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Singing for their supper

05 May 2017

On Tuesday, the Sons & Friends of the Clergy Festival takes place, the 363rd in a line broken only once since 1655. John Tiller looks back

Graham Lacdao

Raising the roof: the 2016 Festival with the choirs of St Paul’s, Birmingham, and St Edmundsbury cathedrals

Raising the roof: the 2016 Festival with the choirs of St Paul’s, Birmingham, and St Edmundsbury cathedrals

ON 1 FEBRUARY 1641, 18 months before the outbreak of the Civil War, Nicholas Fiennes, speaking in the House of Commons, declared that some [of the clergy] are so poor that they cannot attend to their ministry, but are forced to keep schools, nay, ale-houses some of them.” The income of the parochial clergy had for centuries varied enormously, owing to the differences in the historic endowments of each parish, which made some well off, while others struggled to survive on less than an agricultural labourer’s wage.

During the 17th century, the number of clergy living in poverty had increased through the practice of commuting tithes for a fixed annual financial payment; towards the middle of the century, inflation had seriously reduced the value of these tithes.

The one thing the impoverished incumbent could rely on was security of tenure, but, with the outbreak of war, even this ceased to be the case. In January 1645, Parliament abolished the Book of Common Prayer and replaced it with the Directory for the Publique Worship of God, an order based on a Genevan style of worship, with psalms, sermons, and extempore prayers by the minister as its principal elements for Sunday services. Clergy who found it impossible to accept this change were liable to be ejected from their livings and forced into a life of penury.

But in 1645 the conflict was far from over, and Parliament was unable to enforce its will everywhere. Even after the King’s execution in 1649, services following the Prayer Book order were still to be found. In any case, Parliament was more interested in the standard of preaching and teaching than the words of the prayers.

A national appraisal scheme was established, which soon led to ejections of non-preaching clergy. Others were found whose “dark, sleepy preaching”, to quote Richard Baxter, “did but little good”.

One such was James Fale, incumbent of Fressingfield, who, in 1642, was required to admit two lecturers to his parish, but was nevertheless subsequently removed from his ministry. In accordance with the orders of the Parliamentary Committee for Plundered Ministers, Fale’s wife continued to receive one fifth of the income from the living, but life clearly became difficult for ejected ministers such as Fale.

From November 1655, strenuous attempts were made to eject all “scandalous and inefficient” ministers, which included all those still using the Prayer Book. The following month, John Evelyn noted in his diary “the mournfullest day that in my life I had seene”, which meant the end of any public Prayer Book worship.

At this significant juncture, a group of London merchants and clergy came together to establish a new charity. Its first fund-raising service was held in St Paul’s, followed by dinner in the Merchant Taylors’ Hall on 8 November 1655. Its object was the relief of needy clergy and their families, and, as the founders were all sons of clergy, the charity became known as the Corporation of Clergymen’s Sons.


WITH the restoration of the monarchy, bishops, and liturgy in 1660-62, displaced parsons were able to claim back their livings. But the underlying problem of inadequate stipends remained. Voices on all sides bemoaned the poverty of many of the clergy. Isaac Newton described them as “objects of contempt, and a contemporary satire described how the parson was expected to say grace at the squire’s dinner-table, but seldom invited to sit down.

Bishop Croft, of Hereford, found it so difficult to find clergy for poorly endowed country parishes that he proposed, in his book The Naked Truth (1675), to ordain as non-stipendiaries gentlemen of private means to minister where they lived — an idea well ahead of its time.

Of course, in many places, poor clergy were saved from destitution by the voluntary contributions of supportive parishioners, but this had its drawbacks, not least in uncertainty about how long the relief might last. The Act that, in 1704, established Queen Anne’s Bounty — the precursor to the Church Commissioners — to augment stipends, stated that the object was to prevent preachers’ “depending for their necessary maintenance upon the goodwill and liking of their hearers”.

In the mean time, the Sons of the Clergy had received their Royal Charter, and first met in their new form on 15 July 1678 in the Jerusalem Chamber at Westminster Abbey. The Dean of Westminster, John Dolben, was named as the first President; Sir Christopher Wren (like Dolben, the son of a clergyman) was Vice-President. Educated at Westminster and Christ Church, Oxford, Dolben had fought for the King at Marston Moor (1644), but then returned to his studies. He was connected to an influential network: his wife’s uncle was Gilbert Sheldon, who became Archbishop of Canterbury.

As a Canon of Christ Church, Dolben worked with John Fell and Richard Allestree to build the reputation of that college; one of his sons became a judge, and another an MP. By 1678, he was Bishop of Rochester in addition to his deanery; in 1683, he became Archbishop of York. He was popular and able. The Corporation had found, in Dolben, an excellent first President.

The Ven. John Tiller is a former Archdeacon of Hereford.

Andrew Carwood explores the musical significance of the Sons of the Clergy Festival

THE annual Festival of the Sons and Friends of the Clergy has a long and illustrious tradition of music-making. Since the first service in 1655, apart from a spell after the Great Fire of London when the festival had to be held in a succession of City churches, its home has always been at St Paul’s Cathedral — originally in the massive Gothic building destroyed by the Fire, and, since 1697, in Wren’s elegant marriage of architecture, theology, and mathematics.

The festival is certainly hardy, and continued even during the Second World War (albeit in the crypt of the cathedral, and using only men’s voices), although the coal shortages of 1921 led to the cancellation of that year’s event.

By the late 17th century, it was a very grand service indeed, with a large choir, orchestra, and organ. The St Paul’s musicians seem to have been in control of the repertoire choices, even when they were playing the organ rather than conducting, as was often the case with Thomas Attwood and John Goss (E. H. Pearce, in his 1904 history Sons of the Clergy, refers to those who conducted in such circumstances as mere “time-beaters”).

