Curious Announcements in the Church

by the Rev. R. Wilkins Rees

Years ago announcements in churches were of a distinctly curious character, and the parish clerk in making the intimation seems to have been left completely to his own indiscretion. In country districts, where proper advertising would be quite impossible, the practical advantages of some classes of announcements would be great, but none of them accord with our modern sense of the fitness of things, and many can only be accounted for on the ground of extraordinary familiarity between clergyman, clerk, and congregation. A brief consideration of the subject furnishes a few side-lights into the general condition of the church, as well as into the laxity of church discipline, about fifty years and more ago, especially away from large centres of population.

In certain parts, the custom of crying lost goods in church was undoubtedly prevalent, and did not then appear peculiar. The rector, who had lost his favourite dog and told the parish [p 217] clerk to do his best to ascertain its whereabouts, may have been astonished to hear him announce the loss in church, coupled with a statement that a reward of three pounds would be given to the person who should restore the animal to its owner. But such surprise was hardly natural when an announcement like the following was possible:—“Mislaid on Sunday last! The gold-rimmed vicar’s spectacles of best glass, taken from his eyes in going into the poor box, or put down somewhere when going into the font to fetch the water after the christening.” What a shock this rare jumble produced by a country clerk must have been to the precise and classical vicar can only be imagined. The thought, however, of a gold-rimmed vicar diminutive enough to enter font or poor box is somewhat staggering! Quite as muddled, but much more ingenious, was the clerk who announced, in recent years, an accomplished D.Sc. and LL.D. as a Doctor of Schools and a Lord Lieutenant of Divinity!

“Lost, stolen, or strayed,” shouted the clerk in church one Sunday, with the strident voice of a town crier, and the manner of one not unaccustomed to the task, “lost, stolen, or strayed. [p 218] Four fat sheep and one lean cow. Whoever will return the same to Mr. ——’s farm will be suitably rewarded.” It is well that the name of the parish in which it was given, is missing from another specimen of this sort of announcement, for it seems to indicate that honesty there could be but the outcome of an inducement afforded by the promise of substantial reward. “Lost,” said the clerk, “on Sunday last, when the wearer was walking home from this church, and before she reached the Town Hall, a lady’s gold brooch, set with pearls and other precious stones. The one who has found it will consider it worth while to restore it, for the reward of a guinea is offered.”

It is not a little surprising that the clergyman in charge did not supervise more carefully the various announcements, especially when so many a contretemps occurred. Once a parish clerk announced in his rector’s hearing:—“There’ll be no service next Sunday as the rector’s going out grouse shooting.” The rector had injudiciously acquainted his clerk with the reason of his approaching absence, and this was the result. It happened, of course, a half century since, but it illustrates an interesting state of things as [p 219] existing at that period. With it two similar incidents may well be mentioned, the first of which occurred in Scotland, the second in the Principality. “Next Sawbath,” said a worthy Scotch beadle, “we shall have no Sawbath, for the meenister’s house is having spring cleaning, and as the weather is very bad the meenister’s wife wants the kirk to dry the things in.” “Next Sunday,” declared the unconsciously amusing Welshman, “there’ll be no Sunday, as we’re going to whitewash the church with yellow-ochre.” Sometimes the omission of a stop caused sore trouble to the clerk, while it hugely delighted the congregation. “A man having gone to see his wife desires the prayers of this church,” was the startling announcement. But had not the clerk been near-sighted and mistaken sea for see, and had a comma been supplied after sea, the notice would have been all right, for it was simply the request of a sailor’s wife on behalf of her husband.

Once the clerk made the announcement that a parish meeting would be held on a given date. “No, no,” interrupted the vicar. “D’ye think I’d attend to business on the audit day!” The audit days were recognised as times of hearty [p 220] feasting and convivial mirth, in which the vicar played no unimportant part. This freedom of speech between clergyman and clerk was not seldom fruitful of ill-restrained amusement when the announcements were made. A vicar informed his congregation one Sunday morning that he would hold the customary service for baptisms in the afternoon, and requested the parents to bring their children punctually, so that there might be no delay in commencing. Immediately he had said this, the old clerk, sleepy and deaf, thinking the parson’s announcement had to do with a new hymn-book which at that time was being introduced, arose, and graciously informed the people that for those who were still without them he had a stock in the vestry from which they could be supplied at the low charge of eighteenpence each. This is slightly similar:—“I publish the banns of marriage between ... between ...” announced a clergyman from the pulpit. But here for a moment he stopped, as the book in which were the notices was not to be seen. The clerk, seeing his vicar’s predicament, and catching sight of the whereabouts of the missing book, ejaculated:—“Between the cushion and the desk, sir.” The unique character of another [p 221] notice will fully justify its inclusion. “I am unwell, my friends, very unwell,” announced a preacher one Sunday evening, “and therefore I shall dispense with my usual gesticulation.” This happened not very long ago.

