What, then, is the sort of duty that a clergyman has to perform, and what sort of talents does its performance require? The general outline of his duties is obvious and familiar. He has to preach, to teach, to exhort those who are in need of his exhortations, to visit the sick, to care for and promote, and, if necessary, to originate the institutions of which a parish stands in need, such as schools, reading-rooms, clubs of various sorts, lectures, and in a word, everything that can humanize or improve the position of the population at large. To do all this well requires a frame of mind which is by no means uncommon, but of which many excellent people are utterly destitute. A clergyman's clay is never his own. It is cut up by small interruptions into all manner of pieces, and is open to calls of all kinds which can hardly be reduced to system. He is hardly ever called upon to give sustained or severe attention to anything. He has to settle a vast number of questions, no one of them very difficult, or intricate, or capable of any very minute and careful adjustment, but all requiring a certain exercise of judgment, tact, and good feeling. His pursuits are, moreover, distinguished from those of other professional men by one great peculiarity. They depend to a great extent on himself. There must always no doubt be a certain routine of services and visits, but on the whole a clergyman regulates his duties to a very great degree by his own notion of their importance, and he has to act for the most part on his own sense of duty, with little, if any, interference or superintendence on the part of any official superior. This has, no doubt, its pleasures and advantages; but, on the other hand, it deprives a man of a great satisfaction, which the members of other professions usually enjoy. It is a great thing to have your path traced out for you, to feel that there are a certain number of patients or clients whose business must be done, and will not on any consideration be put on one side; to know that it does not depend in the least degree on your own choice whether or not you will do certain things at a certain time; and, above all, to be always able to measure precisely the result which you produce. A clergyman's work is, after all, and always must be, extremely indefinite. He cannot say, I have attended so many patients of whom so many have recovered and so many died; I have held so many briefs, and the results have been so and so; I have painted so many pictures, and have got so much money for them, and there they are for all the world to see. He works, too, in the dark. He is but one amongst a great number of influences. He preaches to his congregation; but so do the newspapers. He helps to promote education; but others also help. He cannot expect, under common circumstances, and especially if his parish is a large one, to be able to lay his finger on any very definite result of his labours. He has preached, and taught, and lived so many years in such a place. Its state is so and so when he leaves it,—it was so and so when he came to it. It is hardly possible to measure the difference between the two conditions at different times. It is quite impossible to say how far he has contributed to producing that difference. The indefinite character of a clergyman's duties is made apparent in the highest degree in his intercourse with individuals. In most other walks of life, a professional man's relations with those who require his professional services are definite, and, so to speak, decisive. A man has a disease, and a doctor attends him till it is cured; or he has to build a house, and his relations with his architect continue till it is built; or to buy one, and he sees his attorney till the deed is drawn. The clergyman has no such definite relations with any one. He advises, he talks, he befriends in a variety of ways, but there is no definite thing forming an essential part of the common routine of life which somebody must do, and which he actually does. He does indeed many and bury, but these duties are merely ceremonials, and he reads the Church Service, but this occupies a small part of his time, and exercises only a small part of his mind—more of it, however, than many clergymen suppose. Now and then, too, he has plans, which admit of being specifically carried out. He determines to establish a school, and he does establish it; he carries the point of getting the parish to repair the church, or put up a new steeple; but, speaking generally, preaching may be taken as the type of his duties. No particular effect can be referred to any one act. Look at each sermon by itself, and you cannot say that it makes much difference whether it is preached or not. It may make such a difference or it may not; but it is matter of conjecture. It is a shot fired at random,— a stone thrown in the dark.