The success of the festival led to other events around the country. The internationally famous Three Choirs Festival began its life as a coming together of Gloucester, Hereford, and Worcester cathedral choirs for the same supportive purpose, and there is evidence that similar services were taking place in the north from 1711; Durham Cathedral and St Nicholas’s, Newcastle (later Newcastle Cathedral) were used as venues.


WE CANNOT be sure what was performed at the first gathering in Old St Paul’s in 1655, but, by 1697, Henry Purcell’s Te Deum and Jubilate in D were so popular and well established that it was suggested that they should be performed every year. This remained the case until 1713, when Handel’s Utrecht Te Deum and Jubilate were sung in alternation with Purcell’s setting; this, in turn, continued until Handel’s Dettingen Te Deum and Jubilate replaced both sets in 1743.

It seems, then, that they were singing a service in the morning where the matins canticles took pride of place, and that there was little variety in the musical programme, although this usually included a commission. In 1698, John Blow composed Blessed is the Man that Feareth the Lord; later, Maurice Greene contributed a large number of anthems with orchestra. Two notable anthems came from William Boyce — Blessed is He that Considereth the Poor and Needy, and Lord, Thou Hast Been Our Refuge.

During John Goss’s time at St Paul’s, the time of the service must have changed, as the canticles for evensong rather than matins were being used by 1872, when John Stainer arrived and helped to increase both the scale and the standard of the festival.

His first tasks were to take over the conducting himself, and to set about restoring the orchestra (which had been discontinued in 1843 at the instigation of the serious-minded Charles Blomfield, who had been Bishop of London until 1856). The orchestra returned in 1873, and the programme of music started to become more varied, including, in 1877, Arthur Sullivan’s In Memoriam overture (which became the customary opening piece for the service for a number of years).


MANY leading musicians wrote new music for the festival. Some of them are all but forgotten to us now, but others are household names. In 1880, Stainer commissioned Charles Villiers Stanford to write his Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis in A for choir and orchestra, which, with an organ reduction, has now become a regular and impressive part of the repertoire. Hubert Parry wrote God is our hope and strength for the 259th festival in 1913, and Edward Elgar produced the magnificent Give unto the Lord for the 260th festival the following year.

In 1921, Vaughan Williams’s Lord, thou hast been our refuge was performed (the same year in which it was published, although it is not clear whether it was written specifically for the festival). In 1923, the festival committee was keen for Gustav Holst to write a piece, but he was too busy, and said that it would be more possible in 1924; sadly, he seems to have been unable to take on the commission.

After the Second World War, the decision was taken to dispense with the use of an orchestra, to scale down the number of performers, and to invite other cathedral choirs from around the country to perform alongside the St Paul’s choir rather than continue the tradition of using singers from the London institutions. Currently, three choirs (St Paul’s and two others, usually from English cathedrals) come together to sing an introit and a large-scale anthem, besides three shorter anthems performed separately by each choir in turn.

Commissioning new music happens less regularly than in the past, but the range and scope of music performed has become very wide indeed, from Latin music by the Flemish composer Nicolas Gombert (1495-1560) to contemporary works by the Scottish composer James MacMillan. The service remains a grand celebration of the important work of the charity Sons of the Clergy, as well as an incentive for potential supporters to give generously, and it is a much-loved fixture in the calendar of events at St Paul’s.

Andrew Carwood is Director of Music at St Paul’s Cathedral


The charity today

THE Corporation of Clergymen’s Sons was founded in 1655 by a group of sons of clergy to support destitute clergymen during the time of Oliver Cromwell, and in 1678 received a Royal Charter from Charles II in recognition of the importance of its work. Over the following centuries, several other charities that met the needs of clergy and their dependants were founded in response to the often quite extreme poverty of some clergy households.

In the course of the 20th century, many of these merged — most recently in 2013, when the Friends of the Clergy Corporation and the Corporation of the of the Sons of the Clergy united to become the Sons and Friends of the Clergy.

All of the successor charities provided financial gifts, clothing, or other material gifts to clergy and their families. In more recent years, as stipends have increased and various state benefits become available, there is less incidence of extreme levels of household poverty among clergy families. At a time of significant change in both the Church and society, however, the part played by clergy is also changing rapidly, and the pressures on them and their households continue to cause significant hardship for some.

The continuing aim of the trustees of the Sons and Friends is to enable clergy to flourish so that they can serve God’s people; they achieve this by supporting clergy and their dependants through times of particular financial hardship, or when physical or mental illness prevent their flourishing.

The primary means of offering support is through one-off financial gifts to clergy households. Through its online application process, the charity assesses the overall financial position of an eligible household against data from the Office for National Statistics, to determine whether the household income is sufficient to meet typical needs. If income is found to be below this level, especially at times of crisis, a financial gift is made to the applicant to help meet the income shortfall.

Each year, Sons and Friends makes between 1000 and 1200 gifts, ranging from a few hundred pounds to many thousands, typically adding up annually to around £2.5 million. In addition, it provides grants to several other charities that offer support to clergy.

Sons and Friends has been blessed with considerable financial resources that have been well stewarded over the years. The trustees are leading the charity through a process of development, and are keen to explore new ways in which it might provide new forms of assistance to clergy and their dependents, to help them flourish in this fast-changing world.

Tim Jeffery is the Interim Registrar of Sons and Friends of the Clergy.

The festival service will be held at 5 p.m. on Tuesday 9 May; all are welcome. For further details of financial support, please visit www.sonsandfriends.org.uk.

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