“A Country Parish” from "Reminiscences of an Octogenarian, 1847 to 1934" by Edmund Knox researched by Dr Kevin Feltham (2000)
Edmund Arbuthnott Knox was born in 1847 and became a Sub-Warden of Merton College in Oxford before being offered the parish of Kibworth in 1885. He moved on, in 1891, to become Rector of Aston in Birmingham and eventually was appointed Bishop of Manchester. In later life he published “Reminiscences of an Octogenarian, 1847 to 1934” and this includes a chapter on his time in the Kibworths. This is a fascinating insight into the parish more than a century ago. See how little has changed!!
This is part 2 - for some other reminiscences see part 1
Merton College Chapel and St. John the Baptist’s Church had accustomed me to surpliced choirs and to preaching in the surplice. The surplice in the pulpit was no matter of conscience to me. There were no illegal ornaments on the Holy Table, and I saw no harm in continuing the established custom of changing frontals according to the seasons. Wafers were not used, nor was the mixed chalice. Early Communions were preferred by some of the communicants, but I came across none who looked upon midday Communions as almost sinful. The Sunday-school teachers whom I found in office continued at their posts, and attended such instruction as I offered them. The district visitors also remained at their posts.
Finding that no one attended the daily morning service but myself, I dropped it. I doubt whether I should do so now. But the significant fact was that I could accept my predecessor’s arrangements without any noticeable change, and found that the parishes of my neighbours observed much the same order as that which was used in Kibworth. There was, in fact, at that time, a practical uniformity, to which an Evangelical could conform quite conscientiously, though he might have preferred the gown in the pulpit and a choir placed where they could support congregational singing. The choir in the chancel was really one of the blunders of the “Puseyites,” as they were called. Readers of George Eliot’s novels, so true to Midland rural life, will remember how genuinely she regretted the disappearance of the old village choir at the west end of the church. It had its grave faults, but it had its merits also, and one of these was its support of congregational singing.
The congregation to which I was called to minister consisted of many social elements. There were retired officers attracted to the neighbourhood by its hunting celebrity—the spacious well-fenced grazing fields and covers were all that a sportsman’s heart could desire. Foxes abounded: before I had been Rector more than a fortnight I was aware of one staring at me in my garden. He really seemed anxious to have a good look at the new Rector or to pay his respects to him.
Next in order came two doctors, a few professional men, a solicitor or two, business men from Leicester, some retired and some going daily still to their affairs. Vaughan of Leicester - a great name in Tractarian days - was their type of a true church parson, and ibis influence on their devotional life was still to be traced long after he was gone.
Then came the graziers, often men of considerable capital and great shrewdness. Some of them were the very backbone of the congregation and of parochial organisation, of whom I cannot but name my dear friend, Harry T. Grant, still living and still one of the churchwardens. Woe be to the man who crossed swords with these graziers imagining them to be thick-headed Bæotians. So Bishop Magee found, when he tried to bully two of them - wardens of a neighbouring parish - to farm a glebe during the voidance of the benefice. They refused to do it because the glebe could only be farmed at a loss. Patiently, maybe his Lordship thought even stupidly, they listened to his impressive laying down of the law on the duties of churchwardens.
When the Bishop had finished, and, as he supposed, had laid them flat, one of them meekly produced a bit of blue paper and asked: “Would this, my Lord; have anything to do with what you have been saying?” “This” was a-notification from the Archdeacon that they could not perform any of the functions of churchwardens since they had not paid their fees, nor taken their oaths. It was the Bishop’s turn to be laid flat and to beg them meekly to help him out of the difficulty.
After the graziers came smaller farmers, tradesmen, and then stockeners, artisans and agricultural labourers. I had a congregation in which all ranks, from the Duchess of Hamilton to labourers, were represented. Indeed, the morning congregation was usually a mixed congregation from the social point of view - and the evening congregation more uniform.
