Building a church in the Middle Ages wasn’t simply a pious act. The founder of a church, in addition to whatever spiritual benefits might accrue, had some more temporal benefits. The founder of a church was the “advowson,” and that carried certain rights. He actually “owned” the church. That gave him the right to “present” (i.e. nominate) a candidate to the bishop to be rector (we would say “pastor”) of the Church. The church was “in his gift.” The bishop could refuse the nomination but he needed good—very good—reason and it was rare so to do. If he refused the nomination, the bishop could not then name his own candidate, but had to wait for the patron to submit another nomination which would be even more difficult to refuse. The Advowson not only had the right of presenting, but he also had a share in the church’s income. I mentioned that the church, if it was a parish church, was also supported by the tithes of the parishioners. Normally one quarter of revenues went to the Advowson, one quarter to the support of the rector, and the remainder to the maintenance of the fabric and expenses of the divine service—vestments, vessels, candles, furnishings, organ, singers and minor clerics, etc. Thus building a church was a financial investment.
|Selby Abbey in England|
The Rector, for his part, was often a priest who held the title and received the income but who had other work. Perhaps he was a tutor to the children of the Advowson. Perhaps he was an important official of the bishop or even the King. Perhaps he was a scholar at the university. Being rector provided an income for him while he did other more important but unsalaried work. From his salary—sometimes quite handsome—he paid another priest—a “vicar” to do the actual work of pastoring the church and its flock.
The Advowson might give the church—and its rights and incomes—away. Perhaps it formed part of a dowry for one of his daughters at her marriage. Perhaps it was given to a monastery as part of the dowry for a son or daughter who was entering the religious life. Perhaps he gave it to the bishop—or another bishop—in payment for a debt. Perhaps he gave it to the cathedral to add to their endowment. When he gave it away the “advowson” transferred to a new owner.
A church might be in the diocese of Winchester, for example, but be given to the Bishop of London as a gift. Then the church became a “peculiar”—it belonged to the Bishop of London and was under his jurisdiction even though it was geographically in the diocese of Winchester. The bishop of Winchester had the right to confirm (or deny) the nomination of the new rector, but otherwise the church seemed to be in the diocese of London. Or perhaps a church in the diocese of Orleans was given to the Abbey of Cluny. The Abbot of Cluny still had to submit the nominee for the rectorship of the church to the Bishop of Orleans, but this would be just a formality and in effect the Abbot of Cluny was the Ordinary of the church and its congregation. Sometimes too the Abbot would go to Rome and have the jurisdiction transferred in its entirety to himself—and then the bishop had no rights whatsoever over the church. All this made church organization very confusing and complex. And the question of jurisdiction was mostly beside the point—what I wanted to point out was mostly that the Advowson had fiscal rights and benefits that made churches valuable property and sources of incomes to their owners. Next posting we will look at the problem of inheriting the rectorship of churches and how it influences the imposition of celibacy.