Health warning: I have received considerable spiritual benefit from Evangelical and Tractarian revivals, and spent 21 years of ministry as a resident parson in a parish. What follows is hypothetical historical sketching, not bitter twisted comment on any of those fine things in themselves. But, remembering Ronald Reagan’s wise words “Don’t be afraid to see what you see,” here goes...
Evangelical and Tractarian historiographies have tended to suggest their people saved the Church from terrible neglect.
Terrible it may have been, but, paradoxically, far more people went to Church. Every place had its own story, but the mass of people seem to have become detached from their village churches as relationships broke down. The English did not become anticlerical like the French did, but got into habits of ploughing their own furrows, as the Church became more top-down, professional and exclusive.
So here’s one possible historical narrative of how congregations dwindled.
With box pews, churches began to look and feel like cattle pens, or our swimming pool changing rooms. Religion was becoming radically privatised. The parish church became an icon of class division, imposing a top-down order, dismantling previous relationships and practice, enforcing various new model ideologies. This set the stage for three new reforming clerical waves:
- the Evangelical revival, with clergy enforcing their own particular apparently narrow bands of belief, Calvinistic or Arminian, as the way to salvation.
- Resident gentlemen clergy after residence was legally enforced in the early nineteenth century. In came big Georgian rectories, out went peasant curates who were less learned and often part time, but radically incarnational in village life.
- the Oxford movement, with robed choirs in the chancel and powerful organs to deal with the rough and ready village band.
Et Voilà! Any questions?