The period of my Kibworth ministry included the appearance of Lux Mundi. [Ed. a collection of 12 essays by liberal Anglo-Catholic theologians published in 1889. It was edited by Charles Gore, then the principal of Pusey House, Oxford and a future Bishop of Oxford.]
Epoch-making as this work was in the history of our Church, from the point of view of my memoir it was hardly important at all. Incidentally it was an admission that the leaders of what now called itself Catholic thought did not any longer make Scripture the seat of authority for their faith. It was a departure from Tractarian traditions so complete that it is said to have broken Liddon’s heart. To Evangelicals it seemed no new thing. that opponents of the Reformation should seek to undermine the authority of Scripture. That feature of the Lux Mundi essays was to us more salient than their attempt to find a basis of faith which could make room for acceptance of scientific discovery without surrendering the great doctrines of the Catholic Faith.
Many of us took the book less seriously than we ought to have taken it. Others deplored its repudiation of the inerrancy of the Bible. This is not the place to discuss the Anglo-Catholic theology and its consequences as they revealed themselves in after years. At the moment, that is, at the end of the ‘80’s, the significance of Lux Mundi lay in its being symptomatic of a change which affected a far larger circle than the Anglo-Catholics. That change was the surrender of the absolute necessity of accepting Scripture as a final authority in matters of science and history. Very slowly, but in ever-widening circles, that necessity was beginning to be surrendered.
No account of Kibworth would be complete without mention of my home. Kibworth Rectory lies, perhaps a little too much, under the shelter of Kibworth churchyard, and I never felt quite sure that the well, on which we depended, was as immune from the drainage of this near neighbour as it was confidently affirmed to be. However, we suffered no ill effects, and it was manifestly convenient to be so near the Church.
The house was a large, soundly-built brick house standing on ample cellars. It was built at the end of the eighteenth century by a Rector, Norman, who was said never to have come near it except to collect his tithes. Certainly there was no trace of his name in the Parish Register. It was exactly the house that Jane Austen’s Mrs. Elton would have approved, with its lofty hall and reception-rooms - its bay windows looking out on the rectory garden and fields, its shrubbery with a marvellous wealth of aconites, primroses of all shades of colour, and wild violets - its spacious walled kitchen garden, its sunny flower garden sheltered from north and east winds.
Nowhere have I seen finer strawberries, raspberries, and Victoria plums than those we grew in the rectory garden. We had a well-built stable between us and the churchyard, a snug rookery, and rook-pies in their season - we had our cowshed, and fields, and like Herrick, our cows and a few sheep disporting themselves in our own fields. What more could we wish?
Well - it was our bad taste, no doubt, but with all its undoubted amenities, we (that is my dear wife and I) found Leicestershire singularly unpicturesque, and were not quite as enthusiastic about its beauties as our callers expected us to be. Driven by one of these enthusiasts into a corner in his zeal to maintain the superior beauty of Leicestershire, I tried to escape by saying that, coming from Oxford, we rather missed the river.
“The river!” he cried, “have you not yet seen Saddington reservoir?” I had not, and was promised a free ticket to inspect its wondrous beauty. We did miss, and did not cease to miss, both the natural beauties and the architecture of Oxford.
Kibworth Church, a thirteenth-century Church of the good standard prevailing through Leicestershire, was justly admired by the villagers, and we had to forget how f
ar it fell short of the glories of Merton Chapel. Leicestershire Church builders erected Churches beautiful in the perpendicular style, and well suited, as a rule, to the size of the parishes that they served. They made no attempt to emulate the splendour of the Lincoln-shire church builders.
Kibworth, indeed, had lost a very beautiful spire through the incompetence of the builder who was at work on some repairs and ignorantly removed the keystone of the arch. “It came down,” said a neighbour who watched it fall at some miles’ distance, “with the most perfect curtsey of a most polished lady.” The vestry, which had to restore it by a Church rate, built a tower, but no spire.