There is a kind of mind to which occupations of this sort are congenial, and there is also a kind of mind to which they are so irksome that any one who is conscious of possessing it ought to think many times before he enters the clerical profession. The life of a parish clergyman affords little scope for severe intellectual training. There is hardly any profession—certainly no liberal profession—which makes such small demands on the mere intellect, the power of thinking and weighing arguments. A man with quick sympathies, business-like habits, and some power of expression, has pretty nearly all the intellectual gifts that an average clergyman requires. He never has anything hard to learn at any period of his life. The greatest intellectual task that a clergyman has to perform— in fact, the only one which requires anything beyond business-like habits, gentlemanly tact, and kind feeling—is the composition of his sermons. It is usual to wonder at the result which has become almost proverbial. No, doubt, if it can be shown that we have not in the present day as large a sprinkling of considerable men amongst the clergy as were to be found in earlier times—if, as is sometimes asserted to be the case, the best preachers in these days are feeble and either ignorant or unimpressive, the cause must lie deep, and there must be something wrong in the state of things by which such a result can be produced. However this may be (and the inquiry would be unsuited for these pages), it is certain that the common run of sermons can never have been much better or much worse than they are, and it is curious that people should be surprised at their quality. The sermon is to last half an hour, and there are to be two a week. Any ordinary sermon would, if printed, fill, perhaps, ten pages of this Magazine, and thus the sermons of two clergymen preaching twice every Sunday for a month would fill a number, and fill it with general reflections on religion and morality. Is there any one in England, however brilliant, profound, or learned, who could produce that amount of original matter for any length of time, if he gave up his whole mind to the composition of the sermons and to the reading necessary to produce them? Probably no one could do it for a year; but to suppose that some 20,000 people will go on doing it for all the years of their life, is to indulge a hope which is altogether chimerical. The truth is, that not one man in a thousand is capable of making interesting reflections at all. Any ordinary conversation turns almost entirely upon facts, and upon observations or arguments about them. If a man does diverge into generalities, it is rarely possible to listen to him with satisfaction; yet with regard to the clergy, it is expected, or, rather, the complaints against their sermons seem to imply that it is expected, that they should be able constantly to produce matter worth attending to at a rate at which the greatest genius could hardly produce it, and in relation to a subject which nothing but genius can handle in such a manner as to command attention. The really remarkable point about sermons is that there are so many preachers who do succeed in getting a certain kind of attention from their hearers, and in exercising a perceptible influence over many of their minds. It is true, however, that men are usually reasonably considerate. They pitch their expectations at a rational level, and make allowances for a class which is certainly placed under great difficulties. Besides this, it must be remembered that, apart from any question of subscriptions or conformity with the doctrines of the Church, a clergyman is placed by public opinion and the ordinary practice of his profession under considerable restraints as to what he can say as regards both style and matter, and it must also be borne in mind that the pulpit in our own times has lost its old monopoly. It has a formidable rival in the press, through which any man who is conscious of possessing knowledge, power, and the faculty of expressing his thoughts in a manner welcome to the public, may preach pretty much what he pleases without being answerable to any one, and also may or may not, as he thinks right, take his chance of making his name known to the world. For all these reasons, preaching, the only distinctly intellectual part of a clergyman's duty, is not only less attractive than it used to be to men of more than the average amount of power, but is in many cases positively repulsive. In times not very remote the Church might be called, by way of distinction, the learned profession. A clergyman and a scholar went together, as naturally as an officer and a gentleman. The obvious thing for a man to do who wanted to lead a studious life, was to take orders. This is no longer the case. There is probably no walk of life which has been more deeply influenced by the pushing character of the age. It appears to be thought almost indispensable that a good clergyman should be engaged in a whole network of schemes for the general improvement of the parish in which he lives. He is full of a mass of small engagements which cut his day to pieces, and dissipate his mind even more than they disturb his leisure. Even if he should get made a canon or a dean, it is ingeniously contrived that he is to go to church twice a day, say, from eleven to near one, and from half-past three till between four and five, during the whole of his residence, an arrangement which may look as if it laid a trifling burden on his time, but which in truth cuts it, when added to the natural division by meals, into no less than seven small pieces, most inconveniently devised for any sort of systematic exertion. There is the time before breakfast, assuming the dignitary to be an early riser, the time between breakfast and church, church itself, the time between morning and afternoon church, from which must be taken an allowance for luncheon, afternoon church, the time between that and dinner, and the evening. Now the really fruitful and valuable part of the day, the part during which all the real business of life is transacted, is from breakfast to dinner, say from nine to seven, or half-past seven. It is then that men of business are at their various places of business, and it is then, or during some part of the time, that men of learning ought to do their reading and writing. Cathedrals, if they are of any use at all, ought to be seats of learning, but their regulations are such as inevitably to discourage every one who is not a man of most unusual energy and determination from prosecuting any considerable work. This, of course, is a matter of detail. From the nature of the case it can affect only a very small number of persons, but it is a characteristic detail. It shows how little the habits and convenience of men of learning were studied by those who devised the rules, which, whatever they do in fact, ought in reason to apply specially to learned men. Even at the universities, the business of teaching has so much increased, and the number of persons engaged upon it is so much larger than was formerly the case, that Fellows of colleges have probably less inducement and less time to be learned than formerly. They are tutors and schoolmasters, rather than scholars.
