HISTORY OF A NEW PARISH, AND THE WAYS AND MEANS BY WHICH A CHURCH, AFTER TWENTY YEARS’ TALKING, WAS BUILT AT LAST.
A Land rich in hospitals shows there is charity somewhere, and a land rich in churches shows that there is piety somewhere; but it by no means follows, that every good institution was the immediate work of a good motive or a good man.
St. John’s Church, in the new district of Lachford, is quite a case in point. “Never,” said Mr. Burcham, “did I see so much of the corrupt motives of human nature as in getting up that church. Lachford was a close borough—some drunken freemen, and some sharp attorneys, who led them like brutes by the chain of their vices, could return two members to Parliament. Beer decided the freemen; the freemen decided the election.
Lachford was also close in another respect: old Dr. Vine had had it all to himself for many years—a very good man out of the pulpit, a very useless man in. He preached Tillotsonian sermons through an eyeglass, and through his nose: still there was no alternative; for, those who drank “Church and State” felt it more than their politics were worth to go anywhere else, however desirous they might be. Strange, horrible things were done in those days. “In turning out an old chest in the Town Hall,” said the clerk, “what do you think it was brimful of? Why, certificates of A B or C D having received the Sacrament so as to be eligible for office under the old Test Act!”—The Dean Rural visiting the same church was answered by the Rector himself, when complaining of the dust and cobwebs, “Why, the fact is, our sexton is such a drunken sot we can do no better I”
Then, Lachford Church was very heavy for the voice; and as the Doctor had little energy, and read in a most drowsy and monotonous manner, the service was as sleepy a performance as can well be imagined. One old woman, whom the Doctor was visiting in a kind and consoling way — for, with all the errors of my brethren, by the bedside even of the dying pauper I am proud to declare that even the worst of us is seen to some advantage—said, “Sir, I haven’t had half a night’s sleep this week, but please God I hear one of your sermons next Sunday, then I knows I shall have a good nap.” This story circulated widely in a sense less complimentary than the poor woman intended.
To all this stagnation, if we add the fact that there were some 5000 souls under this one pastor, and only the few who were literary ever heard him preach in their own tongue, we shall not be surprised to find that while the Church party in Lachford had gone on talking about building one new church, the Dissenters had actually built five new chapels.
I said there was piety “somewhere,” or we never
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should have had our new church after all. So, every year the piety of the Bishop dictated a hint at the spiritual destitution of Lachford. Then the piety of the Archdeacon suggested another hint. These dignitaries used to be received at the Rectory, as also was “the deputation” from the societies, all very hospitably; so, sometimes they, and sometimes any other clergyman, who had happened to put a note of admiration in his Clergy List opposite the name of the one Lachford and the one Church!—or, opposite the one Dr. Vine and 5000 souls! also inquired if no new church were in contemplation.
The piety of each of these parties, I say, came in aid. In course of time newspaper paragraphs more and more frequently announced church building in other places—ay, and in other parts of the same diocese: so, all conspired to say that things could not remain as they were—not for decency’s sake, not for proper public spirit. There were not a few good Christian people whose piety also helped the cause; but the greater help was when the public spirit came into play, with bustling self-importance and neck-and-neck rivalry—no weak powers in a country town.
It so happened, fortunately, that Mr. Burcham the schoolmaster, and his friend Mr. Challen, the timbermerchant, were churchwardens at the same time. Mr. Burcham was always praising Mr. Challen, and Mr. Challen as frequently lauded the public spirit of Mr. Burcham; and one day, over a friendly glass, some one said, “Now if this long-talked-of church doesn’t come to something in your year of office, gentlemen, it never will at all.” A short pithy sentence has something ominous and something stirring in it; so this mere quiz and banter acted on the ambition of this dealer in timber and this flogger of boys, like the witch’s salutation in Macbeth. “Then,” said Mr. Burcham, “I should like to be the man to lay the foundation-stone.” “And I,” said Mr. Challen, “would give 20/. to put the weathercock on the spire.”
From that hour Messrs. Burcham and Challen vowed they would immortalise themselves. “They didn’t mind if they did something the world called rash.” It was rash—very rash, indeed—and much moral courage was required at that time of day for such men to give anything above 51. for a church. If the recorded fact that “This was built when Caius and Manlius were consuls,” looked well in ancient times, what greater honour than a black board and gold letters bracketing the brotherly names of Burcham and of Challen? So they went about and talked for some few days about there being no public spirit in the town—meaning, of course, that they engrossed it all in their own persons; and eventually, after some conference with the Rector, Mr. Challen, being mayor, called a public meeting, with long notice, “to consider the propriety of having a new church to relieve the spiritual destitution of the poor of Lachford.”
