Monday, 18 August 2008

Religion: Introduction

‘The Church of England system is ripe for dissolution.  The service provided by it is of a bad sort: inefficient with respect to the ends or objects professed to be aimed at by it:  efficient with respect to the divers effects which, being pernicious, are too flagrantly so to be professed to be aimed at.’[1] So, in the nineteenth century religion was itself a major source of conflict in west-European societies; it also reflected the other fundamental lines of division. The battles between the official churches and their opponents initially brought together coalitions of those from different social classes.’[2]

In  the  first  half of the nineteenth  century  British  society became increasingly  polarised  and religious adherence played  an important  part in that process. British  society  was undoubtedly religious in  1830  and, despite the  somewhat pessimistic  conclusions contemporaries read into  the  Religious Census of 1851,  it remained so. This did not mean that religion found itself unpressurised. The two state religions, Presbyterianism in Scotland and Anglicanism in England, Wales and Ireland, were under pressure from within and from without and sought to broaden their popular appeal and strengthen their defences against hostile forces. The eighteenth century had seen the beginnings of a popular Protestantism grounded in evangelicalism.  This revitalised both Anglicanism and the existing Dissenting sects and, after 1800, led to the emergence of Nonconformity.  The third type of religion was grounded in Catholicism. All these types of religion made absolute claims for themselves  and  attempted  to  mark  out sharp  and  clear boundaries  between their  own communities and the  world  beyond. This was, as Hugh McLeod has rightly said, ‘the age of self-built ideological  ghettos’  that were able to maintain over several generations a network of institutions, a body of collective memories,  particular rites, hymns and legendary heroes. As the authority of the state churches was challenged, these groups sought to impose the same degree of control within their own sphere of influence that the state churches had once exercised. This section is concerned with the pressures that each kind of religion faced, how they responded to these pressures and what effects this had.[3]

 

The Church of England 1800-1851

The Church of England found itself in an uncomfortable position at the turn of the nineteenth century.[4] It had been fully integrated into the social environment of the eighteenth century with village and parish normally being coterminous.  Its great strength lay in southern England as it was there the bulk of the population and wealth was located.   Every settlement had its own church and so the population of each parish was of a manageable size.   The situation in northern England was less favourable.   Parishes were large and they were badly endowed and consequently attracted few clergy and many livings were held in plurality or by non-resident incumbents. For example, in 1831 Leeds, with a population of over 70,000 people, had only three places of Anglican worship. The Anglican Church  was  slow  to  recognise  the   full significance  of the  changes  taking place  in the  population structure  of  the country.   The elaborate legal procedure for creating new parishes further hindered its ability to cope with the changing situation.   The diocesan system of the north was equally inflexible and unable to meet the new situation.  Until 1836 the  whole  of Lancashire,  large parts of  Cumberland  and Westmoreland,  and the  north-west  part of  Yorkshire  were  all included in the unwieldy Diocese of Chester. There was no bishop based in Lancashire and the West Riding until the Dioceses of Ripon and Manchester were established in 1836 and 1847.

It was not just in the large towns that the Anglican Church’s position was serious.   Excessive emphasis has been placed on the alienation of urban society and this has tended to deflect attention away from the situation in the countryside. W.R. Ward argues that the real tragedy for the Church was not the failure to meet the needs of people in the growing cities but rather the failure in the countryside where all her resources were concentrated. Absenteeism and pluralism were rife and many church buildings were in disrepair. Where Dissent could establish a foothold in a village, the competition from the Church was often minimal.   Enclosure had the effect of reducing the popularity of the Church. Improvements in farming led to the commutation of tithes for land and many contemporaries believed that the increase in the clergy’s land was at the expense of the small tenant farmer. An even worse reaction against the Church of England resulted from the collection of the tithe in kind.[5] It was generally regarded as the ideal way of alienating the parson from his flock.

An   unresponsive   and  inefficient  pastoral  system   was exacerbated  by  a widespread belief that  the Church  must  be defended  at  all costs.   Like the unreformed Parliament, the unreformed Church had its own elaborate defence of the status quo. The French Revolution had deeply frightened the propertied classes and strengthened their belief that the society under their control must be defended as a divinely ordained hierarchy. In  this situation suggested reforms,  including those of  modest dimensions,  could easily  be  identified  with  revolution  and revolution with the destruction of Christianity. Even those who avoided the extremes of reaction felt it was their religious duty to preserve the constitution, the social order and the morality now under threat.   In 1834 a fifth of the magistrates in England were Anglican clergymen, embodying an enormous investment in social stability.

To critics like the journalist John Wade, whose polemic the Black Book appeared in 1820 and in a revised form as The Extraordinary Black Book in 1831, the abuses of the Church, its ineffective organisation and its conservative views were in need of reform.   This was not the view of the Church: its property rights had to be defended; it was not accountable to the public; it had, as an established institution, a prescriptive right to authority.   By a series of instinctive, but ill-judged actions, the Church identified itself with extreme Toryism and alienated opinion further in the 1820s and early 1830s. Abused by the radicals from outside Parliament, the events of 1828-1829 showed how little the Church could expect from its political friends. The repeal of the Test and Corporation Acts and Catholic Emancipation ended the special relationship between the Church and Parliament. Dissenters and Catholics would now participate in legislation affecting the Church.   The attitude of the bishops during the reform agitation of 1830-32 further tarnished the reputation of the Church and completed its identification in the eyes of the public with reaction.


[1] Jeremy Bentham Church of Englandism and the Catechism Examined, 1818, pp.198-199, quoted in D.L. Edwards Christian England, volume 3, Collins, 1984, page 102.

[2] H. McLeod Religion and the People of Western Europe 1789-1970, OUP, 1981, page 22.

[3] J.D. Gay The Geography of Religion in England, Duckworth, 1971, valuable especially for its maps,  A.D. Gilbert Religion  and Society in Industrial England  1740-1914,  Longman, 1976 and W.R. Ward Religion and Society 1790-1850, Batsford, 1972. R.R. Currie, A.D. Gilbert and L.S. Horsley Churches and Churchgoers: Patterns of Church Growth in the British Isles since 1700, OUP, 1977 provides a statistical treatment of national religious trends but does little on trends for regions and localities. The four volumes of Religion in Victorian Britain, Manchester University Press, 1988: volume 1 Traditions, volume 2 Controversies and volume 4 Interpretations all edited by Gerald Parsons and volume 3 Sources edited by J.R. Moore is of immense value for detailed analysis. Nigel Yates Eighteenth Century Britain: Religion and Politics 1714-1815, Longman, 2007 and Stewart Brown Providence and Empire 1815-1914, Longman 2008 provide a recent summary of developments. Stewart Brown and Timothy Tackett (eds.) Cambridge History of Christianity: Volume 7, Enlightenment, Reawakening and Revolution 1660-1815, Cambridge University Press, 2006 and Sheridan Gilley and Brian Stanley (eds.) Cambridge History of Christianity: Volume 8, World Christianities c.1815-c.1914, Cambridge University Press, 2005 give a global perspective.

[4] On the Church of England see A. Smith The Established Church and Popular Religion 1750-1850, Longman, 1971 and E.R. Norman Church and Society in England 1770-1970, OUP, 1976. On social attitudes, see R.A. Soloway Prelates and People:  Ecclesiastical Social Thought in England 1783-1852, Routledge, 1969 and G. Kitson Clark Churchmen and the Condition of England, London, 1973.

[5] On this issue see E.J. Evans The Contentious Tithe: The Tithe Problem and English Agriculture 1750-1830, Routledge, 1976, especially pp. 16-41 and 94-114.

No comments: