The Church of Ireland General Synod meets this week. When it comes to the reports, there will be angst about the state of the church and proposals as to how churches might recover lost ground. To many people from rural Ireland, the discussions will be baffling; where are these problems? Thomas Hardy’s short story The Distracted Preacher, written in the late Nineteenth Century, has an opening that would have not be an unfamiliar experience for clergy in Irish country parishes.
‘Something delayed the arrival of the Wesleyan minister, and a young man came temporarily in his stead. It was on the thirteenth of January 183- that Mr. Stockdale, the young man in question, made his humble entry into the village, unknown, and almost unseen. But when those of the inhabitants who styled themselves of his connection became acquainted with him, they were rather pleased with the substitute than otherwise, though he had scarcely as yet acquired ballast of character sufficient to steady the consciences of the hundred-and-forty Methodists of pure blood who, at this time, lived in Nether-Moynton, and to give in addition supplementary support to the mixed race which went to church in the morning and chapel in the evening, or when there was a tea–as many as a hundred-and-ten people more, all told, and including the parish-clerk in the winter- time, when it was too dark for the vicar to observe who passed up the street at seven o’clock–which, to be just to him, he was never anxious to do.
It was owing to this overlapping of creeds that the celebrated population-puzzle arose among the denser gentry of the district around Nether-Moynton: how could it be that a parish containing fifteen score of strong full-grown Episcopalians, and nearly thirteen score of well-matured Dissenters, numbered barely two-and- twenty score adults in all?”
The question would never have arisen in many country places. I remember a visiting Harvest preacher looking at the Preacher’s Book in our little country church at Bright in Co Down twenty years ago.
‘You’ve had 300 people at the services today’.
‘Ian, you’ve only 250 parishioners’.
‘Aye. Some of them have come twice’. In fact at least a hundred of them must have come twice because there were a good fifty of them who never came to church.
The good people of Bright Parish in the Diocese of Down would have well understood the experiences of young Mr Stockdale 160 years previously. Twenty years later and the good people of Clonenagh Parish in the Diocese of Ossory would understand Mr Stockdale; at Christmas the aggregate congregation was 386. In this case, allowing for those who attended twice, the net total was 367 – out of a parish population of 353. Given that some people never attend, there must have been at least some who passed another clergy house window to attend our worship.
Thomas Hardy would have recognized such a phenomenon; it’s a pity that nowhere in the book of reports is it even acknowledged.