16 November 2016

Parsons Galore

Entering Ireland recently, I was asked whether I was a "minister".

How that takes me back. It must be some fifty years since I was last described as a "minister". The family was on holiday in the South of Scotland, and we desired entry to a Church of Scotland church which contained one of those marvellous Anglian carved crosses. When the aged crone who kept the key had got my profession straight, "Och", she cried, "ye're a meenister". 

I once found a similar but much more culturally nuanced crone in County Kerry (Ireland does very good quality crones and the Kerry ones are best of all). I had knocked on a cabin door in the hope of finding a boatman to take me across the straights to an ancient monastic settlement on a tiny island called Illaunloghan. As she retired into the back room I heard her describing  me to her husband in awed tones as the Pairson. Although I have never held a benefice, I'm distinctly fond of that nice old term. I would never bridle at it. Infinitely better than the fearful American vocative "Reverend". I came across Parson later in a Breton church when I was looking at a bilingual monument to a former Parish Priest. The French version called him the Cure; the Breton, Parsoun. And you find it in medieval texts in the old Cornish language. (I did get the boat.)

In the novels of Dorothy 'Patrimony' Sayers, full of accurate observation of the usages and social delicacies of the 1930s, I recall an account of an old West Countryman telling an anecdote concluding with the words "And Old Parson [i.e. a previous incumbent], how he did laugh!" 'Parson' also has a whiff about it of Anthony 'Patrimony' Trollope and the rooks cawing over the Close at Barchester ... and of old well-worn much-loved Edwardian jokes ("What do Hell and the Smoking Room of the Athenaeum have in common?" "You can't see the fire for parsons".).

I think we need to restore this decent usage in the Ordinariate. They don't need it any more in the Church of England, because their country churches are mostly now in the hands of ladies of a certain age who prefer to be addressed and referred to as Jill or Jan or Jen. Come to think of it, the most authentic old-style Parson I can think of is the emeritus Bishop of Ebbsfleet (now disguised as a popish priest and pastoring a couple of the learned and admirable Dr Egan's country churches). I'm pretty sure he has never once ridden to hounds without wearing gaiters.


Vince K said...

I surmise you were only interested in British references, but "Parson Brown" is a key figure in the American ditty "Winter Wonderland."

UnanimousConsent said...

Did you see Cuthbert's monastery? I am so jealous!

UnanimousConsent said...

Did you see Cuthbert's monastery? I am so jealous!

Jacob said...

When I was a boy in a midwestern US state during the 1980s, my first exposure to the word parson was through my grandmother's Lutheran church. The minister was referred to as Pastor X, who lived in the parsonage.

I think it's understandable how my poor little brain never was quite able to wrap itself around how Lutherans used such terminology.

Jane said...

Tell you what, Father: the Church of England could call their "ladies of a certain age" "crones" and, while we`re on the subject, can I be a crone too? I`m 62 and half of me is from Cork.

FrB. said...


El Codo said...

Our beautiful parish church is run by Sally who is overshadowed by the perpetual curate Jan who lives with the female Archdeacon.What the retired General and Ambassador in our street make of Messy church...is this Anglican Parrhesia?...I do not know but you could not make it up.

The Saint Bede Studio said...

An Irish Catholic priest of "the old school" whom I knew many years ago, once referred to a C of E deacon in my acquaintance as " a sort of half-parson. " :)

Anne B said...

"Parson's nose": My then would-be-Protestant husband (he wasn't baptised) shocked me by calling it the "pope's nose" (he died a baptised Catholic). You're not still a Protestant, Father?

Zephyrinus said...

"I'm pretty sure he has never once ridden to hounds without wearing gaiters."

Quite correct.

But he has had an International Railway Station named after him (Ebbsfleet International).