PARSON MIDGLEY & HIS SURPLICE
Strange it would be to imagine a time when no Nonconformist place of worship existed in Rochdale, and the only meeting-place for the worship of God was the Parish Church standing then, as it does now, upon the hill overlooking the valley of the Roach.
The Good Old Days
Such was the condition of affairs when, at the commencement of Elizabeth’s reign, the Church and population were afflicted by a Vicar, by name Hampson, who was a veritable Vicar of Bray, willing to turn his coat according to every ecclesiastical wind which blew Â— through at heart a determined Papist. Often “non-resident,” drawing the large revenues of one of the richest livings of Lancashire. Yet he would find “a sufficient preste to serve,” in one case paying one of his curates “three pounds each half-year”!
Under such conditions it is certain that the spiritual condition of Rochdalians was of no high order, and those in whose hearts
the grace of God found a place must have lamented their sad condition as they “gossiped the gospel” to one another along Packer Spout or on the Butts.
The Old Order Changeth
However, with the coming of Elizabeth to the throne the old order was to change for the better. On account of the representation made to Archbishop Parker, in whose gift was the living of Rochdale, Hampson was deprived of his position and Richard Midgley, born in Halifax about 1530, and a student of St. John’s College, Cambridge, was appointed in his place.
What controversial opinions must have been expressed in Rochdale upon these changes. If our predecessors were characterised by the same independence of thought and expression which has startled parsons and councillors again and again of recent years, we may presume that these events did not pass without forceful expression of opinion on either side. But, to quote Robert Halley (“Lancashire, its Puritanism and Nonconformity”) “Rochdale, under the teaching and guidance of its new vicar, soon became another place. The deserted church was crowded every Sunday by an attentive and devout congregation. (These were not the days of ten-minute sermonettes). The preaching of Midgley was plain, earnest, direct, colloquial, affectionate, and well adapted to the minds and hearts of the country people, who came from great distances to hear him. Throughout the week he was engaged in visiting his parishioners and promoting their present and future welfare. Nor did he neglect the education of the young. He induced the Archbishop to found a grammar school, giving the site from a small glebe and soliciting help from friends for its erection in order to use the Archbishop’s grant for a perpetual endowment.”
“Parson Midgley and his surplice” must have often been a topic of discussion in the town of Rochdale and the hamlets around, for Midgley was at heart a Nonconformist. It was rumoured that he had agreed to wear the “objectionable vestments,” but no sign of a surplice was seen in the Parish Church;
the black gown alone being in use. However, when, in 1573, he was charged with “officiating in church without a surplice,” he answered that there was no surplice in Rochdale for him to wear. Evidently, he considered the surplice to be “dear at any price.”
However, Midgley was not to be left in peace. After about twenty-five years’ faithful ministry he was silenced and deprived of his cure, and, very strangely, his son was given the living. He was to prove an even greater thorn to the Ritualists of the day. Richard Midgley, for fourteen years after giving up the living at Rochdale, became a licensed itinerant preacher, and we cannot estimate the remarkable result of his ministry in this capacity. Though in breeding and education so great a contrast to John Kershaw it can be safely asserted that it was the same glorious gospel of the sovereign grace of God which they carried over the
wild moors of East Lancashire and western Yorkshire as they journeyed to proclaim in the villages and hamlets of these valleys the precious name of Jesus the Lamb of God. Of either of these servants of God, with the exception of date and place of burial, it could have been written as Halley writes of Midgley. “His preaching of the doctrines of the Reformation was to the last earnest and powerful and produced important results. Although, in the evening of his life, his great satisfaction must have been in reviewing the marvellous reformation which his youthful preaching had produced in Rochdale under the blessing of God, he was often cheered by the assurance that his itinerating labours had proved no unworthy supplement of his pastoral ministrations. He died in 1609 and was buried amidst many of his loving converts in the churchyard of Rochdale.”
The Word Effectual
An account of Midgley’s usefulness to one who became “the Boanerges of Lancashire” is given in these words. “Samuel Roth-well, an ordained clergyman of hard living, hard hunting type, was playing at bowls near Rochdale, upon a Saturday afternoon. Mr. Midgley took him aside, fell into great commendation of him, and at length told him what a pity it was that such a man as he should keep company with such and upon a Saturday, when he should be preparing for the Sabbath! Midgley wisely tempered his rebuke with pleasant words; retired, and offered fervent prayer for his clerical acquaintance. Rothwell, probably soothed by the remembrance of the “pleasant words,” went the next morning to hear his reprover preach in Rochdale church. He seems to have been prepared by the reproof to listen with attention to the discourse which was delivered with an impassioned earnestness to which he had not been accustomed. Much affected, he waited upon the vicar, acknowledged the justice of his rebuke and sought further guidance and instruction. From that time he became a Puritan, and ever afterwards spoke with veneration of Mr. Midgley, whom he called his spiritual father.