and the extemporized ordinance.  “And now, sir,” she added earnestly, “can you tell me this–will it be just the same for him as if you had baptized him?”

Having the natural feelings of a tradesman at finding that a job he should have been called in for had been unskilfully botched by his customers among themselves, he was disposed to say no.  Yet the dignity of the girl, the strange tenderness in her voice, combined to affect his nobler impulses–or rather those that he had left in him after ten years of endeavour to graft technical belief on actual scepticism.  The man and the ecclesiastic fought within him, and the victory fell to the man.

“My dear girl,” he said, “it will be just the same.”

“Then will you give him a Christian burial?” she asked quickly.

The Vicar felt himself cornered. Hearing of the baby’s illness, he had conscientiously gone to the house after nightfall to perform the rite, and, unaware that the refusal to admit him had come from Tess’s father and not from Tess, he could not allow the plea of necessity for its irregular administration.

“Ah–that’s another matter,” he said.

“Another matter–why?” asked Tess, rather warmly.

“Well–I would willingly do so if only we two were concerned.  But I must not–for certain reasons.”

“Just for once, sir!”

“Really I must not.”

“O sir!”  She seized his hand as she spoke.

He withdrew it, shaking his head.

“Then I don’t like you!” she burst out, “and I’ll never come to your church no more!”

“Don’t talk so rashly.”

“Perhaps it will be just the same to him if you don’t? …  Will it be just the same?  Don’t for God’s sake speak as saint to sinner, but as you yourself to me myself–poor me!”

How the Vicar reconciled his answer with the strict notions he supposed himself to hold on these subjects it is beyond a layman’s power to tell, though not to excuse.  Somewhat moved, he said in this case also–

“It will be just the same.”

So the baby was carried in a small deal box, under an ancient woman’s shawl, to the churchyard that night, and buried by lantern-light, at the cost of a shilling and a pint of beer to the sexton, in that shabby corner of God’s allotment where He lets the nettles grow, and where all unbaptized infants, notorious drunkards, suicides, and others of the conjecturally damned are laid.  In spite of the untoward surroundings, however, Tess bravely made a little cross of two laths and a piece of string, and having bound it with flowers, she stuck it up at the head of the grave one evening when she could enter the churchyard without being seen, putting at the foot also a bunch of the same flowers in a little jar of water to keep them alive.  What matter was it that on the outside of the jar the eye of mere observation noted the words “Keelwell’s Marmalade”?  The eye of maternal affection did not see them in its vision of higher things.

“Of course”, the church will protest, “we have moved on from such times”.

Have we?

Here is what the Church of Ireland’s Canon 32 reads:

(2)    A member of the clergy may however exercise discretion in refusing to read the burial service in full where the deceased died unbaptised or had committed some grievous or notorious sin and not repented of it or had been excluded from Holy Communion under Canon 16 and had not been readmitted thereto.

(3)    Any member of the clergy who refuses to read the full service pursuant to clause (2) hereof shall read at the burial such parts of the prescribed service or such approved prayers and such psalms or portions of Scripture as to such member of the clergy shall seem fit, or shall use such alternative or modified form of service as may have been prescribed for the case.  Save where the burial is of an unbaptised infant such member of the clergy shall also, where it is reasonably practicable to do so, consult with the ordinary before the burial; and where this is not reasonably practicable such member of the clergy shall report the matter to the ordinary thereafter.

So there you are, Tess, it’s still the vicar’s call.

Sometimes it would make you wonder what the church has to do with Jesus.

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  1. I love Thomas Hardy. Great fan of The Return of the Native!

    As for refusing a service for unbaptised infants – absurd. Surely it doesn’t actually happen even if the rules dictate such nonsense.

  2. Baino,

    I would love to put my hand on my heart and say I am firmly convinced that no-one would be treated in such a way today, but I’m not convinced. I knew a cleric who would even refuse to enter a child’s Christian name in the burial register if it had died unbaptised.

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