There are a certain number of exceptions. Dr. Milman may vie in point of learning with any living Englishman, probably with most living men, and there are others whom it might be invidious to name, but their number is not large in proportion to what it once was, and all the habits of the age, and of the profession itself as it exists, tend to diminish that number. The Church of England considered merely on its professional side, has come to resemble other English professions. It is full of busy, kindly men, engaged in a thousand schemes, benevolent and useful in various degrees, preaching moderate and sensible sermons, pious leading articles put into conventional language, which, like Farmer Jones's address to his son in Crabbe's Tales, "Are good advice and mean, my son, be good," and leading the sort of life that they preach.
To see what sort of man is exactly suited to the Church of England, as it is, we have only to consider what kind of people become bishops. A bishop is not, generally speaking, a man of aristocratic family or connections. No doubt such connections do him no harm if he has the other qualifications required, but it is fair to admit that they are no longer a sufficient qualification of themselves. The times are passed when a noble name, or an accidental connection with a great family, would put a man on the bench. Nor again are men made bishops in the present day merely for the sake of scholarship. It does a man no harm to know Greek, but Greek is not what it was thirty or forty years ago as a stepping-stone towards the mitre. The road to being a bishop in the present day is to get a large parish into good order, to persuade the people to come to church, to have good schools, and clubs, and benefit societies, to organize a good system for visiting the poor, and relieving their wants, to hit off in the pulpit and in publications that particular tone of thought and writing which the public are prepared to recognize as at once pious and reasonable. This in a general way must be the foundation, to which if a man can add scholarship, high connections, or a university reputation, it is so much the better for him. A certain number of bishoprics are given on other grounds. There is a sort of learning by which they may be got, but it is a miracle of ingenuity or felicity to hit precisely the right kind of learning, the golden (literally golden) mean between the two extremes which the public and their representatives regard with terror.
