Persuasions #6, 1984                                                                                                                                            Pages 7-9





Hugh D. McKellar

Toronto, Ontario


On Sunday, December 17, 1775, the Reverend George Austen informed his sister-in-law by letter of the sudden but safe arrival of his second daughter late on the previous evening.  Before taking quill in hand, he would presumably have conducted services as usual in St. Nicholas Church, Steventon, since he could not easily have secured a substitute on short notice even if his nerves were more shaken than the tone of the letter suggests.  Our concern here is with the service of Evening Prayer as he would have conducted it on that day for his rural congregation, before going home to his newly-enlarged family.

We choose Evening Prayer because it was the service attended by Mr. Austen’s humbler parishioners – the domestic servants and farm labourers, whose unglamorous work had to go on while their employers were at the longer and more complex morning service, to which they might have welcomed the likes of us with reservations.  These rural landowners would not, to be sure, have ascribed radical opinions to any man who wore trousers, since that association lay twenty years in the future; but they could hardly help being scandalized at the sight of women with uncovered heads and skirts which failed to reach the floor.  Moreover, being strangers, we might in all innocence expose ourselves to prosecution for trespassing by sitting in a pew which was not the property of the parish, but owned outright by the descendants of the person who had originally paid for it, and thus gained the right to dispose of it by will.  No marker would warn us away from it, for in a stable neighbourhood everyone would know who owned which pew.  We would do better to wait for Evensong, and worship among people with fewer social pretensions to uphold.  Since the pew-owners did not attend this second service, their seating-space would be available to all comers, unless a family’s domestics insisted on occupying that family’s pew.

Do you remember how Lady Catherine de Bourgh waits till Easter Day to invite her rector and his family to meet her nephews at Rosings, “and then they were merely asked on leaving church to come there in the evening,” after Mr. Collins had finished conducting Evensong?  This service normally began at 3 p.m., since the workers were free to walk to church only after the livestock and their owners had received their midday feeding.  In December they did well to arrive promptly – for, with the winter solstice at hand, the service had to conclude in time for them to make their way home over muddy lanes and roads before darkness overtook them completely.  Poor visibility within the church would hardly bother those who could not read, but had memorized the invariable sections of the service; the variable parts would be read on their behalf by the parish clerk, perhaps with the aid of a candle or lantern at his desk.

If Mr. Austen chose to make his sermon brief, or to omit it entirely, his hearers would not feel slighted, since the prescribed prayers were often followed by less formal instruction, such as practice in the catechism.  Nor was their experience of Evening Prayer necessarily limited to their parish church; the head of any household, especially one including several servants, might read it (except for the Absolution) daily with all his – or her – dependents, if s/he took their religious instruction seriously.  Such conscientious employers made up much of the market for the collections of sermons which poured from the presses of Georgian England. (The Practical and Familiar Sermons eventually published by JA’s cousin, Edward Cooper, were so highly regarded that even in the 1890’s Bishop Bickersteth of Exeter was advising young priests to read them to congregations until they learned how to compose helpful sermons themselves.)  How Lady Catherine, or Mrs. Norris, would have delighted in admonishing her retainers from a folio volume!

One aspect of this service may surprise us: except in the two Collects which begin the final sequence of prayers, it gives small indication that Christmas is barely a week away.  Although the Steventon people would know by heart at least a dozen traditional carols (though not the ones most familiar to us, few of which had then been written!), they would not have sung these even at home, let alone in church, until Christmas Eve at the earliest.  They might have preceded or followed Evening Prayer with four or five stanzas of a psalm as rendered into English metrical verse by Tate and Brady in the reign of William III, or by Sternhold and Hopkins in the time of Elizabeth I; but any attempt of ours to approximate to “the old way of singing,” where the clerk intoned one line of verse at a time, which the people then repeated very slowly, each one “gracing” the tune with whatever decorations s/he saw fit, would be doomed from the outset.  Neither can we recapture the atmosphere of the service, since for these people bathing was, in mid-December, very inconvenient, even had they considered it healthful instead of dangerous.  Moreover, in a sheep-raising county, they would all be wearing woollen clothing, which was seldom washed in winter because it took so long to dry; and few members of the afternoon congregation could afford more than two outfits all told.

How can we, after a lapse of two centuries, reconstruct a service of worship replete with small details largely governed by custom – the kind of thing which everyone knows too well for anyone to bother writing it down?  Few rectors in 1775 had, by our standards, much specifically theological training; “cure of souls in a parish” involved so many things besides the conduct of public worship that a general education at Oxford or Cambridge was considered more valuable than narrowly professional study.  Only after convincing a bishop that he merited ordination, and being inducted into a parish, would a clergyman settle down to learn his business – with the help of at least one thorough commentary on the Prayer Book prepared by a scholarly and experienced priest, discussing each of the appointed services in minute detail and warning against all the things which could possibly go wrong at any point.  Bishop Wheatly’s commentary, first issued in 1722, served generations of clergy as a vade mecum.

Although the Church of England in the eighteenth century harboured many priests who were no credit to their calling, and whose laxity is amply documented, we tend to forget that such men attracted attention precisely because they were exceptions to the norm, and hence newsworthy.  The achievements of the Evangelicals during Jane Austen’s lifetime were possible only because the ordinary folk of England placed at their disposal a reservoir of zeal and good will, ready to be channelled into constructive action.  Side by side with the walking scandals, a good many faithful pastors must all along have been unobtrusively instructing their people by precept and example, albeit by methods so different from our own that we cannot always recognize them or appreciate their effectiveness.

Not quite forty-two years later, Jane Austen was buried in Winchester Cathedral at what seems to us the untoward hour of 8 a.m., so that the burial office could be read, and the mourners dispersed, well before the first service of a weekday was due to begin.  This was not, as would be the case today, Holy Communion; it was Morning Prayer, offered at 10 o’clock by the Cathedral’s canons-in-residence and the gentlemen and boys of the choir, with no attempt whatever to involve the few lay-people who might have slipped into the choir-stalls.  Such a service, with its chanted psalms and canticles, was at least as far outside the churchgoing experience of Steventon people as of ourselves; a rural parish church would not dream of imitating the usages of a cathedral even a few miles away, since the functions of the two were perceived as widely different.  Nor might the kind of singing to be heard at choral matins in Winchester much appeal to us, since in 1817 Maria Hackett had barely begun her decades-long crusade to force the cathedrals of England to train and treat their singers decently.  Altogether, we are much more apt to be edified by the kind of worship which attended Jane Austen’s coming hence, rather than her going hither.

On December 16, 1984, fifty members and friends of the Toronto Chapter of JASNA assembled at the chapel of St. Paul’s Anglican Church for an evening service as described above.  The chapel is in size very similar to St. Nicholas, Steventon.  The officiant was the Rev. W. John Pyke.  Hugh McKellar acted as clerk.  It was at St. Paul’s that Pope John Paul II held an ecumenical service and met those of other faiths on his recent visit to Canada.


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