Barchester Revisited

In his ‘Personal View’ as Preface to the Church of England Year Book 1999, Canon Hugh Wilcox called for a review of clergy stipends. In particular he drew attention to the removal of differentials between parochial clergy. ‘…a parish priest with thirty years service and perhaps a considerable responsibility in diocesan affairs will receive this year exactly the same as the youngest new incumbent fresh to the job after a couple of curacies.’ To open the subject of differentials, however, is to invite other comparisons:

READERS WHOSE ONLY knowledge of Hogglestock is from the pages of Trollope will need (as they say nowadays) to be brought ‘up to speed’. There have been many changes, not all of them for the better.

Silverbridge, with its extensive railway sidings and their attendant warehouses had, by the Great War, become a considerable town, surpassing Barchester both in size and commerce. Though the town languished in the Thirties, and was slow to recover after the Second War, growth returned in the late Sixties.

By the beginning of the Eighties the housing estates on the north side of the town had swallowed up Hogglestock and reached Hoggle End. Framley, to the east, remained a charming village, with its church, green and Michelin-starred restaurant, ‘The Mulberry Tree’; but it was now connected to Silverbridge by a continuous development of executive housing which had featured in the property section of The Sunday Times.

The Greshams, whose homes at Greshamsbury and Boxall Hill had been way beyond their means for some time, gave up the unequal struggle in 1982, when Greshamsbury passed to the National Trust and Boxall Hill, complete with the collection of Jacobean tilting armour and furniture from the Great Exhibition which Sir Roger Scatchard had purchased for it, became a country house hotel in the Radisson-Edwardian chain. Ben and Emma Gresham now have a pleasant house in Duncan Terrace, Islington – rather too full, if truth were told, of furniture from Barchester days. Emma is New Labour member for Hartlepool West, and Ben is something with Coopers Lybrand.

Ecclesiastically there have been changes too. Framley, Hogglestock, Hoggle End and Brindley are now a united benefice which has common boundaries with Emmanuel, Silverbridge (charismatic evangelical) and the Silverbridge North Local Ecumenical Project. The house in which Mrs Robarts nursed Mrs Crawley to health was sold at the union of benefices, and on its site is the Hogglestock Youth and Community Centre. The house in which Mark Robarts revealed the depths of his financial involvement in the dealings of the Chaldicotes set is now the home of the divorced wife of a cabinet minister, whose principal residence is in Eaton Square, and who sold most of the garden and the celebrated mulberry tree to allow the building of the eponymous restaurant.

The successor of Mr Crawley, Mr Robarts and their two contemporaries is Michael Andrewes. Like Mr Crawley, Mr Andrewes is a married man with financial problems. His house (the replacement of four substantial buildings, two of them listed) is a badly insulated brick box with metal window frames. Dr Grantley’s successor, the present Archdeacon (formerly a left-wing councillor for Bristol, St Paul’s) defended the provision to the PCC during the interregnum. ‘Who’, he asked, ‘would want a Rector in Hogglestock who would not live in a house like those on the estate?’

Mr Crawley, you will remember, subsisted on one hundred and thirty pounds a year. It was a level of remuneration in sharp contrast to the six hundred received by the ambitious Mark Robarts and the six thousand which sustained the Bishop of Barchester and his more famous consort.

Mr Crawley was a diligent man who bore his lot with fortitude, and received charity with an ill grace. Mr Andrewes, the present incumbent, is no less diligent. And the reward for his devotion is the knowledge that his meagre £15200 is the lot of every parochial clergyman in the land. Gone are the inequities of former times; and in every respect fairness, though not superfluity, reigns. Be Mr Andrewes’ funerals ever so numerous or his weddings ever so lavish, a sagely egalitarian bureaucracy ensures that he receives nothing from them by way of augmentation.

In point of fact, the Rector of the United Benefice of Framley with Hogglestock, Brindley and Hoggle End marries twelve of his people per annum and buries thirty-eight. The three thousand five hundred pounds so earned in fees now accrue, not to the incumbent as in former times, but to the Diocese of Barchester (a ‘company limited under guarantee’, and a body of which Mr Crawley and Dr Proudie knew nothing). Even the Easter Offering by which the people of Hogglestock acknowledge the devoted service of their man of God, is sunk in the same purse of sanctimonious commonality. These are not, the reader will observe, inconsiderable sums. But Mr Andrewes, who though uncomplaining is none the less shrewd, has noticed that they never feature in the diocesan accounts.