So disregarded, indeed, were the proprieties of worship a generation since, that the clergyman would sometimes pause during the delivery of his sermon and make an announcement which, to say the least of it, had no connection with the theme he was pursuing. Thus the Rev. Samuel Sherwen, a well-known cleric in Cumberland, announced one morning that he had just caught sight, through a window near the pulpit, of some cows in a cornfield, and requested that some one would go and drive them out. At another time he said there were some pigs in the churchyard which were not his, and his servant Peter would do well to expel the intruders. Very probably such announcements, though made from a pulpit, would be excused because they resulted in a certain benefit. The same plea could undoubtedly be put forward for the following trio, each of which hails from beyond the Severn. “Take notice!” exclaimed the clerk. “A thief is going through the Vale of Glamorgan selling tin ware, [p 222] false gold, trinkets, and rings, and other domestic implements and instruments, and robbing houses of hens, chickens, eggs, butter, and other portable animals, making all sorts of pretences to get money!” Again, “Beware! beware! of a man with one eye, talking like a preacher, and a wooden leg, given to begging and stealing!” And once more, “Take notice! take notice! there’s a mad dog going the round of the parish with two crop ears and a very long tail!” Surely the intention of such announcements was good, even though the literary form was bad. The last, as might be inferred, was made at a time when rabies were prevalent.

The Rev. Samuel Sherwen, already alluded to, was surpassed in this direction by another Cumbrian clergyman, the Rev. William Sewell, of Troutbeck. One Sunday morning the latter entered the pulpit of the little church at Wythburn to preach. The pulpit sadly needed repair, and, in leaning out from the wall, left an undesirable opening behind it. Into this chink the parson’s sermon fell, and the pulpit was so ricketty in its broken-down condition that the preacher feared the consequences of turning in it. Moreover, the manuscript had fallen so far [p 223] that it could not be reached. Mr. Sewell, bereft of his sermon, announced to his congregation in broad dialect: “T’ sarmont’s slipt down i’ t’ neuk, and I can’t git it out; but I’ll tell ye what—I’se read ye a chapter i’ t’ Bible ’at’s worth three on’t.” A similar story is told in connection with the Rev. Mr. Alcock, who in the middle of the last century was rector of Burnsal, near Skipton, in Yorkshire. Of this clergyman another story is given which well illustrates the excessive familiarity indulged in by occupants of the pulpit in bygone days. One of his friends, at whose house he was wont to call previous to entering the church on Sundays, seized a chance to unfasten and then misplace the leaves of his sermon. In the service the parson had not read far before he discovered the trick. “Will,” cried he, “thou rascal! what’s thou been doing with my sermon?” Then turning to his people, he continued: “Brethren, Will Thornton’s been misplacing the leaves of my sermon; I have not time to put them right; I shall read on as I find it, and you must make the best of it that you can.” He accordingly read to the close of the confused mass to the utter astonishment of his congregation.

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Of such familiarity Scottish churches furnish well-nigh innumerable instances. One or two will, however, be sufficient for my purpose. The clergyman who was expected to conduct the morning service had not made his appearance at the appointed time. After a dreadful suspense of some fifteen minutes the beadle, that much-privileged individual, entered the church, marched slowly along the accustomed passage, and mounted the pulpit-stair. When half-way up he stopped, turned to the congregation, and thus addressed them: “There was one Alexander to hae preached here the day, but he’s neither come hissel; nor has he sent the scrape o’ a pen to say what’s come owre him. Ye’d better keep your seats for anither ten meenits to see whether the body turns up or no. If he disna come, there’s naething for ’t but for ye a’ to gang hame again an’ say naething mair aboot it. The like o’ this hasna happened here syne I hae been conneckit wi’ the place, an’ that’s mair than four-and-thirty year now.” As an announcement to the point, and for the purpose, that could not easily be beaten. A clergyman of Crossmichael, in Galloway, would even intersperse his lessons or sermon with any announcement that might [p 225] at the moment occur to him, or with allusions to the behaviour of his hearers. Once, because of this method, a verse from Exodus was hardly recognisable. The version given was as follows: “And the Lord said unto Moses—shut that door; I’m thinkin’ if ye had to sit beside that door yersel’, ye wadna be sae ready leavin’ it open; it was just beside that door that Yedam Tamson, the bellman, gat his death o’ cauld, an’ I’m sure, honest man, he didna lat it stey muckle open.—And the Lord said unto Moses—put oot that dog; wha is’t that brings dogs to the kirk, yaff-yaffin’? Lat me never see ye bring yer dogs here ony mair, for, if ye do, tak notice, I’ll put you an’ them baith oot.—And the Lord said unto Moses—I see a man aneeth that wast laft wi’ his hat on; I’m sure ye’re cleen oot o’ the souch o’ the door; keep aff yer bonnet, Tammas, an’ if yer bare pow be cauld, ye maun jist get a grey worset wig like mysel’; they’re no sae dear; plenty o’ them at Bob Gillespie’s for tenpence.” At last, however, the preacher informed his hearers what was said to Moses in a manner at once more accurate and becoming.