To this Kibworth home I brought my dear wife, Ellen Penelope, and four children. Two were added during our residence there. My dear wife, as I have already said, was the eldest daughter of Thomas Valpy French, Bishop of Lahore, and Mary Anne Janson of Walthamstow. In her were united strains of most finished scholarship and of artistic culture, inherited from the Jansons, who were of Dutch extraction. Her home as a child, owing to her father’s missionary wanderings, had been for many years with her grandparents at Walthamstow, in those days a picturesque village.
She was educated at Mrs. Umphleby’s school in Suffolk, and had exercised in that home-like school an extraordinary influence for good; she was a favourite scholar, proficient in the very sound literary education for which the school was noted, and was in musical and artistic culture proficient far above the average. These tastes and gifts sank almost into insignificance beside her natural beauty, her extraordinary charm of manner, her sweetness of disposition, unselfishness, and lovableness. Wherever she went she won all hearts, and especially laid her spell on young girls taught in her classes.
She is remembered still in Kibworth and at Aston. Whether Kibworth was really the home to combat the weakness which had led to our leaving Oxford I have since doubted. The Leicestershire clay was probably not so good for her as the Embleton sea air would have been. But all went well until the influenza scourge of 1889, more fatal often in its strange sequelae than in its immediate onset. She seemed to recover and went with me to Aston at the end of 1891, where her last long illness began soon after Christmas Day of that year.
She did not live to see the scholastic distinctions won by her children. All her boys won entrance Scholarships, two at Rugby and two at Eton, three of the four being first in their elections. Her eldest and favourite son is known to a wide public as the Editor of Punch. The literary productions of her four sons and one of her daughters fill several pages of the Catalogue in the British Museum.
Devoting herself wholeheartedly to the primary education of her children, my wife began to desire, as I did, that we might have a home where they could unite the benefits of home influence with first-class education. Our thoughts turned to work in some large town.
During these years I was in some demand for deputation work and for addressing clerical meetings. Twice I went to Manchester on the latter errand, and had’ a curious experience in connection therewith. I went to Manchester against doctor’s advice, signs of erysipelas having shown themselves on my head after a fall from my horse. As I persisted in going, the doctor begged me to keep on applying hot fomentations, as hot as I could bear them. I obeyed his orders vigorously, “boiled” my head all the evening, and when I presented myself to my host in the morning alarmed him by the redness on my skull. He insisted on my seeing his doctor, who was urgent that I should desist from speaking, till he asked what treatment I had been using. When he heard that, he said “Well, I should have used ice. I think you may preach, as you are so anxious about it.”
My dear wife was so anxious at that time to return to town life and work that she did not question my decision to move to Aston. Kibworth was not without its difficulties, and an undue share of these fell to the lot of the Rector’s wife.
Among the many valuable lessons which my time in a country parish had taught me, perhaps the most important was the limitation which the conditions of country residence impose on spiritual enterprise. I am very far from imagining that my own ministry had not grave defects arising out of my character, out of lack of faith in the power of God, and out of self-centredness. As I look back I am deeply humbled by the grave imperfections of my pastoral experience.
Especially was this the case before bicycles, to say nothing of motor cars and charabancs, brought the village into the world and the world into the village. Unfortunately the very fences of Eden concentrate attention on the one serpent, on the one forbidden tree, and little wrongs, little quarrels, little suspicions assume gigantic proportions. An illustration occurs to me. I asked a dying man whether he was in perfect charity with all his neighbours. He confessed that he was not, and had to be reconciled, without loss of time, to his next-door neighbour, to whom he had hardly spoken for twenty years. The trouble was all over a strip of pathway about half a yard broad dividing their two gardens.
All too short also was the friendship which we enjoyed with brother clergy and neighbours. Neighbourhoods were narrow when the one-horse carriage determined their limits. Yet we met very pleasantly for monthly clerical gatherings – a Scripture study, lunch or a stroll round the garden. Harvest thanksgivings brought us together. It was at one of these that a left-handed compliment was paid me as I excused myself from tea, having to preach at home and needing preparation. “I am sure; Mr. Knox,” said a lady, meaning to flatter me, “your sermons do not need much preparation.”