Meanwhile, two or three more, to whom “time was no object,” seeing they rarely did anything with it, were added to their councils: and then Mr. Burcham gave a cabinet-dinner to Mr. Challen, and Mr. Challen had a yet larger party for Mr. Burcham. “Success to the new church,” was drunk: as also “Church and State,” which Mr. Burcham hoped never might dissolve partner
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ship: though, probably, whereabouts they were joined, and the precise cuts that would part them, and which had the best of the bargain, he had never inquired.
After these two dinners, the new church had come to be talked of so much, that our churchwardens seemed taken at their word, and pledged in honour, as publicspirited men, to carry it through. They began for the honour of the borough, and were obliged to go on for the honour of themselves. In politics they were Tories—not that either of them could very accurately rehearse the articles of his political belief—few Lachford people could; but they voted on the Tory side, and were shown up at every slip in The Whig, a Dissenters’ paper. So, soon there appeared an article, saying that “the Church party of Lachford having, like Rip Van Winkle, been sound asleep for the last twenty years, was likely to be thoroughly roused up by a Tory Mayor and a Tory Schoolmaster, the latter ambitious of laying the first stone; but the Mayor, with his every-day eye to the main chance, had bargained to put a bran new weathercock (typical of his own political career) on the top of the spire, as soon as ever—not before—the said spire was built.—Very generous of him, no doubt.”
Soon after, the Tory paper replied to their “foulmouthed contemporary” in a way that pledged the whole Tory party to back up the Mayor.
By this time there was a new motive power, a new stream running through the town of Lachford; or let us say, a new current and a valuable trade-wind had set in. So, the masons, the architects, the builders, and the owners of building-land, were not long in swelling this stream and in adding their puff to this trade-wind, on purpose that it might turn their little machinery, or swell their sails, and bring grist to their respective mills. But, of all eye teeth, those of the landowners were set the sharpest. Every damp pit for “rubbish to be shot” rose wonderfully in value; as also did quarry-stone; and owners grew churchmen and charitable all in a day.
One man, whose field seemed to be the identical place that Deucalion and Pyrrha strewed with stone, seemed wonderfully liberal in offering part as a present for the church, though Mr. Challen winked and said a church would give tenfold value to the remainder.
Another said he would subscribe 50/. if the church were built on his ground; at the same time asking a price to repay the 50/. and something more. And as to the stone that was offered, some of it was quite a geological curiosity, and a fine exemplification of what building-stone ought not to be.
Homer’s race of “inventive men” is not extinct. The inventive powers of half the town and trade of Lachford were tried to turn this move to their own private account, and with just as little regard for the church as the turnspit dog has for the cook. If it is a sign something is going to happen when men talk to each other at the corners of the street, all was going well no doubt: for, Lachford people talked of nothing else. Indeed, the new church was a positive gain in that dull town, if it were only to divert and ventilate the people’s mind; for “there never was such a place for talking about each other’s concerns as our town of Lachford.”
Lachford diversions were rarities. Lachford fair was
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a time to look forward to, certainly, as also was the fair ball, where the county quadrille kept as clear from the town quadrille as if there were a dread of some epidemic. This past, there was nothing to talk of, except “how dull everything was,” up to Christmas; and then, only the fat beasts and plums and raisins, all holly and red berries, till they came to ring out the old year—as if they had had enough of the old gentleman—and to ring in the new year—as if they had everything to hope from the young one.
What wonder, then, that the idea of a Church Meeting— ay, and the Bishop to preside, supported by one of the borough members at least, and ever so many county gentlemen—that this should excite pleasurable sensations in the minds of all parties?
The day for the great Church Meeting dawned at last. Every one in the town had offered a luncheon to some friends from the country. The three Misses E. wouldn’t rest till they had prevailed on their papa, a county magistrate, to come; though, he said, he knew it would end in their getting some money out of his pocket. Then Mrs. Vine was to fill the Rectory with Mr. and Mrs. Wentworth, who “had plenty of money if they would but part with it;” Mrs. Lyte, who subscribed to everything; and Mrs. Dyne, who, she was sure, ought to subscribe, for she was the widow of a canon genteelly provided for. This coterie was specially invited to lunch with the Bishop, the Archdeacon, and the first families of the county, who would thus see that our Rector’s wife could introduce great people as well as they could.