If we pass from the question of the work which a clergyman has to do, and the character which he requires in order to succeed in it, to the question of the prospects which the profession considered exclusively as a profession holds out to him, it must be admitted that its attractions are by no means great to an ambitious man who is not rich, though in many cases they are most attractive to a rich man who is not ambitious. There is one circumstance connected with the matter which, no doubt, exercises a considerable influence over many minds, and which is entirely the creature of express legislation. This is the legal recognition of the maxim that orders are indelible,—once a clergyman always a clergyman. This matter can hardly fail to weigh heavily with a young man who is choosing his profession. He is probably fully conscious that he knows little of the world. It is from the nature of the case improbable, not to say impossible, that he should have any experience of his profession, or at least any experience that can go for much, and yet he has to commit himself for life and debar himself altogether from other callings for which as time goes on he may discover that he was much better suited. No doubt there are grounds on which it may be argued that the fact that a man has once devoted himself to the Church as a profession lays upon him a conscientious obligation not to turn back his hand from the plough. This may be, but why should the law add its sanction to the sanction of conscience? Why convert a conscientious and religious duty into a legal obligation? What good can the Church get from the services of an unwilling officer, who justifies to his own mind his conduct in occupying a position for which, as he is inwardly certain, he is unfit; perhaps even his conduct in preaching doctrines which he has ceased to believe, or, at all events, to care about, by the reflection that he is debarred by law from following any other of the few callings which his habits and education have left open to him? Or suppose that from a conscientious conviction that he has mistaken his position, and that he can no longer discharge its duties with comfort to himself or with advantage to his parishioners, a man resigns his preferment, and as far as in him lies gives up his profession. What object can possibly be gained by restraining him by force of law from employing himself in other ways? On what other intelligible ground can the maintenance of such a law be grounded than that it gratifies the feelings of those who, being themselves well satisfied with their profession, think it a crime, or something very like one, to be dissatisfied with it, and like to see a man punished who is guilty of such an offence? Be the sentiment right or wrong, there is no greater reason why it should be legally enforced than there is for the legal enforcement of other religious duties. All modern legislation has proceeded on the principle of leaving conscience to fight its own battles; and strong reasons ought to be alleged for maintaining this one exception. It is just one of those cases—of more frequent occurrence than people are usually willing to believe—in which the rights of a small minority are deliberately sacrificed by a powerful majority for no reason whatever except that the majority feel a certain sort of pleasure in maintaining associations which would be disturbed by an act of justice. The legal recognition of the notion that orders are indelible is a relic of a state of things in which the clergy and their claims were far more highly thought of in all respects than is now the case, and it is accordingly maintained, though it inflicts cruel injustice on a few and does no good to any one.
Suppose, however, that the resolution is formed to take what is legally though not practically an irrevocable step. What sort of professional prospect lies before a young clergyman? At the beginning of his profession it is a better prospect than any other liberal calling opens. He earns an income at once, and without any professional education at all, or, at any rate, without any other education than every one in the position of a gentleman receives, and the income which he earns is probably enough to enable him to live frugally as a single man. This in itself is a considerable thing. In all the other learned professions there is a long education during which a great deal of money has to be spent, there is then a long period of apprenticeship during which no money is earned, and, lastly, there are great professional expenses to be met as a means towards earning money in future.
Unless a man can live for at least three years like a gentleman, without even pretending to earn anything at all; unless he can also pay very heavy fees to an Inn of Court, and still heavier fees for tuition, he cannot be called to the bar at all. When he is called he must, usually, wait for years before he earns a shilling, and during the whole of this time of waiting he is subject to expenses for chambers, and perhaps also for circuit expenses, which he will find it difficult to reduce below £150 a year. If he means to be an attorney, he has to pay about £300 for his articles, and to maintain himself as an articled clerk for five years, after which he has to wait for practice, and, in the meanwhile, to pay for an office and clerks. In medicine the same thing happens,—an expensive education, prolonged waiting for business, and the necessity of keeping up a considerable appearance and establishment. It must also be remembered that the general education required by a barrister or a physician is, at least, as expensive as that which is required of any clergyman. It is true that there are a certain number of clergymen who would not go to a university at all unless they proposed to take orders, and their university course may be said to correspond to the special education required in other professions. On the other hand, however, a large and increasing number of clergymen are ordained without a university education, or anything remotely resembling one. A course of study at a cheap theological college is by far the cheapest form of anything that can be called liberal education that is to be met with in this country; and thus it may be said to be true, in general terms, that no liberal profession can be approached so cheaply, or affords so immediate and sure a return for the money laid out in entering upon it, as the Church. It must also be admitted that there is no profession in which mediocrity is so tolerable. Few men will make a living; no one can make more than the very barest and most hardly-earned living as a barrister or a physician, unless he has either unusual abilities, or some special advantages in the way of connection. A man who has either or both of these gifts may make a great fortune in either of these walks of life, or, on the other hand, he may not; but if he has only moderate abilities, average energy, and no particular connection, he will find it next to impossible to marry on his profession alone. An average curate has a much better chance. Notwithstanding all that is said in novels and elsewhere, he may fairly expect that in the course of ton years, during which his profession will, at any rate, secure him bread and cheese, he will obtain permanent preferment. Mere age, character, and decency go much further with a clergyman than with any other professional man, and age and character come naturally in course of time to a decent man who wishes conscientiously to do his duty. The Church is pretty nearly the only market where a stupid, good sort of man can be reasonably sure of disposing of himself to a fair advantage; the terms of the contract being that he shall live like a gentleman, and not overwork himself. The lowness of the money payment which the clergy are willing to take is the measure of the value which is usually attached to these conditions.
