Pluralism and clerical non-residence have been described as the 'most flagrant abuses of the age' in the Church of England.111 Indeed, it is not just subsequent generations who have levelled this accusation against the eighteenth century clergy. In 1754 43 of the principal inhabitants of Holsworthy petitioned Bishop Lavington against their incumbent Thomas Norton for a series of abuses. Among the accusations levelled against Norton was that he had frequently sent messages to the wife of Thomas Collins, vicar of Pancrasweek and Bradworthy, during the latter's terminal illness. The petitioners alleged that this had not been out of 'meer kindness & Civility' but was designed to obtain early notice of Collins' death so that Norton might obtain the sequestration of the vicarage.112 In 1746 seventeen parishioners from the small east Devon village of Combpyne presented their rector for being resident at Whitchurch, Dorset where he held two other livings, and complained that inadequate provision for divine worship was made in their parish.113 Whether or not the petitioners in these cases had genuine grounds for complaint, the fact that non-residence and pluralism were raised indicates that the issues had some currency in the local feuds and religious controversies of the period.
The visitation returns for Devon have been examined to demonstrate that around a third of the beneficed clergy were non-resident in 1744, with 218 residing on their living against 114 who did not. By 1764 there had been a slight increase in clerical non-residence, with 225 residents compared with 147 non-residents. A further small increase had occurred by 1779, with the figures reaching 231 and 159 respectively.114 Whilst these figures of non-residence may appear high, they compare favourably with other areas of the country. Just under half of the Derbyshire clergy for whom visitation returns survive for 1751 and 1772 were non-resident.115 Similar proportions of resident and non-resident clergy were serving Hampshire parishes in 1765 and 1788.116 In Wiltshire just 90 of the 232 parishes making returns in 1783 were served by a resident incumbent, and of the remainder just 39 were served by a resident curate.117 Non-residence was closely related to pluralism, and this in turn was frequently justified on the grounds of financial necessity.118 By the late eighteenth century only a handful of livings in the diocese of Exeter were worth less than the £50 minimum seen as necessary, while 43.6% were valued at over £101. Nonetheless, in order for some clergy to achieve a suitable living pluralism and the performance of other duties such as schoolmastering or medicine had to be accepted by the church.119
A careful analysis of the 159 cases of non-residence reported in 1779 counters suggestions that non-residence was necessarily indicative of clerical abuse in the eighteenth century. Under Canon law a Master of Arts was permitted to hold more than one benefice, provided they were not more than 30 miles apart.120 In 1779 34 of the non-resident pluralist clergy resided in an adjacent parish, with 33 serving both parishes at once.121 A further 63 held another parish in the diocese, but within the 30 mile limit. Among the remaining 62, 17 were non-resident because they had no house to live in, 24 resided on another living outside of the diocese, three were temporarily non-resident pending repair or building of a parsonage house, and 13 were absent as schoolmasters. The remaining five parishes were held in sequestration. With the exception of the five sequestered parishes, adequate pastoral care was provided in the remaining 154. In addition to the 33 parishes served by an incumbent resident in an adjoining parish, 56 were served by a resident curate, and 65 by a neighbouring incumbent acting as a curate. Thus clerical non-residence was neither necessarily regarded as an abuse, nor detrimental to the level of parochial pastoral care.
The explanations provided for non-residence confirm the view that the majority of clergy absented themselves from their benefice with good reason, and under conditions permitted by canon law. In 1744 James Sanxay served both the parish of Beaworthy, with 31 families, and Tetcott with 27. The value of the living of Beaworthy was insufficient to support a resident curate, so the parish was served by John Rouse, Rector of neighbouring Highampton. Sanxay resided at Tetcott, the parish church being six miles from that of Beaworthy. He performed divine service once or twice at Tetcott on a Sunday, and sometimes on Holy Days or weekdays at Beaworthy. At Belstone in 1744 the Rector Thomas Bate was non-resident on account of keeping the grammar school at Great Torrington. His curate, John Silke was a licensed schoolmaster at Okehampton, where he lived. However, the condition of the church in Belstone appears to have been healthy. Services were conducted twice on a Sunday with a sermon in the morning, the sacrament was administered five times a year to a respectable minimum of 30 communicants, and parents sent their children to be catechized on 12 Sundays during the year.
Non-residence on the grounds of ill-health was also accepted, provided pastoral provision was made in the form of a licensed resident curate.122 William Sanford was absent from Butterleigh in 1744, and lived instead at Topsham, 'for ye present for ye benefit of ye air and preservation of my Health'. No curate resided, but 'ye Cure is duly and regularly served without fail to ye detriment of ye Cure of Souls'. Whilst the coastal town of Seaton has become a popular holiday destination, in the eighteenth century it was viewed as a decidedly undesirable place to live. In 1779 John Corpe did not reside in the parsonage house in the parish of Seaton and Beer, having lived there for three years before 'Self Preservation drove Me and my Family from the lugentes Campi or inhospitable Vale of Seaton'. His predecessor William Keate had found the air equally unhealthy, and had been given dispensation to reside at Colyton, 'for the Benefit of good Air'. The vicarage house at Seaton, he complained, 'stands very near a large Marsh', as a consequence of which 'myself and Family were very-much afflected with Agues or intermitting Fevers'. Other reasons for non-residence were more idiosyncratic. James Bryett wrote in his returns for the parish of Nether Exe that,
I serve the Cure of Rewe, & attend about Noon Sir Thomas Acland's Chapple. Having my Lord - 7 Daughters & a teeming wife, I get what I can with Propriety.123