The church and the parish were important in rural England in late Georgian times. Faith in God was a simple part of life for most ordinary people, if not for the idle rich. Besides, village life depended on farming, which revolved around the seasons, and the liturgical year and important feast that reflected the seasons. And Sunday services were still mandatory, (until the late 19th century) with non-attendance punishable by a fine.
So who presided over these services?
To someone raised in the last half of the 21st century, the concept of church livings—where a local landowner has the power to appoint the rector or vicar to his local Church of England parish—seems odd. Yet it made a lot of sense in the beginning, encouraging those with wealth to build churches.
Those with the power to appoint had what was called an advowson, which was a type of property that could be bought, sold and inherited.
Oxford and Cambridge colleges controlled nearly 5% of benefices, presenting them as gifts to fellows and masters who wished to marry and leave academic pursuits. Another 10% or so belonged to the Crown, to be presented to government supporters. Bishops and cathedral chapters possessed about 20%. The gentry and aristocracy held the largest share, on the order of 60%. Most great families had at least one or two livings at their disposal. [Maria Grace at English Historical Fiction Authors]
The advowson conferred the right to a living, also called or a benefice; a post that guarantees a fixed amount of property or income. This income came from tithes: great or small, depending on the parish. Parishes that paid a great tithe had a rector. A great tithe was 10% of all cereal crops grown in the parish and sometimes wool. Parishes that paid a small tithe had a vicar. A small tithe was 10% of remaining agricultural produce. By late Georgian times, tithes had commonly become a fixed cash payment, whose value had very likely dropped from the time it was first set.
The practice of sending younger sons into the Church meant that many parishes were served by clergy who were landed gentry first and foremost, and whose parishes rarely saw them.
Without patronage, being an ordained cleric was not a passport to a life of clover. Over a fifth of ordained clerics in late Georgian England never had a living, and a third took more than six years. A quarter died young, emigrated, or went into teaching.
If you weren’t one of the lucky 20 percent, with the well-connected friends or relatives who could see to your future by giving you a parish, or the 25 percent who died or left, you took a job as one of the working bees of the late Georgian church, as a curate.
Curates might work alongside their vicars, or they might act instead of them, while the lucky fellow was off socialising or hunting. The curate’s wages were paid from the vicar’s own pocket. Just to confuse things, if a curate was permanently appointed to a parish that had no or an absent rector or vicar, the curate would often be called ‘vicar’.
Whatever he was called, the resident pastor, at the very least, was responsible for church services: Sunday services, weddings, baptisms, and funerals, plus visiting the sick. And, of course, the very least was what some did.
But, according to at least some commentators, the bulk of them were decent men, doing their best. Maybe they were not exciting. Indeed, the exodus to more enthusiastic forms of Christianity offered by the Wesleyans and others grew in strength through the Georgian period. But:
The bulk of the English clergy then as ever were educated, refined, generous, God-fearing men, who lived lives of simple piety and plain duty, respected by their people for the friendly help and wise counsel and open purse which were ever at the disposal of the poor. [Henry Wakeman in An Introduction to the History of the Church of England]