WHEN WILL THE PARSON'S WIFE aE THE EQUAL OF THE PARSON?
The History of the Parson's Wife. By Margaret H. Watt. (Faber and Faber. 8s. 6d.) Reviewed by PETER F. ANSON
EARLY in the present century
the late Bishop Weldon wrote an article in which he reckoned up the number of distinguished men and women ,born in clerical house
holds since the Reformation. " The State," he wrote, "cannot afford to lose the virile and noble strength of its clerical homes. Nowhere, it may be confidently asserted, does Christianity assume a more winning form than in those gentle clerical houseluilds which study our land." Nevertheless, recognition came slowly to parsons' wives in England. It took time before people forgot St. Themes More's opinion that marriage defiled the priest " snore than double or treble whoredom," or the even more crudelyworded remark of Erasmus that AntiChrist could be the only result of a union between a monk and a though—as Miss Watt reminds us" nobody thought any the worse of the great Cardinal Wolsey for having at least two illegitimate children, and using his influence to place them out to advantage in the Church."
Mrs. Creamer's position appears to have been most uncomfortable and she spent rnueb of her life in "shamefaced retirement." When she travelled she was kept in a closed box with ventilation holes pierced in the lid. Poor Mrs. Parker—the wife of Elizabeth's first Archbishop of Canterbury—had a separate establishment when her husband was in residence at Lambeth Palace. She was even buried in a separate tomb, though the Archbishop " left directions that his entrails enclosed in an urn, should be set in the coffin of his wife," thus striving to maintain the twofold character of cleric and husband. This cultured lady, who was "capable of conversing in Latin and Greek upon Godly matters," was brutally insulted by Elizabeth on one occasion. "Madam I may not call you," the Queen remarked, "Mistress 1 will not call you I"
History/ has not recorded what was Mrs. Parker's' reply—if any !
MISS Watt gives us a vivid impresv.g sion of the gradual evolution of the social status of the Anglican parson's wife during four centuries, and she devotes two chapters to the wives of Presbyterian ministers, whose position in the ecclesiastical world has always been less equivocal than that of clergymen's wives in England. She deals not only with famous historical characters, but also with parsons' wives in fiction. especially with those immortalised by Jane Autten, Anthony Trollope and Hugh Walpole. I was delighted to discover the references to one of my grandmothers, who "at the age of eighteen exchanged a sort of Renaissance atmosphere in Rome for an English country parish and twenty years of child bearing."
Miss Watt reminds us that "a little cloud of prejudice has always been liable to dim the reputation of the Parson's Wife—the child of the Reformation—from her first appearance in receccts and annals as the ' priestes woman,' down to our own enlightened age when she still shares the rather faded honours of the comic stage with the maiden aunt, the Anglo-Indian colonel, the schoolmaster. and, of course. the Aberdonian and the motherin-law."
Will she ever obtain an equal status with her husband, one wonders? Still, if Maud Royden and Percy Dearmer could conduct taint services in the Guildhouse, can there '.be any canonical or liturgical objections to my first cousin .` Frances Centaur " singing Pontifical Evensong in Canterbury Cathedral? I always thought it ,rather unfair that my one-time Deaconess sister could not don a dalmatic and chant the Gospel at a Choral Eucharist, for in almost every other respect she was a female curate.
We are really more logical, for not only do certain Abbesses-carry croziers, but Carthusian nuns are vested with a stole and maniple at their " Consecration," and what is more, at the •daily conventual Mass one of them chants the Epistle, though not wearing the maniple. Should no priest be present at Matins, a nun chants the Gospel, wearing -her. stole.