Tuesday, 15 November 2011

How far was the Church of England in decline after 1850?

The Victorian age was self-consciously religious. [1] Britain’s greatness, Victorians believed that its prosperity, political liberties and Empire was rooted in Christian and Protestant faith. Yet if religion flourished, it did not bring harmony and the transition to pluralism brought conflict and controversy with Protestants ranged against each other and against Catholics, evangelical against high churchman, Christian against unbeliever. Nor were the conflicts limited to the religious sphere. Both politics and social life were riven by the clashes of churches and creeds. The churches’ biggest problem, however, was not their disputes with each other but changes in the wider society especially the continued spread of industry and large towns and deepening class divisions. The churches responded with characteristic energy and determination, making religion more relevant to British society in 1850 than it had been a century earlier. But despite their best efforts they largely failed to win the allegiance of the urban working-classes and by 1900 they were losing their hold on the respectable middle-classes as well.

The most important, if least expected development in this period was the resurgence of the Church of England. After the crises of the 1820s and 1830s, it belatedly reformed itself, fought back against the nonconformists and regained much of the initiative it had lost. The first round of reforms was imposed from outside, by the Whig governments of the 1830s. Tithes were commuted; the rules of clerical non-residence tightened and resources began to shift from cathedral foundations to needy urban parishes. The church also put its own house in order. A tough, new breed of bishops cracked down on pluralism and non-residence and warned parsons away from the hunting field and magistrates’ bench. In towns, thousands of new churches were built even though the country parish remained the Anglican ideal and by 1900, the number of clergy had doubled.

The clergy played the central role in the Anglican revival. [2] They began to receive professional training and to bring to their work a more energetic and combative approach; in urban parishes they served not only as priests and pastors but as social organisers as well. They set up social and recreational activities, mobilised the laity, though kept control in their own hands, and conducted the services with smooth professionalism. With the church now showing some ‘aggression’ of its own and using some of the weapons of dissent against dissent, it steadily improved its share of the religious market. A slow-moving establishment recast itself as a church militant. The 1830s also saw a new departure in its life. As evangelicalism had revived its Protestant and Puritan traditions, the Oxford movement now revived its Catholic traditions, rescuing them from Protestant contempt and restoring them to the life of the church. Spiritual renewal brought discord in the 1840s when Newman and some of his followers went over to Rome and in the 1850s when the younger Tractarian clergy began to introduce incense, vestments and other ‘Catholic’ ritual practices into their services.

From the 1840s, Anglicanism was torn by conflict between its rival ‘parties’. The broad churchmen, liberal in theology and politics were caught in the middle. The Anglo-Catholics, as they later came to call themselves, formed a virtual sect within the church, complete with heroes (but not heroines), martyrs, seminaries, organisations and periodicals. Outraged Protestants reacted with sermons, lawsuits, legislation and even mob violence in a long and futile campaign to halt the ‘ritualist’ plague. [3] Disraeli, denouncing the ‘mass in masquerade’, passed the Public Worship Regulation Act 1874 under which five ritualist clergymen were convicted and sent to jail. [4] Though their best known efforts were in slum parishes, where they hoped to win over the poor with their colourful ritual and self-sacrificing pastoral work, it was eventually the middle-classes, especially in London and the south-east, who provided the bulk of their support. The Anglo-Catholics nevertheless brought change to Anglicanism as a whole. [5] Their insistence that communion was the central act of worship and the badge of active church membership, gradually came to be accepted by nearly all sections of the church. The doubling of the numbers of communicants in the decades before 1914, even as attendance declined, was a reflection of their influence.

If the Anglican Church was to be successful during the second half of the nineteenth and early twentieth century then it had to be successful in the cities where population was increasingly concentrated. The traditional view of the growth of the Victorian cities focussed on the increasing breakdown of community, individual isolation, poor housing, social deprivation and an ever growing class divide. In this context, organised religion struggled to survive and this led to the belief that the ‘industrial revolution divided men from God’ but Chadwick suggests that this view may be misplaced and that the city dwellers were never committed churchgoers. [6] Eighteenth century visitations, for instance, show that as few as 1-2% of parishioners took communion, this perhaps being a better indication of true religiosity than attendance.

Urbanisation actually aided the growth of the church in certain sections of society, especially the new and rapidly growing middle-classes. Cox suggests:

Even its greatest success is sometimes regarded as a failure…the Church of England succeeding in capturing or maintaining the allegiance of the new urban as well as the old rural elites. [7]

Nonetheless the church of the 1850s became increasingly aware, through the writings of Dickens, Kingsley and the work of the Poor law Commission, that the working-classes were largely alienated from the established church. In the 1880s, Charles Booth estimated that the upper- or middle-classes, who represented 12% of the population, made up the majority of the church, especially the Church of England. The churches were not inactive in their response to urbanisation. The dramatic need for more buildings to accommodate the burgeoning population was recognised by Joshua Watson and his Incorporated Church Building Society in 1818 and by Horace Mann after his Religious Census in 1851. There was an unprecedented mobilisation of resources through the charitable activities of the churches in areas of social deprivation. Despite this, the churches continued to decline in significance for many in the working-classes suggesting that decline was less to do with change itself but with the ways in which the church responded to that change.