The Bishop of Barchester, Bishop Proudie’s successor, is Dr Jeremy Feely. He is assisted, these days, by two Area Bishops.

The Bishop of Silverbridge – a flamboyant young man with oratorical gifts and an inability to retain domestic chaplains – occupies the charming house, at the entrance to Greshamsbury Park, where, in days of yore, Frank Gresham wooed Mary Thorne. (Mr Oriel’s vicarage, alas, is now a health centre.)

The Bishop of Plumstead, an internationally acknowledged expert on the Toronto Blessing, awaits elevation to a diocesan post in the antipodes in the very house in Plumstead Epicopi where Mrs Grantley plotted her daughter’s betrothal to Lord Dumbello.

The existence of two assistants (at a cost to churchgoers in general of around £123,000 per prelate per annum) has freed Dr Feely (whose cost to the Church at large is a princely £267,000) to discharge his onerous duties in the wider church. On scarcely fewer than a hundred days in the three hundred and sixty-five the bishop’s chauffeur-driven car heads towards London.

As the Commissioner’s Mondeo crosses Westminster Bridge, the Bishop has an invariable request. ‘Drop me at the Lords, will you John?’ For, like Dr Proudie before him, the present Bishop of Barchester is a pillar of that august assembly, and an habitue, if not of the chamber, then at least of the library and the tea rooms. It is, he has been heard to remark, one of the most congenial clubs in London; and the only one which pays its members for their attendance.

It is the bishop’s invariable practice, when (as not infrequently) his opinion is required, in the councils of the Church on the Hippolytan Canon, the Didache or the Gelasian Sacramentary, to stop by the Palace of Westminster on his way to Church House. There he consults a volume or so on those well-stocked shelves, and makes his presence known to the genial clerk, who, in due course, secures for the bishop the remuneration properly due to those who selflessly uphold the decorative aspects of a venerable Constitution.

Dr Feely, who is above making accurate account of matters so casual, would be surprised to be told – as is certainly the case – that in a twelve-month the sum thus accruing is considerable.

Dr Feely, it might be thought, lives in slightly straitened circumstances by comparison with Dr Proudie. It is true that there is little domestic help at the Palace these days – apart from Mr Slope’s successor (if he be counted as such), the chauffeur and the gardener. The glory has departed, and the conversaziones with it. Though Mr Andrewes (who has the benefit of the Church Commissioner’s published figures and an electronic calculator) might well be led to conclude that, at a cost of over £500,000 a year, episcopal ministry in Barchester devours certainly no smaller share of the Lord’s bounty (and rather more of Queen Anne’s) than it did in 1860.

Yet the Bishop of Barchester, the reader must understand, is a bishop entirely devoid of ostentation. There are bishops, who, at the York meetings of the General Synod, have attracted attention with natty linen suits and collarless shirts in interesting hues. But Barchester is not among them. He subscribes to the cardigan and Hush-Puppies view of episcopacy; and his wife is accordingly a stranger both to Harvey Nichols and the General Trading Company. The bishop’s most daring and stylish garments are the Aertex shirts which he wears on the Swan Hellenic lecture cruises which supplement his income when the House of Lords is not in session.

Why, the reader will ask, does the officious egalitarianism which applies to the stipends of inferior clergy not reach the exalted level of the episcopal bench? A question surely to be asked.

It is true that the disparity of income on which Trollope commented (where, you will remember, one bishop might be getting fifteen thousand pounds a year, and another, with an equal cure of parsons, only four) has been mitigated somewhat. But any reduction of differentials with other, less exalted clergy is stoutly resisted, as recently, by the entire bench. (When last the matter was mooted in the Synod, Mrs Feely allowed herself to be photographed for the television, in the kitchen of her moated grange, up to her elbows in soap-suds to demonstrate a humble manner of life.) But time is running out.

‘In other trades professions and lines of life, men are paid according to their work,’ wrote the prophet in the fourteenth chapter of ‘Framley Parsonage’. ‘Let it be so in the Church. Such will sooner or later be the edict of a utilitarian, reforming, matter-of-fact House of Parliament.’

With Canon Wilcox’s Preface to the Church of England Year Book open on the desk before her, Mrs Emma Gresham MP is even now drafting a question for the First Church Estates Commissioner.

Geoffrey Kirk is Vicar of St Stephen’s Lewisham in the diocese of Southwark.