It was, indeed, a usual custom for the clergyman publicly to rebuke offenders, as when it [p 226] happened that a young man, sitting in a prominent position in the church, pulled out his handkerchief and brought with it a bundle of playing cards, which flew in every direction. He had, so it turned out, been up late the previous night, and had stuffed the cards with which he had been gambling into his pocket, where they had remained forgotten. The people were amazed and horrified, but the clergyman simply looked at the offender and remarked with quiet, yet most withering sarcasm, “Sir, that prayer book of yours has been badly bound!” But some times the rebuke was deftly thrust back upon the preacher. “You’re sleepy, John,” said the clergyman, pausing in the middle of a drowsy discourse, and looking hard at the man he thus addressed. “Take some snuff, John.” “Put the snuff in the sermon,” ejaculated John; and the faces of the audience showed that the retort was fully appreciated.

In fact, such was the freedom tolerated, that this incident in Eskdale might be taken as an example. Someone walked noisily up the aisle during divine service. “Whaa’s tat?” asked the clergyman in a tone quite loud enough to rebuke the offender. “It’s aad Sharp o’ Laa [p 227] Birker,” responded the clerk. “Afooat or o’ horseback?” was the significant query. “Nay,” was the answer, “nobbet afooat, wi’ cokert shun” (calkered shoes). Frequently the clerk would interrupt the clergyman, and the interruption would not enhance the devotional character of the service. In a rural parish church a new pitch-pipe was provided, but the clerk had not tested it before entering his desk on the Sunday, and when he should have given the key-note the instrument could not be adjusted. The clerk tugged at it, thrust it in, gave it several thumps, made sundry grimaces, but the pipe was obdurate. “My friends,” announced the impatient parson, “the pitch-pipe will not work, so let us pray.” “Pray!” snorted the aggrieved official, “pray! no, no, we’ll pray none till I put this thing aright.” And members of the congregation would even stand up in their pews to contradict the parson or clerk when making the announcement. “There will be a service here as usual on Thursday evening next,” announced the clerk one Sunday morning. “No, there won’t,” declared the churchwarden as he rose from his seat. “We be going to carry hay all day Thursday.” “But the service will be held [p 228] as usual,” asserted the clerk. But the churchwarden was not to be thwarted. “Then there’ll be nobody here,” said he. “D’ye think we’re coming to church and leave the hay in the fields? No, no, p’r’aps it’ll rain Friday.”

But of all amusing instances of curious announcements in church those given by the Rev. Cuthbert Bede in All the Year Round, November 1880, may take the palm and fittingly conclude this chapter. “An old rector of a small country parish,” so runs the story, “had sent his set of false teeth to be repaired, on the understanding that they should be returned “by Saturday” as there was no Sunday post, and the village was nine miles from the post town. The old rector tried to brave out the difficulty, but after he had incoherently mumbled through the prayers, he decided not to address his congregation on that day. While the hymn was being sung, he summoned the clerk to the vestry, and then said to him: “It is quite useless for me to attempt to go on. The fact is, that my dentist has not sent me back my artificial teeth, and it is impossible for me to make myself understood. You must tell the congregation that the service is ended for this morning, [p 229] and that there will be no service this afternoon.” The old clerk went back to his desk; the singing of the hymn was brought to an end; and the rector, from the vestry, heard the clerk address the congregation thus: “This is to give notice! as there won’t be no sarmon nor no more sarvice this mornin’, so you’ better all go whum (home); and there won’t be no sarvice this aternoon, as the rector ain’t got his artful teeth back from the dentist!”