There is an old Church of Ireland joke that the ultimate authority in the Roman Catholic church is the Pope; that the ultimate authority in the Presbyterian Church is the Bible; and that the ultimate authority in the Church of Ireland is the previous rector. The joke came to mind this morning reading Arthur Robinson’s book The Personal Life of the Christian. First published in 1902, the book was republished in 1980 and, even a more than a century after it was written, still contains a lot of common sense. Robinson was obviously not familiar with our tradition of paying respect to, and even revering, those who had moved on or, better still, were dead!
A mission was being conducted in a pit village of the county of Durham. The schoolmaster of the place was a hard-headed north countryman; and it might have seemed that he was inclined to be somewhat hard-hearted too. At any rate, he had no great belief in missions, and did not think much of emotional religion. He was extremely reserved about the whole matter. But there was one topic upon which he was always ready to talk. Speak to him of a man who five-and-twenty years before had been the vicar of the district, and at once a chord was set vibrating within him. Asked one day whether he thought that his old vicar, who had become famous in the Church, was still the same humble and genuine man that he had been in the days when he had known him first, he replied at once in tones that were almost indignant; ‘Why,’ he said, ‘you have only to shake that man’s hand to feel that he is full of the Holy Ghost!’ He could not have explained it, but he could quite well recognize the fact.
Not indeed that it has always been necessary to shake a man’s hand before coming to a similar conclusion. An Archbishop of York told his Ordination candidates of a young clergyman who had been appointed to a country parish. His stay in it, as it proved, was not to be for long. He was scarcely more than thirty when he died. After an interval had passed, a friend who known him well visited the place, eager to discover what kind of impression he had made. Meeting a labourer, he asked him the question, ‘Did he think Mr. – had done any good?’ Again there was no sort of hesitation in the answer, ‘I never saw that man cross the common yonder, sir, without being the better for it.’
One man had left, the other had died, it would be fascinating to know what the same people said at the time when those they described were present in the parishes. Going back to places, it is hard at times to recognize the person described as yourself!