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A real and kindly presence

by
10 July 2020

Rod Garner reflects on what Kilvert can teach us about ministry today

The History Collection/Alamy

Francis Kilvert (1840-79)

Francis Kilvert (1840-79)

ONE hundred and fifty years ago, on 18 January 1870, a country parson, the Revd Francis Kilvert, began writing a diary that would eventually run to more than 22 substantial notebooks. He chronicled what he saw and felt, setting down in its pages palpable life in all its pain, mystery, and beauty. Much of what Kilvert wrote is lost to us, but what survives enjoys a devoted readership. The diary has been hailed by critics as a classic, and even ranked alongside Pepys.

For many readers however, Kilvert remains, at best, a name. This fact would not have perturbed him. A revealing entry on 3 November 1874 makes clear his essentially modest aims: he writes, he says, because he finds the natural world an enchanting place, and that even an uneventful life like his “may interest and amuse some who come after”.

The external facts of his life and ministry are straightforward enough. The son of a strict Evangelical parson, he was born in 1840 in a small Wiltshire village, where he grew up alongside four sisters and a brother. Educated at Wadham College, Oxford (where he was a contemporary of Lewis Carroll), he was ordained in 1863. He served curacies in fairly remote parishes on the Welsh border, before his final appointment as Vicar of Bredwardine, Herefordshire, in 1877.

In 1879, a month after marrying Elizabeth Rowland — who was not the love of his life — he fell ill and died from peritonitis, aged just 38. He was remembered fondly as “the quiet gentleman with a great black beard” and a formidable walker who, despite his poor eyesight, revelled in the rugged Welsh landscape and embraced its people.

 

THE importance of the diary lies not simply in its descriptive power, or its evocation of a particular time and place. In its pages we discover Kilvert himself, a conscientious and complex priest with a pastoral heart and a surging appetite for life. He inhabits two worlds: as a curate with a meagre stipend, serving struggling parishioners, he also dines with senior clergy or local gentry, and enjoys good food, wine, and conversation.

He is attracted to beautiful women and young girls, and longs for a relationship that will fulfil his emotional needs and bring him children of his own. Observing children at play on the beach, he later records how “it came over me like a storm and I turned away hungry at heart and half envying the parents as they sat upon the sand watching their children at play.”

His wish was not fulfilled. A deep and passionate love for Frances Edwards was ended by her father, a local vicar, who failed to see Kilvert as a sound financial prospect. The rejection proved devastating: an emotional eclipse that led him to record that “the sun seemed to have gone out of the sky.” (It should be noted at this point that some modern readers have found his attitude towards the opposite sex questionable or inappropriate. There is, however, nothing to suggest that Kilvert ever sullied his calling, and he almost certainly remained celibate until his marriage. If anything, it is the virtuous quality of his character which continues to draw praise.)

In her Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals, a study of the possibility of virtue, the philosopher and novelist Iris Murdoch describes Kilvert as “a religious good man of simple faith with a natural, kindly, selfless love of people and of nature”. She notes how he captures beautifully “life on the wing”: the white mist gathering in the valley, the winding course of the river, the dazzle of the poplars, and the distant voices of children at play. What she does not relate in any detail is the appalling squalor and disease that Kilvert faced as he visited the homes of his people, where consumption was rife and the death of children was common.

In caring for his parishioners, Kilvert — to borrow a phrase from the martyr Archbishop Oscar Romero — “injects himself” into their lives, consecrating their births, marriages, and deaths, sharing their suffering, and responding compassionately to suicides and drownings. He prays with his parishioners — individuals whom he has come to love; administers the sacrament; reads the scriptures; recites hymns; and commends the dying to the everlasting arms of the Father of all things. In the face of poverty or injustice, he secures food, blankets, and clothing, and fights for — and obtains — pensions for ex-servicemen of the Napoleonic wars.

Staying close to the poor, he is never entirely comfortable with the privileged. An acerbic aside in the diary records his disdain for their blood sports: “It’s a fine day — let’s go out and kill something.”

Deeply conscious of his own mortality, and convalescing after a recurring lung infection, he acknowledges that a last illness will come from which there will be no respite, nor the opportunity to delight in the sights and sounds of the earthly spring: “May I then be prepared to enter into the everlasting Spring and to walk among the birds and flowers of Paradise.”

 

KILVERT’s faith and humanity are infectious, and set down without artifice. He reads Shakespeare, Wordsworth, and Tennyson, and enjoys croquet, and bathing in the nude. He is gently humorous, whether describing the valiant but rather unsuccessful attempts of bearers to carry a very heavy coffin with dignity, or his own laboured effort to chip away at the ice — “sharp as glass” — that has frozen in his bath on Christmas morning.

He dislikes tourists who come to ogle the Black Mountains before moving swiftly on, especially the British: “vulgar, ill-bred and offensive”. His sleep is occasionally interrupted by the drunks outside the Swan across from his lodgings, “lying by the road all night, cursing, vomiting and muttering”. The Swan is also, however, the meeting-place where agitated crowds gather after a dispiriting day at a local auction, trying to sell inferior cattle that no one will buy.

Kilvert is not unmoved. He knows that poor people need to sell their animals (however feeble their condition) to pay their rent. He notes that “If no one wants to buy them, where are the rents to come from?” It is a mortal question from a pastor who meets people as he walks to chapel each day, learning of their joys and sorrows, which form the heart of his prayers.

 

THE white tombstone marking Kilvert’s burial place at Bredwardine bears the text “He being dead yet speaketh. Hebrews 11.4.” It is our good fortune that the passage of time has not stilled his voice. In a quite inimitable way, it reminds us of what we are prone to forget, or choose to disregard. Rural idylls and a “quiet country living” remain what they always were: figments of the urban imagination.

Parishes everywhere are places of human ferment, where fragile lives oscillate between hope and despair. Ministerial vocation demands a commitment to the quotidian — to a deep and sustained reflection on locality, concerning how things are in the daily lives of others, and holding their needs and questions within the praying heart of the Church.

In an increasingly digitalised world, communities require the real presence of clergy who know the streets and roads of their parishes: an informed and kindly presence, nurtured by silence, prayer, and the living bread of Christ, and defined by a readiness, when this time of attrition is over, to visit homes and abide within them.

 

Canon Rod Garner is an Anglican priest, writer, and theologian.

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