It must also be remembered that there are two supplementary callings which a clergyman may pursue. He may if he has it in him, and if other circumstances are favourable, be an author, and if his turn in this direction is strong enough to make literature his main interest in life, there is no other calling in which he can indulge his taste so easily, though the interruptions, as we have already observed, are many. Every one who knows anything of literature knows how important it is to a literary man to have some other calling. It improves not only his position in life, but his powers as a writer, and gives him that practical acquaintance with men and things without which literature is but a poor affair. On the other hand, there is no profession which goes so well with literature as the Church, for none is so independent. The lawyer or doctor can write only when his clients and patients allow him to do so, and, if he writes too much, he is apt to find that they will leave him much more leisure than he desires; but a beneficed clergyman is thoroughly independent. He can, within limits, do as he pleases, and is responsible to no one.
This resource, however, is open to few from the nature of the case. There is another which is wider. A clergyman may be a schoolmaster, not only without injury to his strictly professional prospects, but often with great advantage to them. Indeed, the ablest men who have entered the Church of late years, and risen to eminence in it, have been engaged in education in one way or another. Both the archbishops and many of the other bishops have been thus employed, either at the universities or the great public schools. There can, indeed, be no doubt that this is the only temporal attraction which the Church, considered merely as a profession, holds out in the present day to men of great ability. To be head-master of a large public school is a high, and by no means an inadequately paid position, and it leads to higher positions still. To a man who likes influence, and believes himself capable of exercising a good influence over large numbers of people, hardly any position can be so attractive. Given two men of equal ability, the one by nature grave, saturnine, and more or less severe, and the other warm-hearted, sympathetic, and disposed to kindly views of life, and it is as natural for the latter to wish for a position like Dr. Arnold's, as for the other to wish to go circuit as a judge, and sentence men to be hung for murder.
This is the bright side of a clergyman's temporal prospects. There is a dark side, and it must be owned -that of the two it is the more conspicuous. The entrance into the Church is easy, and the first part of a clergyman's life profitable, especially for a second-rate man; but as time goes on the bargain does not improve, and for a superior man it becomes intolerably bad. With fair good fortune, fair ability, and a good character, the man who begins as a curate may reasonably hope that he will before middle life have a living worth say £300 or £400 a year, but when he has got it his troubles begin. The income is perfectly unelastic: no exertions of his can increase it. He is almost obliged to marry, not merely by the motives which appeal to every man, but by the circumstance that an unmarried clergyman is deprived of help and sympathy of which he specially stands in need, living, as he very probably does, in a place where he is thrown much on his own resources, and also because he has to discharge a variety of duties in which the fact that he is married gives him both weight with others and confidence in himself. As his family increases his income does not increase, and even if the means of adding to it by writing or taking pupils are to be found, he may very probably feel that conscience forbids him to give up to such pursuits the time which ho owes to his parish. Hence often come difficulties and cares of which we all hear more than enough, and which certainly are as perplexing as any that can be imagined. They form a dull, heavy, uninstructive burden which simply disturbs a man's mind and diminishes his power of doing his duty. There is one special aggravation of the discomforts of a clergyman in respect of money which is often overlooked. He is liable not only to calls upon his charity to a greater extent than other men, but also to a contingency which has involved hundreds of excellent men in inextricable difficulties. In one of Mr. Dickens's novels a prisoner for debt is introduced who attributes his misfortunes in life to the fact that some one left him £1,000, which led to