Monday, July 21, 2008

Plus Ça Change…

Birth of the Church of England

For beleaguered members of the Anglican Communion a visit to the Reverend James Woodforde’s diary might be refreshing. Woodforde was born in 1740 into a family of at least three generations of Clergy in the established Church of England. By 1740 the worst of the upheavals, heresy hunts and executions attendant on the long birthing process of this national church were over: Henrician flip-flops; Edwardian swerve to Calvinism; Marian blood bath; Elizabethan “Settlement”; James VI/1’s dictum “no bishops, no King!”, and Exeunt by Mayflower. It must have seemed as though the great dangers for the success of the moderate Reformation of the English church had been circumvented: British phlegm had avoided the passionate hatreds of the less stable Continentals. Of course, the fear of a Stuart coup was still around and fuelled the intense antipathy to “Popery”.

The Diary and its Publication

The Diary of a Country Parson 1758-1802 Ed. John Beresford; five volumes , 1924-1931, with extensive notes.
His short version of selections first published 1935;
OUP Paper Back issued 1978 with seven additional Reprints.
The edition quoted in this paper, 1999, Canterbury Press, UK, with Foreword by Ronald Blythe.

The Parish in English Life

Blythe speaks of the C of E in the18th century as “comatose…still unawakened by Wesley and the sacramentalists of the Oxford Movement". Yet the Diary gives an intimate picture of agrarian life, geared to the cycle of the seasons, at the same time also strangely intertwined with the presence of the C of E. in the thousands of rural village communities. Then as now, in the countryside, there were not all that many places where you could not see, standing on a hill or “bank”, the spire of the next parish church. The parish, it will be remembered, was not merely an ecclesiastical entity; it was also the basic organizational structure of the State. The relationship of Woodforde with his farmer tenants, who rented the Rectory glebe (and provided his income), emerges as close and cordial, though most of them did not appear in the parish church of Weston, about ten miles from Norwich, where Woodforde served from 1776 until his death in 1803.

Settlement unsettled

So, do things stay the same? So far as the Church of England and that considerable number of “overseas” churches that have sprouted from it is concerned, certainly the lazy countryside scene of Parson Woodforde has long gone. The upheavals of the birthing period, however, have returned in an even more virulent form, that might well suggest, “the more things change, the more they stay the same”. Of course, no one has been burned in Oxford recently, though at least one African Archbishop fully approves of torture, possibly even the death penalty, for people whose sexual orientation does not incline them to have multiple partners of the opposite gender. None of the separatist Bishops has been carted off to the tower, something that no Tudor or Stuart monarch would have hesitated for a second to do. Indeed it must have been those draconian measures that quelled the Calvinists on the one hand, and the Papists on the other. Dampened down, but not extinguished, the fire has re-ignited, the upheaval has re-emerged, and there does not seem to be a handy vessel in which to ship off the troublemakers. On the ecclesiastical scene, therefore, one must conclude, “plus c’est la même chose”.

Lack of Ecclesiastical Interest

Given the condition of the C. of E. during Parson Woodforde’s tenure of the parish of Weston, it should not be surprising that a great deal of the interest of his diaries is centered on affairs not-so-ecclesiastical. Meals consisting of locally caught trout (‘fryed’), a pork roast, a boiled leg of lamb, several roast chickens and a goose followed by tarts, gooseberry custard, nuts etc. etc. are frequently noted. Ronald Blythe comments: “Not even below the surface, but in plain view of this bounty, is misery and hardship of such chronic proportion and familiarity that Woodforde and his circle are able to live with it without guilt. A similar pragmatism applies to his attitude towards hangings and blood sports”. (Diary p. ix). Here one must say, “the more they stay the same”.


It may be noted, though, that very many diary entries mention alms given as a matter of course. On Christmas Day 1781 the Rector gave each of “the poor old Men” [Pensioners] one shilling”, fifteen to twenty dollars in today’s currency. The total distributed was around $200.00. On many days, it seems he gave away about $8.00. Individually, most of us may not measure up, but on the other hand, organized giving like United Way and endless Societies for the support of a myriad causes was not a fact of life.

There are two entries that seem to me to bear quite specifically on our present situation. One suggests things don’t change, the other that they decidedly do (and, perhaps, not for the better).

Travel in late 18th Century

In May 1778, Woodforde paid a fairly long visit back to the West of England where all his family still lived, where he was born and where he spent the first ten years of his ministry as a Curate. His niece, Nancy Woodforde, who acted as companion and housekeeper from the time he became Rector of Weston until his death, accompanied him to Somerset. ` The first leg of the journey was from Norwich to London by the scheduled Mail Coach. It is often supposed that before the coming of the railways, there was a pervading immobility: during their whole life-time, very few people travelled more that 20 miles from their birthplace. This is more or less accurate for the laboring classes until, of course, the second half of the 19th century; and even before that, armies of servants followed the migrations of their employers from one great house to another. Such stay-at-home tendencies were far from true for the aristocracy and the landed gentry, among whom are placed beneficed Clergy of the C. of E.

