Monday, 17 November 2008

Peel and Church reform

Peel looked to the Established Church[1] to fulfil its national mission by developing Christian values among the urban masses. In that sense, he looked beyond simply economic solutions to the ‘condition of England’ question. There was growing concern for the spiritual life of the urban population during the 1830s and 1840s and there was clearly an urgent need for the church to extend its physical presence in towns and cities. Progress in this field was hampered by the growing power and assertiveness of the different Nonconformist churches who had adapted to the geographical shift of population away from rural areas with greater speed than the Established Church. In addition, Nonconformity remained concerned about the privileged position of the Church of England and this limited the room for manoeuvre by politicians. Some Conservative MPs were still demanding that public funds should be used for building new churches. Grants for this purpose had been given in 1818 and 1824 but Peel recognised this was no longer a viable political option as it would generate further damaging sectarian conflict. This was evident in Nonconformist antipathy towards the education clauses of Graham’s 1843 Factory Bill.

A Populous Parishes Act was passed in 1843 empowering the Ecclesiastical Commission to create new parishes and provide the necessary stipends (payment for the vicar or curate) out of Church funds but it was clear to Peel that the cost of building new churches would have to be covered by the more efficient use of the Church’s existing resources and charitable contributions. An impressive fund-raising campaign resulted in £25 million being spent on building and restoration work between 1840 and 1876 but this did little to stem the numerical slide of the Church of England in urban and increasingly rural areas. The 1851 Religious Census showed that the Church of England could no longer claim to be the ‘national’ church. It remained strongest in the counties round London and in eastern England, but in some northern and western areas and in Wales chapel-goers were in the majority[2].

[1] For the development of religion in the Victorian period see Owen Chadwick The Victorian Church, two volumes, 1970, 1972 for the standard reading with A. D. Gilbert Religion and Society in Industrial England, Longman, 1976 for a different interpretation. G. Kitson Clark Churchmen and the Condition of England, London, 1973 is an important study of the ‘social’ role of the church. K. S. Inglis Churches and the Working Classes in Victorian England, Routledge, 1963 remains perhaps the best study.

[2] On the issue of working class ‘indifference’ and antagonism towards the churches see H. McLeod Religion and the Working Class in Nineteenth Century Britain, Macmillan, 1984 for a brief bibliographical study.   On the position of the Church of England see B. I. Coleman The  Church of England in the Mid-Nineteenth Century: A Social Geography,  The Historical Association, 1980 and ‘Religion in the Victorian City’, History Today, August, 1980.

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