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|George Austen, the parson
Written by Caroline
(2/4/2003 9:42 a.m.)
George Austen was a clergyman of the Church of England. The Cof E is a church founded, not in religious fervour, but in political necessity. It has never been particularly revolutionary or zealous, never having had anything like the Spanish Inquisition, never had any particular desire to gospelize to the rest of the world, at least until after JA was born, and deliberately stayed out of political affairs. Church of England ministers were barred by their own hierarchy form being members of Parliament, and although some bishops had seats in the house of Lords, they were habitually regarded as seats of an advisory nature only. Theologically speaking, the CofE is Protestant - no timelag between death and either Heaven or Hell, therefore no purgatory, no expiations etc; it is also unabashedly English- the head of the Cof E is the English Monarch, the church is a supporter of English law, and is indeed, tied up closely with it.
Many biographers have described Parson Austen as a “Latitudinarian”. The latitudinarians came in for a lot of criticism from Victorian church reformers, and in older history books are given a bad name. The idea that the church was “asleep” and ignored the needs of its people really comes from the compulsion to justify later 19th century reforms, and before we judge George Austen, it might be worthwhile looking at just what the Latitudinarians believed, and how they carried out those beliefs. Generally speaking, the Latitudinarians were a “live and let live” attitude, generally tending away from the Calvinist idea of predestination, ( that people are born destined for Heaven or Hell, and there’s nothing that can be done about it), generally not concerning themselves with politics of churhc management, neutral on the issue of the importance of a clerical hierarchy , and putting more importance on the issue of morals and ethics than in the memorization of scripture in the governance of human behaviour. A very famous theological treatise, called the Newman lectures , describes Latitudinarian beliefs thus:
In other words, the Latitudinarians didn’t actually care what theological doctrine a person held, as long as they had one, and stuck to it. Belief, behaviour, tolerance of other ideas, and an acceptance of “differentness” all came from within the individual , who answered only to God for his actions. In this kind of atmosphere, the Clergyman was supposed to provide sermons illustrating how people should behave to each other, and teach their flocks the words of the prayer-book, the Old Testament, and some of the New Testament, the stories from Ancient Greek and Roman theologians, and the poems of religious thinkers like Milton, but not force any particular pattern of belief upon their congregation. Wishy-washy, were they? Perhaps. Detatched from the real needs of the people? I don’t see any sign that George Austen was.
George Austen was also an intellectual, who worked to expand the education of all his children. He fretted that Edward, adopted and brought up to be a gentlemen, would neglect his Latin. He advised his sailor sons, by letter, on the way to live a good and virtuous life. He was cultured, believing , like most 18th century Cof E divines, that the way to understand God was through looking at the way Nature worked, and he seems to have ensured that his daughters learned astronomy, botany, and other sciences along with their literature and their prayer-book..
He is often criticised, along with all other eighteenth century churchmen, for being a ‘pluralist’, that is having more than one living, or church income. He was one for the most usual and pragmatic of reasons. Irene Collins, in her book Jane Austen and the Clergy has this to say on the subject of pluralism.
George Austen’s two tiny parishes of Steventon and Deane probably contained less than seventy families between them , and brought him in an income of under £300 per annum. Luckily, he also had the use of Cheesedown Farm- lent to him by the same benefactor that gave him the Steventon living, and bought him the expectation of the Deane one. So, he became a farmer, dairyman, and sheep owner, and an ad-hoc business manager of the tiny 'homespun' wool cloth industry of Steventon . Who was it who said that the clergy had nothing to do? ;-)
He also found time for a little bit of political activity, being a supporter of Chute, the member for Basingstoke ,and for Heathcote, one for Hampshire County’s two MP’s. It’s hard to assign political intentions to such circumstances- both MP’s were Tory, and neither was particularly active , or remembered for anything very much in political history. It’s hard to see George Austen in any political light.
So, that’s the man, and the parson. How did all this affect Jane, do you think? How much of her father’s circumstances can we see in her work? How much of his personality, his tastes and his prefences?
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