The Mayor had a splendid luncheon in the Hall, and the timber-yard coat was taken off and the mayor’s robes put on; and little Mr. Challen was for that day allowed to hand round the old corporation tankards to the first people in the land. Then the bells were set ringing, vehicles rattled in, all the town looked out, and the excitement was pretty general that day.
Mr. Challen was a practical man, of tangible results in pounds, shillings, and pence. Mr. Burcham was the same: he delighted in what he called business, and he would stick on “extras” cruelly; but for all that, when a father turned bankrupt I have known him give the boy the run of the school and the “run of his teeth” for nothing. So there might have been worse men than these to build a church.— Well, these two gentlemen had resolved on a surprise and an impression, no less than this: —
“The Churchwardens of Lachford: 251. Mr. Challen; 251. Mr. Burcham!”
All this they kept to themselves.
Just as the clock struck two, the Bishop of Z. was ushered by the Rector into the Mayor’s room, adjoining the Hall, and he at once smiled so courteously on Mr. Challen—whose face became as red as his robes — that the little man expected the pleasure of a long and flattering conversation. But no man ever went straighter to the point than the Bishop of Z., and no man could convey more without even speaking at all. So, Mr. Challen, all in a minute, found himself drawn into a quiet corner, and heard in a most confidential whisper, “Have you any paper for subscriptions, Mr. Mayor?”
“Yes, my lord, I have a”
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“Headed with anything, Mr. Mayor?”
“Certainly, my lord; done in a minute:—The Churchwardens of Lachford, 25/. each.”
“Allow me—The Churchwardens of Lachford, con” jointly, 50/.—thus—much better—you see. Have this paper ready till I ask for it”—still all in a whisper—and then in the same breath, aloud —” It is your time, I think, now Mr. Mayor. So, we will proceed to your Hall for this most important business.”
All this, with his lordship, was the work of half a minute. The Town Hall was crowded with persons who came, because others came, “to make a day of it,” or because the Bishop was expected, not one in twenty caring the least whether a church were built or not. The description of a public meeting in the Acts of the Apostles is true to life,—” Some cried one thing, some another; and the more part knew not wherefore they were come together.”
The Bishop took the chair, and, after all had joined in a Collect for Divine Aid, Mr. Challen was asked to tell the purport of the meeting, and then four or five others rose in turn, with the usual slips of paper twirling in their fingers, and enlarged on the spiritual destitution of the poor, and the efforts made for church extension in other places; and then the Bishop, with his usual tact, and a little touch of satire at the same time, spoke.
“It was, indeed, high time he was sent for. From Lachford lips he had now heard that one part of the town was as little Christian as Timbuctoo; that pews were squared and red-curtained; and the poor had been treated much like the red men of North America, giving place
before the white till they disappeared altogether. However, he must not now be severe, though Lachford had for years been the crying shame of the diocese, because the present meeting had virtually acknowledged the duty of providing for those they had so ruthlessly thrust out. And first and foremost (“Where’s that paper?” he said, aside), “here are your respected churchwardens setting a most excellent example, and one of these gentlemen also, your mayor—your mayor — yes — (as if a bright idea struck him) therefore the representative of Her Majesty; so nothing could be more in character with the present movement, for our friend Mr. Challen,” he said, slowly and gracefully, every eye in the room having time to centre its rays on the little man’s rubicund countenance, “combined Church and State in his own person. Delightful that the movement should have originated in the laity — (here was a hit at the Rector)—a fact that while it made us, in some respects, he feared, blush for the past, also gave bright hopes of the future. However, he would say no more. There had been words enough—: now, my good Christian friends, for deeds. Yes, action, action, action! and the first to ‘rush into the breach’ were (holding up the paper, and shaking and cracking it, while pulling out his eye-glass) — were —
“The Churchwardens of Lachford . . . £50.'” “Hurray!” cried Sam Richards, Mr. Challen’s foreman in the timber-yard, digging his neighbour in the ribs. “Hurray! hurray!” vociferated Mr. Burcham’s first class, who had been sucking lollipops all the time. Of course everybody then hurrayed—nothing is more catching. “Well done our side!” shouted, gruffly and half