15 November 2022

Parsons Galore

I bet you've never been described as a "minister".

It must be some fifty years since I was last described. 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 meeenister". 

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 have an ineradicable weakness for 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. 

(Don't worry, I did get the boat.)

In the novels of Dorothy 'Patrimony' Sayers, full of accurate observation of the verbal 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 [Which English word is Trollope implying sounds exactly like a covine clamour? Does it rhyme with snore?]. And, of course,there are all those 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 and are sometimes cohabiting with a lady called Jen or Jan or Jill. 

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.


Simon Cotton said...

Use of the word parson goes back to the 15th c (i.e. pre-Reformation) at least - I have encountered it in inscriptions and wills from that century in both Norfolk and Suffolk.

william arthurs said...

Towards a historical-analytical account of linguistic usage

It probably needs to be presented in tabular form because, though this is obvious to me, it isn't necessarily obvious to others.

"Liturgical role (in a service, sacramental or non-sacramental)" <---> "Order attained, in Holy Orders (if possessed by the ecclesial community)" <---> "Job-title within the ecclesial community's organogram" <---> "terminology used by the public." Considering when and in what way these four categories have interacted is very instructive.

Seeing escapist entertainment in these troubled times, I have been watching a lot of old Westerns, many of which have rogue, or ineffective, "preacher-men" characters. (I even came across one in which the actor who played the preacher-man bore a marked resemblance to my own vicar.) But even that description can be misleading. My parents live opposite a Methodist church whose website has a section "Notes for visiting preachers": the bulk of this is not about preaching but about the choice of hymns, and which editions of hymnbooks they have.

pdm said...

I have tended to use 'parson' as a polite Catholic way of referring to people in Anglican orders whilst retaining a certain agnosticism about those orders. I know that that doesn't quite make sense historically speaking but it seems to work.

frjustin said...

Chaucer in the 14th century concludes his Canterbury Tales with the Parson's Tale. In the General Prologue, Chaucer calls him a "povre Persoun of a Toun."The host seems to consider the Parson a kind of priest, for he addresses him with the words,

"Sire preest," quod he,, "artow a vicary?
Or arte a person? Sey, sooth, by thy fey!"

And he has admirable qualities:

"He was a shepherde and noght a mercenarie.
And thogh he hooly were and vertuous,
He was to synful men nat despitous,
Ne of his speche daungerous ne digne,
But in his techyng discreet and benynge."
(Lines 514–518)

Albrecht von Brandenburg said...

In the Canterbury Tales, at least one parish priest is referred to as a parson.


Zephyrinus said...

Dear Parson Hunwicke.

I offer my deepest Apologies to you for often referring to you as "Reverend".

Oliver Nicholson said...

My mother's father was Vicar of Uffculme, co. Devon. She and her sisters were known locally as "Parson's maids".