Just how effective the Church of England was in urban centres depends on what determined success. Church attendance statistics were used as the major source of information about the state of nineteenth century Christianity and a successful church was therefore one that was full. The problem is that the impact of beliefs on any one section of society did not necessarily correspond with institutional statistics whose accuracy is difficult to corroborate. In addition, it depends on which indices of religiosity are used. For example the number of Anglican marriages declined from 90.7% of all marriages in 1844 to 64.25% in 1904, yet baptisms increased from 62.35% in 1885 to 65.8% in 1902. As a result, different historians have judged the church of the nineteenth century in different lights. Some have deemed the decline in attendance a failure of the church to reach the urban masses while others see the church holding its own, if not growing. What is clear is that the response to the Anglican Church varied by gender and region as well as by class. Attendance by women was higher across all classes and, for both working- and middle-classes women played a central role in maintaining their families’ religious values. Regional variations were also important but where the church had historically been strong, it remained so. London, the focus of much contemporary concern, was exceptionally secularised. In the 1880s 15-20% of London’s working-class attended a church compared with 40% of middle-classes while in Bristol this was probably 40% and 66% respectively.

Why was the working-class alienated from the Church of England? There was a cultural gap between the church and the working classes. The rural dean of Kennington quoted by Charles Booth said in the 1890s: ‘Working men don’t go to church for the same reason that I don’t go to the races’. [8] Certainly clergy in the East End of London were regarded as missionaries. McLeod writes:

The Church of England in Bethnal Green was a missionary church, its ministers isolated by the suspicion of the natives and by the differences in language and custom that made the life of the local population repugnant to them. [9]

Respectability was part of that cultural gap. The need to wear one’s best clothes to church was a bar to the poor but it was also an attraction. Working women who went to church were ‘respectable’. There were also few positions of responsibility avaiolable to the working-classes in the church. The Anglican clergy were almost entirely upper middle-class and three-quarters 75% had degrees in 1870. Lay leadership was limited as well; in Lewisham, for instance, although the church was 50% working-class, they were never represented as churchwardens. This lack of involvement was also evident in the charitable activities of the church. The problem was that the church did much for the people but little with them.

The Church of England embarked on a massive programme of church building and over 600 new churches were built between 1818 and 1884. The number of clergy increased significantly from 14,613 in 1841 to 24,232 in 1891. Building churches was one thing but filling them quite another. There were deeper structural problems within the Church of England that the church failed to recognise and so it began to blame the infidelity of the working classes rather than their own conservatism. The evangelical emphasis on industry, sobriety and thrift appealed to the upwardly mobile middle-classes but had little resonance among working people while its social conservatism simply alienated them. Relief offered by frequently condescending district visitors was frequently resented by the poor who in turn resented the poor’s ingratitude. Yet despite the immense amount of activity and effort the Victorian church poured into philanthropy, second in cost and manpower only to church building, it did little to encourage the working-classes to attend church.

Traditionally the urban contribution of the Church of England has been regarded as as one of failure. The church failed to reach the working-classes and, despite initial success with the middle class, a subsequent failure to hold them in the face of rising secularism. Yet, in 1901, the census showed attendance by 47,000 men and 61,000 women in the East End and in London as a whole one in five attended church. The church was an inescapable and intrusive part of the urban landscape. Individual clergy made heroic efforts to identify and communicate with the local community. The High churchman Osborne Jay of Jago took up boxing in Shoreditch, Weldon Champneys of Whitechapel gave weekday lectures in a school where he felt it was less off-putting for the working man than the church and he supported the coalwhippers fight for justice over employment. The Sunday school movement was on a huge scale and maintained a notion that the Church of England was ‘our church’. At Christ Church, Gypsy Hill, the one poor street in the parish provided 10% of all baptisms. The Anglican Church did have internal structural obstacles to reaching the entire urban populations and inevitably failed to attain this target. Yet its attempts to do so were not insignificant.

[1] For the development of religion in the Victorian period see Chadwick, Owen, The Victorian Church, 2 Vols., (SCM Press), 1970, 1972, for the standard reading with ibid, Gilbert, A. D., Religion and Society in Industrial England, for a different interpretation. For the period after 1900, see, Robbins, Keith, England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales: The Christian Church 1900-2000, (Oxford University Press), 2008, pp. 1-96.

[2] Haig, Alan, The Victorian clergy, (Routledge), 1984, considers the professionalising of the clergy.

[3] Yates, Nigel, Anglican ritualism in Victorian Britain, 1830-1910, (Oxford University Press), 1999, Whisenant, James, A fragile unity: anti-ritualism and the division of Anglican evangelicalism in the nineteenth century, (Paternoster Press), 2003, and Whisenant, James, ‘Anti-ritualism and the moderation of evangelical opinion in England in the mid-1870s’, Anglican and Episcopal History, Vol. 70, (2001), pp. 451-477.

[4] Bentley, James, Ritualism and politics in Victorian Britain: the attempt to legislate for belief, (Oxford University Press), 1978, and Palmer, Bernard, Reverend rebels: five Victorian clerics and their fight against authority, (Darton, Longman & Todd), 1993.

[5] Reed, J. S., Glorious battle: the cultural politics of Victorian Anglo-Catholicism, (Vanderbilt University Press), 1996.

[6] Chadwick, Owen, The Secularisation of the European Mind in the Nineteenth Century, (Cambridge University Press), 1975, p. 95.

[7] Cox, Jeffrey, The English churches in a Secular Society: Lambeth, 1870-1930, (Oxford University Press), 1982, p. 5.

[8] Ibid, Cox, Jeffrey, The English churches in a Secular Society: Lambeth, 1870-1930, p. 105.

[9] McLeod, Hugh, Class and Religion in the Late Victorian City, (Croom Helm), 1974, p. 104.


  1. Hi Richard,

    I really like this blog post, it was very thought provoking.
    Do you mind me asking you exactly where you got the statistics 'For example the number of Anglican marriages declined from 90.7% of all marriages in 1844 to 64.25% in 1904, yet baptisms increased from 62.35% in 1885 to 65.8% in 1902'. I'm not doubting you in any way, I would just really like to use these in an essay I'm writing and would like to see the source for myself. Any help you would be able to give me on this matter would be greatly received.
    Thank you in advance,

  2. The source for this information comes from page 5.