The annual clergy conference in our deeply rural diocese recalls images of clergy long past. Being a country parson now no longer equates with the ideal figure of those former times, the Protestant clergyman, who makes the occasional, seemly appearance in the pages of William Trevor novels, seems now to have disappeared.
There seemed a time, perhaps lost and gone forever, when the priest of advancing years might cut a different figure. There was the avuncular cleric, sat in in his study with a pipe of tobacco and a cardigan with frayed sleeves, staring into the burning coals of the fire, but there was also the cleric whose gentle words bore a stark contrast to the fierce strictures of the bishops; who bore no-one ill will and accepted without complaint the slings and arrows of 20th Century Irish history
It is to such a cleric that Ulster poet John Hewitt is a guest in his 1946 poem Freehold:
I found my poet-parson and his fire
expecting me. When unobtrusive care,
that natural acceptance of a friend,
had eased my tired bones, and my weary mind
had stretched its knotted sinews, that still man
and his quick wife, the doctor, once again
confirmed intention, slowly making plain
that by heart’s blind wisdom I had found
my seeming-aimless feet on solid ground;
that, when good talk had brimmed my singing head,
the lamp, the shallow stairs, the friendly bed,
till chortling blackbird in the neighbour trees
woke me to sunshine and the cruising bees.
Such a friendship now seems an unlikely phenomenon, clergy publications rarely stray beyond the ecclesiastical or the biographical; but it is more than a question of publication, it is the huge cultural gulf that has opened.
Poets would now be regarded with suspicion in a utilitarian and managerial church. They would be regarded as holding mistaken beliefs amongst the anti-intellectual wing; seen as a irrelevance by planners and strategists; felt to be unruly and anarchic by those with an obsessive desire to impose alien liturgies upon our quiet low church congregations. Were John Hewitt alive, he would be welcomed at a few doors, but there might not be many other doors where a Protestant of uncertain orthodoxy would find hospitality.
Poets and parsons seem now to inhabit different worlds, to the loss of the parsons. The increasing loss of engagement with the intellectual world outside has left the church to talk to itself, satisfied with its circular arguments, smug in its own self-importance.
Perhaps ragged cardigans and slippers beside the fire represented an age where material poverty was matched by a cultural richness.