The English Parish (Part 2)

Anthea Jones continues her exploration

Parishes became the means of governing the country but not the focus of all religious feeling

Where parishes were very large, covering 100 square miles of more, like Whalley in Lancashire, Halifax in Yorkshire, Kendal in Westmoreland or Simonburn in Northumberland, it was obviously impossible for people to attend the parish church every week, as it might be assumed happened in the past. The parish church was for special occasions.

But the actions of individuals or small communities in building modest meeting rooms and paying priests are hidden by the dominance of parishes in the historical record. Technically these small local churches were called 'chapels'; their priests were ordained by a bishop but were then largely free of his control. It was many centuries later that Nonconformists, dissidents from the Established Church, called their meeting houses 'chapels'.

It is increasingly recognized that there were many chapels before the Reformation, scattered throughout the country; there may have been as many chapels as parish churches, or even more: in Devon three times as many chapel sites have been identified as parish churches, and in West Cornwall twice as many. A chapel was often founded to serve a township or group of townships, where the inhabitants could attend prayers or hear mass, but could not baptize their children without paying fees to the parish church as well as the local priests. Chapels rarely had burial grounds, and demands for one were resisted by bishops and parish clergy.

Over the centuries chapels received endowments from local benefactors, and communities voluntarily contributed to the upkeep as well as paying the curate. But during the Reformation, endowments which could be represented as supporting the chanting of prayers for the souls of the dead were seized by the Crown, just as monastic endowments had been a few years earlier. Chapels serving other 'superstitious' purposes such as healing through holy wells and relics, were also suppressed. Without their endowments, many chapels became disused.

However, particularly in the North where average parish size was much larger than in the South, they provided small communities with an identity and a means of regular religious observance, and they survived. Furthermore, new chapels were founded. In Manchester, for example, a parish of about 60 square miles and 30 townships, there were six pre-Reformation chapels, only one of which had acquired a consecrated burial ground during the Black Death, and three more were built before 1650. In the whole of Lancashire at the end of the sixteenth century there were 64 parishes but 118 chapels.

The early medieval pattern of parishes was not altered by the Reformation although there was a demand to make it more rational and uniform. The clergy were required to teach the approved reformed doctrines and conduct services in English, not Latin, but chapels were easily controlled. Tudor kings and queens used parliament to validate and enforce their religious settlement, imposing royal and parliamentary authority over the English clergy. The tendency to individualism was not suppressed.

The Civil War and the suspension of bishops in 1643 released a tide of informal gatherings of like-minded people.

Still parliament attempted to maintain a framework of parochial clergy and to control religious expression. Following the execution of the King in 1649 members of parliament ordered a survey of the parishes throughout the country with a view to reform. It was suggested that some chapels should become parish churches, and that the income of the church should be more evenly distributed. A start was made, but change was undone in 1660 when Charles II and the bishops were restored.

Coincidentally, at the time of the Reformation parliament began to place a variety of administrative tasks upon the parish. First was the requirement that baptisms, marriages and burials should be recorded in a parish register. Then the duty of maintaining the roads was placed on the parish; inhabitants had to work on the roads for a few days each year. Most onerously in the long run, the care of the poor was formally organized through the parish.

Elected officials, the overseers of the poor and the churchwardens, had power to raise money from the inhabitants, and to spend it suitably, only checked once a year by the local justices of the peace. The church was the meeting place, and sometimes the scene of vigorous arguments and protests. For the poor, the Church stood for authority and often unsympathetic attention to their needs. Money was also raised for the upkeep of the church. The parish was the instrument of both local and central government.

The restoration of the king in 1660, and the flight of James II in 1688 to be replaced by William of Orange and his wife Mary, broke the attempt to impose religious uniformity on the people of England. There was an established Church of England still, ordered by king and parliament, but it was accepted that groups of nonconformists could worship as they chose outside the parish framework. Nonetheless efforts to make the parishes relevant to the population were resumed. From the early eighteenth century, under the auspices of a body of commissioners for Queen Anne's Bounty, many chapels were given small endowments and made parochial, and the income of poorer clergy raised significantly. This was worthy work, but hardly dramatic in its impact or scope.

There was a growing appreciation that towns like Manchester had nowhere near enough ministers to care for the souls of the population. John Wesley showed how many could be called by energetic effort. Even before the Napoleonic Wars were over in 1815, members of parliament were paying more attention to the problems facing them: pre-eminently an acute shortage of ministers in large parishes, but also some tendency for ministers not to live in their parishes at all but to appoint poorly-paid curates to do the work for them. The church had apparently in many places become a source of income to the landed class.

The issues had lively political overtones - one party of politicians, the Tories, supporting the church and one, the Whigs, asking for relegation of the church to a private concern. The Whigs succeeded in the 1830s in removing several of the civil functions of the parish and, by the commutation of tithes, in moderating the compulsory contributions to the church made by farmers in some parishes; they failed in removing the last bastion of compulsory support, the church rate, which was not abolished until 1868. The 1830s were in fact the critical period in the development of the modern Church of England.

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