litigation, which led to costs, which led to ruin and the Fleet Prison. To many a clergyman promotion leads to something of the same sort. After arranging all his affairs, cutting his coat to his cloth, sending his sons to school, and settling himself down in the place allotted to him, a man is presented, as a mark of approval for his energy and goodness, to a living of £1,000 a year. This may look at first sight like the appropriate reward of virtue, the sort of event which would be introduced into a novel as the result of the hero's goodness. Often it is something quite different. The fortunate presentee goes down to his new living. He finds that he has to make a journey half across England with his family and furniture. The house is out of repair, the last incumbent died so poor that if his family is sued for dilapidations they will be deprived of the last farthing they have in the world. All the parish institutions are in disorder, three curates must be kept if the duty is to be properly done. The £1,000 a year, after deductions, leaves perhaps something like £600 to spend in a place where a good deal is expected from the vicar in the way of appearance and hospitality, and something like £1,000 of ready money to make the change, repair the house, and set everything going. In short, to take the living is to get into debt, to refuse it is to throw away the only chance which is ever likely to occur of rising in the world. This is by no means a pleasant state of things, but it is not a very uncommon one.
Even the great prizes of the Church are by no means very attractive when measured in money. A dean gets a house, and say £1,200 a year. A bishop gets a palace and £4,500; but compare a dean with a county court judge, or a bishop with a superior judge. A lawyer may live where he likes and as he pleases; he does his public duty and retires into absolute obscurity, if such is his pleasure. Deans, and still more bishops, are public men. They must live in the deanery or the palace and keep it up, and live also like rich men; and if they save money out of their income, they are not altogether unjustly reproached for it. It is true that, socially, they are greater men than the lawyers, but social dignity is not only a poor plaster for a light purse, but to force it on a poor man is to add insult to injury. Besides this, a bishop or a dean has seldom had anything like the professional income of a successful lawyer. Probably most men who take judicial appointments of any kind make some sacrifice of income for the sake of security, and have been in a position to save money, but this can seldom be the case with a clergyman, who lives on his clerical income alone.
The general result of the whole is that, considered as a profession, the Church is a very good profession for a rich man, and not a very bad one for the sort of man who is extremely anxious to be considered a gentleman, and who, if he had been employed by a bustling shopkeeper, would never have had any chance of being taken into partnership. For an ambitious, able, intellectual man, who is also poor, no profession can well be worse.
We should be sorry to close what we have to say on the subject without guarding against the misapprehension which is always produced by taking partial views of great subjects. The Church may be considered merely as a profession, as a walk in life through the ways of the world, and its character as a profession must, and will, and probably ought to influence the views of those who have to make their choice between it and other callings; but to a really considerable man these matters would be mere cobwebs hardly worthy of notice. If a man really believed and felt assured in his own mind that he had matters of infinite importance to teach to his neighbours, and that a pulpit in the Church of England was the place from which he ought to teach them, no power on earth would hold him back from doing so. The question of moneuy, even the question of natural disposition, would be subordinate to the great leading motive of discharging a most sacred duty in a becoming way. The money question, after all, resolves itself into the question, "When shall I marry?" and a man who really has a great duty to be done, and really feels that he knows in what direction lies the path which leads to it, would be a very poor creature if he could not do without a wife if necessary. He ought to feel that such a sacrifice was worth making, and that if he could not bring himself to make it, he had nothing that could be called a vocation to so great an office.
Cornhill Magazine, June 1864.