IT IS commonly held that, until “not very long ago”, Church of England clergy were nearly all younger sons of the aristocracy or gentry, and educated at public school and Oxford or Cambridge. That has never been entirely the case, although for half a century or so, between c.1830 and c.1880, when farming, from which clerical incomes were largely derived, boomed, significant numbers of gentry and aristocratic sons were ordained.
The persistent reminder of that brief period is the “Georgian” old rectories and vicarages that clergy could then afford to build or rebuild and which, within a generation, became millstones round their successors’ necks. Since the Reformation, Church of England clergy have been mostly sons of the middling professional classes, grammar, not public, school educated; and, as Dr Sarah Slinn’s important new book demonstrates, a significant proportion did not go to Oxford or Cambridge.
Slinn reminds us of distinguished non-graduate role-models, including William Warburton, Bishop of Gloucester 1759-79, John Newton the hymn-writer, and Thomas Scott the biblical commentator. Making use of the invaluable Clergy of the Church of England Database 1540-1835 (CCEd) and diocesan ordination application letters, which have never previously been researched, as well as periodicals and newspapers, she has provided a comprehensive view of the backgrounds of clergy ordained over a 60-year period between 1780 and 1839.
In doing this, she has corrected the conventional Oxbridge perspective on clergy, and especially the persisting caricature of non-graduate clergy as uneducated, inebriated peasants of “low tastes” and “coarse vices”, despised and despicable. She dispels the myth that only in northern dioceses, remote from Oxford and Cambridge, was there a significant proportion of non-graduate ordinands. In the 1790s, in Hereford diocese, more than 40 per cent of ordinands had no degree, and in Chichester, London, Peterborough, Rochester, and Winchester, between one in four and one in five ordinands had no degree. Although from the 1790s some bishops of southern dioceses sought to ordain only graduates, in the 1830s more non-graduates were ordained in Norwich than in Durham, and in Salisbury than in Carlisle.
She points out that there were plenty of well-connected and wealthy non-graduate ordinands, as well as plenty of graduates from poor humble backgrounds who, through their grammar schools, obtained scholarships to Oxford and Cambridge colleges, which just about funded their education. Ordination was one of the significant routes of social mobility. She also shows that non-graduates were not necessarily less well-educated than graduates. The universities were not the only means of acquiring a good general Christian and classical education, which was what universities’ undergraduate courses offered, as a foundation for subsequent study in theology and preparation for ordination.
Endowed grammar schools, especially in the north-west, and in Wales, where there was always a preponderance of non-graduate clergy, provided advanced courses in theology for men over 18 seeking ordination. They also sometimes provided employment as teachers for young men seeking ordination, to help with their funding. In the 1780s and ’90s, bishops in dioceses such as Llandaff, St Davids, Durham, and Chester provided reading lists for prospective ordinands to help them to prepare for ordination exams, which were rigorous.
Bishops of St Davids and Llandaff recognised particular grammar schools as suitable for ordination training. Otherwise, some bishops required a two-year period of study overseen by an authorised tutor, and a period spent with a good parish priest to learn about ministerial life and pastoral ministry. Sometimes experienced clergy had groups of prospective ordinands, graduates and non-graduates, living with them, preparing for ordination, being tutored, and assisting in parochial work.
Bishops’ doubts about the consistent quality of clergy training by means of grammar schools and informal tuition by clergy led them to seek to establish new forms of training. The Bishop of Chester established St Bees Clerical College in Cumbria in 1817; the Bishop of St Davids established a college at Lampeter, and the Bishop of Durham, a new university. A few years later, bishops also began to establish colleges for graduates — for example, at Wells, Chichester, and Cuddesdon — and groups of Evangelicals began to establish colleges for their candidates.
Slinn demonstrates that Church of England clergy were socially, culturally, and educationally a more diverse group than has been previously recognised.
Sadly, like most good books, this is rather expensive; so it would be good to recommend diocesan, course, college, and even public libraries to buy it. Reading it will help people to be aware that the Church of England’s ministry has always been more diverse and entrepreneurial than people often realise.
The Ven. William Jacob is a former Archdeacon of Charing Cross.
The Education of the Anglican Clergy 1780-1839
The Boydell Press £70
Church Times Bookshop £63