Today the Erewash Press published a book I’m very proud of: our affordable Kindle edition of The Parson’s Handbook by Percy Dearmer. This Anglican classic was only available in pricy reprints or unreadably bad electronic versions, so I’m pleased that we could produce this version for general readership. (I’m also delighted with the cover our editor designed, which seems to me to strike exactly the Dearmer note, with its combination of stained glass and Arts and Crafts lettering.) Below is the introducton I wrote for our edition, which is available for £2.99 :
In the 1890s, Percy Dearmer published The Parson’s Handbook, which he declared was intended ‘to help, in however limited a way, towards remedying the lamentable confusion, lawlessness, and vulgarity which are conspicuous in the Church at this time.’ In these mild terms he indicted the state of the Church of England, and much of the book can be read as an expansion of this opening salvo. By ‘confusion’ Dearmer meant the disagreements as to how Anglican services should be carried out in Britain, in the wake of the Evangelical dominance of Victorian culture, and the challenges posed to it by the Tractarian and ‘ritualist’ clergy who wished a more ceremonious form of worship. By ‘lawlessness’ he meant that churches all over England were regularly breaking the regulations which their clergy had technically agreed to abide by at their ordination. By ‘vulgarity’ he comprehended both the low-church worship he regarded as Philistine and insensitive, and the touches adopted by high church clergy from Continental Catholic practice, which he found fussy and tasteless. The answer to all these problems, for Dearmer, lay in strict adherence to the rubrics of the Prayer Book, and a return to a dignified and ceremonious style of worship which set the calendar back to pre-Reformation England, discarding both the Evangelical reforms and the post-Tridentine Catholic developments in mainland Europe. The book explains how churches should be arranged and services carried out, but also argues for a particular vision of what the Church of England consists in, and what parts of his history are meaningful for the contemporary world.
This solution has been challenged by those who criticise the accuracy of Dearmer’s historical sources, and even the possibility of reconstructing what the services were like in the second year of Edward VI’s reign (his avowed intention.) As a set of historical statements, the work does not stand up to sustained investigation. Nonetheless, Dearmer’s Handbook is a fascinating document of late Victorian Anglicanism putting forward a powerful case for his vision of how the church’s communal rituals should be carried out in order to promote their meaning, beauty and holiness. The mention of ‘lawlessness’ might seem precious and pernickety to modern ears, but the legality of some services could be a serious matter in the Victorian church. Only ten years before Dearmer’s Handbook a handful of Anglo-Catholic clergyman had been imprisoned for deliberately breaking the Public Worship Act, a law intended to inhibit the use of ritual in high church services. His work promoted Anglo-Catholic practices as not only tolerable and spiritually worthy, but as part of the duty of loyal English churchmen.
This insistence on the authenticity of ritual practices in the history of the ‘English Use’ led Dearmer to emphases which can make for uncomfortable reading. One example combines them effectively:
The Roman fashion of tacking lace to one of these three cloths is against all English tradition, and very seldom looks well. Anything suggestive of effeminacy should be rigidly excluded, the more so as it always has a tendency to creep in through the efforts of well-meaning women.
His anxiety here to defend Anglo-Catholic practice as English, manly and authentic, leads him to define real Anglican worship in opposition to European Catholicism and to women. The attitudes which were decried in Essays Catholic and Critical during the 1980s, of an Anglo-Catholicism which was insular, sexist and complacent, show through Dearmer’s work in ways likely to make modern Anglo-Catholics squirm.
More inspiring, and more valuable for current Anglicans, are the other two major strains in Dearmer’s Handbook: his insistence that church services should be beautiful, and should be conducted in socially conscious and ethical ways. Beauty, for Dearmer, is not a pleasant add-on to a service when the important things have been got right. It is not even a way of attracting people to the truth which the service contains. It is part of that truth itself, as well as something produced by the service in turn. Beauty glorifies God in his vision, and presenting God with shoddy or ugly worship is as baffling to him as keeping money back from the collection plate:
In the case of music, which is in a more fortunate position than the other arts, it is recognised that those churches where the music is bad drive away people with sensitive ears. It is not recognised that people with sensitive eyes are driven away by the excruciating faults from which very few indeed of our churches are free.
As this passage continues, Dearmer connects the aesthetic with the social conscience which runs through his writings in a more or less obvious way:
And there is another class of persons concerned, the largest of all, the working class. For vulgarity in the long-run always means cheapness, and cheapness means the tyranny of the sweater. It has been pointed out that a modern preacher often stands in a sweated pulpit, wearing a sweated surplice over a suit of clothes that were not produced under fair conditions, and, holding a sweated book in one hand, with the other he points to the machine-made cross at the jerry-built altar, and appeals to the sacred principles of mutual sacrifice and love.
‘Sweated’ here means produced under exploitation: the term is the predecessor of the modern phrase ‘sweat-shop labour’. Dearmer’s vision of a church service made from exploitation looks forward to contemporary campaigns over Fair Trade goods, but it goes much further than most modern Christians in its condemnation of middle class churches’ hypocrisy and sanctimony. His taste for William Morris’ designs is more than a similarity of aesthetic preference, it is a statement about the fair relationship between labour, payment and the resulting arts and craftworks.
In addition to these impulses, Dearmer’s writing shows a lively sense of humour, such as his note on the position of the priest’s hands here:
There are no authoritative directions for the officiant to hold his hands in any particular manner; he should hold them naturally and not affect stained-glass attitudes
Or his waspish comment on the necessity of considering quality as well as price when choosing between builders’ quotations:
A good architect’s work is spoiled, if nothing is asked of the builder but a low tender and the only advantage of this cheap building is that it tumbles down after twenty or thirty years, and so the world is rid of it.
The Parson’s Handbook is an absorbing document of Victorian Christianity, showing the tensions, controversies and aspirations of that era, which still casts such a long shadow over contemporary churches. It is also a particular vision of what church services mean, and the hope they embody, which still has the power to inspire and to challenge modern Christians.