Tuesday, 10 May 2011

The theology of Lark Rise

I recently read Flora Thompson's Lark Rise, a chronicle of village life in Victorian Britain (that was recently turned into a BBC drama). It's based on her childhood growing up in a village very much like the one she describes, and was beautifully written, fascinating to read, and an interesting contrast to most of the other literature I've read from that period which is either about rich people or the urban poor, and Thompson takes an interesting position on the politics of it all, talking about how hard it is just to feed a family on a farm labourer's wages, but also saying a lot of things like "People were poorer and had not the comforts, amusements, or knowledge we have to-day; but they were happier." She says this about the sermons they listened to in church:

Another favourite subject was the supreme rightness of the social order as it then existed. God, in His infinite wisdom, had appointed a place for every man, woman, and child on this earth and it was their bounden duty to remain contentedly in their niches. A gentleman might seem to some of his listeners to have a pleasant, easy life, compared to theirs at field labour; but he had his duties and responsibilities, which would be far beyond their capabilities. He had to pay taxes, sit on the Bench of Magistrates, oversee his estate, and keep up his position by entertaining. Could they do these things? No. Of course they could not; and he did not suppose that a gentleman could cut as straight a furrow or mow or thatch a rick as expertly as they could. So let them be thankful and rejoice in their physical strength and the bounty of the farmer, who found them work on his land and paid them wages with his money.

Less frequently, he would preach eternal punishment for sin, and touch, more lightly, upon the bliss reserved for those who worked hard, were contented with their lot and showed proper respect to their superiors. The Holy Name was seldom mentioned, nor were human griefs or joys, or the kindly human feelings which bind man to man. It was not religion he preached, but a narrow code of ethics, imposed from above upon the lower orders, which, even in those days, was out of date.
So, you know, maybe some things about the Church have got better. Have they?

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