Since a Volvo V90 filled with box upon box of my stuff arrived from England on the May bank holiday Monday, I have been finding a place for everything.
Hanging a picture of Bright Parish church by Killough artist Jim Manyley on the wall, I remembered a short story by Thomas Hardy.
The Distracted Preacher has an opening that would have not been an unfamiliar experience for clergy in Ireland even until recent times.
“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 in Northern Ireland of the 1990s.
I remember a visiting harvest festival preacher looking at the Preacher’s Book in the little country church featured in Jim Manley’s painting.
As the preacher signed the book, he commented, “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 rise of the faux rock evangelicals with their chinos and checked shirts robbed worship of its dignity. Why would people wish to attend something that was bland, self-centred and without transcendence?
The good people of Bright Parish in the Diocese of Down would have well understood the experiences of young Mr Stockdale one hundred and sixty years previously. It is an experience that is now rare.