Sense and Sensibility and the Church, Part 3: Livings for Sale

“. . . now that livings fetch such a price!” (John Dashwood, Sense and Sensibility, chapter 41)

In Sense and Sensibility, the hero Edward Ferrars, planning to be ordained as a Church of England clergyman, needs a “living,” a lifetime post as parson for a parish church. (See Part 1 and Part 2.) Surprisingly, Elinor’s friend Colonel Brandon, who doesn’t even know Edward, offers him one.

Saltram, site of Norland Park in the 1995 movie Sense and Sensibility. John Dashwood inherited Norland, displacing his stepmother and half-sisters.
Church Livings for Sale

In chapter 41, Elinor Dashwood’s selfish and worldly half-brother John is amazed that Brandon has given Edward a living. John exclaims, “Really!—Well, this is very astonishing!—no relationship!—no connection between them!—and now that livings fetch such a price!—what was the value of this?”

Elinor answers, “About two hundred a year.” This is the income Edward will receive from tithes of the people in the parish, and possibly from farmland included in the living. Two hundred pounds would provide a very minimal income for a gentleman, with enough to hire only one servant.

“Very well—and for the next presentation to a living of that value—supposing the late incumbent to have been old and sickly, and likely to vacate it soon—he might have got I dare say—fourteen hundred pounds. And how came he not to have settled that matter before this person’s death? Now indeed it would be too late to sell it, but a man of Colonel Brandon’s sense!—I wonder he should be so improvident in a point of such common, such natural, concern!”

Austen is bringing up a problem in the system of patronage. Livings (or “advowsons,” the power to appoint someone to a living) had become a commodity to be bought and sold, rather than a responsibility to be carefully fulfilled. The patron would advertise in the newspapers; for instance, offering a living of 200 pounds a year, whose current incumbent had a life expectancy of perhaps ten more years. Jane Austen’s father obtained one of his livings this way; his uncle purchased an option on two livings, agreeing to take whichever one came open first. Thus George Austen added the living at neighbouring Deane to his living at Steventon. In Mansfield Park, Sir Thomas Bertram sells the Mansfield living to Dr. Grant, in order to pay off his older son’s debts. Otherwise, he would have found someone to hold the living until his younger son was old enough to be ordained.

Saltram dining - 1
Dining Table at Saltram.  John Dashwood and his wife, after taking almost everything from his stepmother, still coveted her set of china!
Church Livings Borrowed

John Dashwood continues, “. . . the case may probably be this. Edward is only to hold the living till the person to whom the Colonel has really sold the presentation, is old enough to take it.”

He is mistaken, but the practice was common. Once a clergyman died, the living had to be assigned to someone else within six months, or the bishop would take it over. So, if the patron wanted to give it to a relative or friend who was not yet old enough (23 years old), he might give it to someone else who agreed to resign it at the appropriate time. In effect, this clergyman borrowed the living, until the person it was destined for could take it. Charles Hayter in Persuasion receives a living this way; he is delighted because the future clergyman is quite young so he will have it for many years!

In Part 4 we’ll see what Edward Ferrars’ life and duties were like as a clergyman.

Charles Simeon, a Church of England Evangelical clergyman at Cambridge, took advantage of this system. Advowsons could be sold permanently, giving the new owner and his heirs the right to appoint clergymen for the parish.  Simeon set up a trust which bought advowsons for various parishes.  The trust then made sure that godly clergymen, appropriate for the parish, were appointed to those positions.  The trust was initiated by John Thornton, who worked with Wilberforce against slavery; Thornton provided a living for John Newton, who wrote “Amazing Grace.”  Simeon’s Trustees still influence more than 160 parishes throughout England. So, while the system of buying and selling livings does not seem, at least to us today, to be an ideal system, believers during that time found ways to use the system for good. Are there modern systems that are less than ideal that can still be used for good?

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