top of page

Parish Clergy

Distinction and roles of parish clergy

Parish clergymen were a curious group in the Georgian era, as many were younger sons of gentry/aristocracy, were considered "honorary gentlemen" but not actually gentlemen, were dependent on parish taxes for their income, were Oxford or Cambridge educated, many with doctorates, were hard-pressed to find a position since the livings were life sentences, and once holding a living were tenured/shackled until death.

Some lucked into wealthy parishes and grand homes while others found themselves in small cottages with barely livable wages, and still others were poverty-stricken. Given the role was most popular with those younger sons needing an independent living, not all clergy were as spiritual as we might expect, especially the rectors.

There was no such thing as retirement, as these positions were held until death. Should a clergyman become too infirm to uphold his duties, he could part with a portion of his income to hire (after seeking approval of his bishop, of course) a curate to fulfill his responsibilities. This wasn't always an option, especially for poorer parishes.

Something important to understand with clergy is these were not "jobs" as we might think of them. A devout gentleman did not earn a degree in "vicaring" so to speak and then apply for a job opening at a parish where he then became a vicar until he tired of it, had a crisis of faith, or found another position he preferred in a location he preferred. Oh no. One earned their degree in theology, and then they were at the whim of the bishops. The bishops decided who was appointed a living and where that living was located. Many clergymen were never appointed and were stuck as curates (basically underpaid and overworked assistants) for life. Those who were appointed held the position in location given by the bishop for life, as in until death. They could not quit, transfer, or otherwise. How much money they earned depended on the wealth of the parish, so again, at the discretion of the bishop upon appointment. If the bishop chose to move the living, then one must move to the new location, no matter where it was or the situation. The odds are there would never be a move, but it did happen from time to time, but only at the bishop's discretion, never at the say or desire or request of the clergy.

If a vicar or rector was getting on in age, he could not choose who would replace him, although he could put in a good word to the bishop. The only people who held sway over the livings were the patrons, if there were any (think Lady Catherine in Pride and Prejudice). The patrons of that living could recommend to the bishop who could and couldn't receive the living, although it remained the bishop who had the final say in appointment.

The hierarchy of position, respect, and income: rector, vicar, and then lowly curate.

Since the living was for life, openings were few and far between. To receive a living, one had to ingratiate themselves with a patron. Patrons held advowson--the "right of presentation"--for the living and thus presented their recommended clergyman to the diocese bishop. Patrons ranged from nobility/gentry to Oxford and Cambridge colleges. Befriend the patron, and they'd be next in line for a living at the location they patronized.

Enjoy these resources to learn more:

Pen and Pension: The Georgian Clergy

Jane Austen's World: Rectors and Vicars in Jane Austen

Random Bits of Fascination: Rectors and Vicars and Curates... Oh My!

Topaz Cross Books: Nothing but a Country Curate

bottom of page