Excess Baggage

The second half of the 18th century witnessed a considerable improvement in the main roads, a south/north route (Great North Road) and a road from London to Bath. A network of Turnpikes on which one paid a toll, the development of lighter, “balloon coaches” and a vast local system of smaller vehicles, post chaises & hackney coaches all contributed to increase mobility for those who could afford it. And therein lies the issue of “the more things change”. Just to get from Norwich to London (less than a hundred miles), Woodforde pays £1.16s, about $240.00 in contemporary currency. But that is not all: there is an excess baggage charge. “To extraordinary weight of Luggage at 1 & 1/2d (one and a half pence) per P[ound] p[ai]d 8/6d” (eight shillings and sixpence = $56.00 +/-). The cost of the next part of the journey, London to Salisbury, was about the same, giving an extra baggage charge of over $100.00. The only change here is here is that disgruntled passengers on today’s equivalent of a Stage Coach pay a significantly lower baggage charge, and we should hope that some US Airways official does not read this.

War and Tax

The second entry of interest is on November 3, 1786. At first reading, it may not strike one as significant: “To J[oh]n Peg ½ years Land Tax – ditto House Tax – ditto Window Tax – ditto Horse Tax in all paid him 11.0.0.” (Eleven pounds sterling = $1,500.00). John Beresford adds the following note: “The reader should note that Parson Woodforde’s taxes have gone up 20 per cent since 1779. This was, of course, due to the American War and the drastic increase in taxation which Pitt was compelled (my italics) to impose in 1784 and 1785 to meet the burden”. (p. 417). Beresford goes on to quote from a letter of Horace Walpole in July of 1784. “ ‘There is much noise about a variety of new taxes, yet only a few have a right to complain of them. The majority of the nation persisted in approving and calling for the American War, and ought to swallow the heavy consequences in silence. Instead of our colonies and trade, we have a debt two hundred and fourscore millions! [c. Two billion in today’s $ sounds puny to us, but we should remember that a national debt of anything over a few hundred million pounds would be regarded as profligate abandonment of stewardship; that is why Pitt was "compelled" to raise taxes]. Half of that enormous burthen our wise country gentlemen have acquired, instead of an alleviation of the land-tax, which they were such boobies as to expect from the prosecution of the war! Posterity will perhaps discover what his own age would not see, that my father’s motto Quieta non movere, was a golden sentence.’ ”

War to Protect National Interests

When I read this, I found the number of correspondences startling. The Elder Pitt might well have said “Let sleeping dogs lie” (literally, “don’t move things at rest”), had he been able to influence the neo cons urged on by the Bush/Cheney/Pearle axis – the more things stay the same… This is true, not only in getting into an unnecessary war but also in the majority support of an enthusiastic populace. There is, too, a rather more hidden correspondence. The Tory land owners, ‘boobies’, clearly felt that home interests (theirs)could be served by militant sabre wielding; make those damned rebels pay their taxes, and we shall get some relief from our land taxes. ‘National interests’ is a phrase that appeared again and again in the apologia for a pre-emptive and virtually unilaterally decided war. Make sure that the oil that we so profligately use is always there was parsed as WMDs must be eliminated. The younger Pitt would have understood all this and resisted it.

Reduce Taxes to Pay for War??

There are many other interesting analogies that might be drawn, but the issue of Taxation looms like a thunderhead. Has there ever been a war in history that has not been funded by increased taxes? Perhaps an assiduous search might find one, but what is beyond doubt, is that no war, especially an elective one, has been accompanied by a tax reduction. Of course, the ‘burthen’ is not this time being borne by the well-to-do section of the Nation. Although I have never seen it much emphasized, there surely must be a connection between the disruption of the Middle East caused by this reckless war and gasoline at $4.00+ a gallon. Certainly things have not stayed the same in this respect.

Nation of Whingers (N.B. Correct Spelling)

Walpole wrote, “few have a right to complain”; is that true for us? For some years now (perhaps since the display of that indelible banner on a US Aircraft Carrier) the war has not had the popular support it had when it began. It is easy to forget just how great that support was: perhaps that does somewhat undercut our right to whinge. After all, as I just noted the price of gasoline and the five years of an unnecessary war are surely firmly connected.

Given the hubris of this Administration, and VP Cheney’s drive unconstitutionally to elevate the Presidency, lack of public support probably wouldn’t have made any difference, but we would have had firmer ground on which do more than just complain – such as Cromwell’s address to the Rump Parliament in January 1651, “It is not fit that you should sit here any longer…You shall now give place to better men”.

On balance, a read of Parson Woodforde’s diary inclines me to agree that plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose, certainly when it comes to pursuing devastatingly costly wars, costly primarily in human lives and misery, but also in unpaid trillions.

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