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In defence of the clerical antiquary

Francis Young takes a new look at the clerical antiquarianism of yesteryear. Has the Church lost something in the demise of learned clergy with active academic interests and scholarly knowledge of local history and lore? Is the scholar antiquarian a priestly stereotype from a bygone era, or the representative of a tradition of learning from which the modern Church can gain much?

The clerical antiquary is a dying species. There are plenty of contemporary clergy with degrees in Church History, and some notable academic church historians in holy orders, but there are few parochial clergy who devote themselves to local antiquarian pursuits in the manner of so many of their forebears.

To many – perhaps most – in the contemporary Church, it is self-evident that a member of the clergy spending a large proportion of their time researching local history and archaeology is deserting their duty. This is not what the clergy are for, we are told (although the clergy are increasingly pressed into roles their predecessors would never have dreamed were part of their ministry). Indeed, the stereotyped Georgian or Victorian clergyman who spent all his time in ‘secular’ pursuits such as collecting fossils or directing excavations is something of a figure of fun – people snigger at the thought of clergy who essentially used the ‘leisure’ afforded by their position to spend their time in research and study, rather than looking after their parishioners.

Yet is it time to reconsider this stereotype, and ask whether clerical antiquaries really were the workshy examples of ecclesiastical decadence they are so often taken to be?

Apart from those clergy who spent much of their time in antiquarian pursuits because their parishes were very small and there was not a lot else to do, many clergy who had been fellows of Oxford and Cambridge colleges saw an incumbency as an opportunity to continue research they had begun at the university. At a time when there was no such thing as a research degree, an incumbency was often the closest Georgian and Victorian England had to a funded opportunity for early career researchers. If we begrudge the fact that clergy used their time for research, we might well ask how else married men could have continued an academic career (at a time when fellows of Oxford and Cambridge colleges were still required to be celibate). For those without private means, virtually the only way to obtain a higher degree was through research undertaken in an ecclesiastical office.

Beyond the opportunities that an incumbency afforded for pursuing research that could not otherwise be supported, clerical antiquaries often made lasting contributions to the survival of their local churches that continue to resonate today. In many cases, churches are still loved and much visited because an earlier incumbent took the trouble to uncover that church’s remarkable past. For every Victorian rector who disfigured his church with a half-baked neogothic ‘restoration’, there was another who uncovered layers of unappreciated architecture and artefacts from beneath whitewash, ungainly box pews and teetering public galleries.

Furthermore, the antiquarian interests of most clerical antiquaries extended far beyond the church building, encompassing the history of the entire parish. Clergy of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were often the only person in the parish with the level of education required to understand and make use of the sources of local history. Many made no glamorous discoveries, and their names are not remembered; but by laying the foundations of parish histories they put their communities on the map. They created a powerful sense of local identity, rooted in the historic landscape, in permanent monuments and in properly documented history, that was more lasting than mere civic or parochial pride.

In an age where many clergy are burdened by the care of those historic buildings whose significance the clerical antiquaries uncovered, some may ask with Jesus himself, ‘Why do you seek the living among the dead?’ (Luke 24:5). What does the study of the past have to do with the Gospel and the Christian faith?

We owe much of what we take for granted about England’s parish churches to the clerical antiquaries – including, of course, their dedications, most of which were lost at the Reformation and rediscovered or conjectured by Victorian incumbents with an antiquarian bent. And the parish is, arguably, a community extended across time as well as space; a little corner of the Communion of Saints, both living and dead. The parish owes a duty to the dead as well as the living – or, more accurately, a duty to the living to remind them what they can learn from honouring the dead. This went without saying in the medieval parish, which was steeped in daily performative acts of commemoration, where the boundary between the influence of the living and the long dead became blurred in the demands of chantries, bedehouses and endowed masses.

Clerical antiquarianism arose out of the anxieties of the post-Reformation Church, where high churchmen were eager to demonstrate the rights of the Church against secular power and to show their continuity (albeit appropriately reformed and purified) with the medieval Church. Against the encroaching claims of hostile Puritan or downright irreligious squires, seventeenth-century clergy learnt the importance of knowing local history – especially such details as the extent of Church lands in the parish and the incumbent’s customary rights. In the eighteenth century this utilitarian approach to local history gave way to a broader appreciation of antiquities and the value of recording the past, before the nineteenth century brought its own ideas of revival and architectural (and even liturgical) restoration.

The clergy of today may well resent the clerical antiquaries of yesteryear for the apparently ‘easy’ lives they led as the incumbents of single-parish benefices; they may even feel they bear the burden of the clerical antiquaries’ discoveries about the architectural and historic significance of now cash-strapped churches, not to mention the burden imposed by the poor quality of some antiquarian ‘restorations’. These are not unreasonable complaints.

Yet perhaps there should be more reflection on the place of history and archaeology within Christian mission in the contemporary Church. We need look no further than the prologue to St Luke’s Gospel to find historiography within the pages of Scripture itself, while the rediscovery of the Book of the Law in II Chronicles 34 and the words of God to Isaiah, ‘Look unto the rock whence ye are hewn, and to the hole of the pit whence ye are digged’ (Isaiah 51:1) might well provide inspiration to Christian antiquaries, archivists and archaeologists. Above all, however, the Acts of the Apostles are the foundation of the discipline of Church History, which is the history of Christian communities. In a sense, every Christian antiquary follows in the footsteps of St Luke – and there is no prima facie reason why the story of the Christian community in Little Snoring should matter less than the story of the Church in Corinth.

Christianity is a historical faith, rooted in a narrative about past events (even if those events are, in some sense, occurring in eternity). The Church of England, perhaps more than any other part of Christ’s Church, is compelled by its complex history to negotiate a narrative that requires a sophisticated understanding of Church History and its methodologies. Few dispute the value of Church History to the training of the clergy as a general principle; but perhaps it is time we examined more closely the role that the local antiquarianism of the parochial clergy played (and, in a handful of cases, still plays) in building up Christian communities.

Dr Francis Young is a historian specialising in the history of religion and supernatural belief, with a particular interest in the history of England.

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