Why was the Church of England under pressure in 1830?

The Church of England found itself in an uncomfortable position at the turn of the nineteenth century and was especially slow to recognise the significance of the changes taking place in the population structure of the country. [1] It had been fully integrated into the social environment of the eighteenth century with village and parish normally coterminous.  Its great strength lay in southern England as it was there the bulk of the population and wealth was located. [2]  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 and there was a long-term failure to retain the loyalty and affections of many men and women in the country’s industrialising areas.   Parishes were large, were badly endowed and consequently attracted few clergy and many livings were held in plurality or by non-resident incumbents. [3] For example, in 1831 Leeds, with a population of over 70,000 people, had only three places of Anglican worship. [4] The elaborate legal procedure for creating new parishes further hindered its ability to cope with the changing situation.  The church hierarchy had little comprehension of the nature of the city and of the 104 bishops of between 1783 and 1852, only 17 had ever held an urban living. 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. [5] There was no bishop based in Lancashire and the West Riding until the dioceses of Ripon and Manchester were established in 1836 and 1847 and Liverpool and Newcastle did not gain episcopal status until 1880 and 1882. [6]

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. [7] The real tragedy for the Church was not the failure to meet the needs of people in the growing cities but rather its failure in the countryside where all its resources were concentrated. Among the lower clergy, the curates and the holders of small benefices, there remained a degree of poverty that continued to cause hardship, despite the various pieces of legislation that sought to regulate curates’ stipends. Many church buildings were in disrepair and pluralism and absenteeism were rife. Where Dissent established support in a village, competition from the Church was often limited.   Enclosure had reduced the hold of the Church since 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. [8] An even worse reaction against the Church of England resulted from the collection of the tithe in kind, generally regarded as the ideal way of alienating the parson from his flock. [9]

Religion 1

An unresponsive and less than efficient 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. [10] In this situation suggested reforms, including those of modest dimensions, could easily by 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. [11]   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. [12]

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 establishing, in effect, free trade in religion. Dissenters and Catholics would now participate in legislation affecting the Church.   The attitude of the bishops during the reform agitation of 1830-1832 further tarnished the reputation of the Church and reinforced its identification in the eyes of the public with reaction.

[1] On the Church of England see Smith, A., The Established Church and Popular Religion 1750-1850, (Longman), 1971, Norman, E. R., Church and Society in England 1770-1970, (Oxford University Press), 1976, and Knight, Frances, The Nineteenth-Century Church and English Society, (Cambridge University Press), 1999. On social attitudes, see Soloway, R. A., Prelates and People:  Ecclesiastical Social Thought in England 1783-1852, (Routledge), 1969, Clark, G. Kitson, Churchmen and the Condition of England, (Methuen), 1973.

[2] Gregory, Jeremy, and Chamberlain, Jeffrey Scott, (eds.), The National Church in Local Perspective: the Church of England and the regions, 1660-1800, (Boydell), 2003, especially, pp. 1-28, illustrates the range of responses to a variety of problems and common themes.

[3] Gibson, William T., ‘Nepotism, family, and merit: the Church of England in the eighteenth century’, Journal of Family History, Vol. 18, (1993), pp. 179-190.

[4] Royle, Edward, ‘The Church of England and Methodism in Yorkshire, c.1750-1850: from monopoly to free market’, Northern History, Vol. 33, (1997), pp. 137-161.

[5] Early attempts at reform are considered in Burns, R. Arthur, ‘A Hanoverian legacy?: diocesan reform in the Church of England, c.1800-1833’, in Walsh, John, Haydon, Colin, and Taylor, Stephen, (eds.), The Church of England, c.1689-c.1833: from toleration to Tractarianism, (Cambridge University Press), 1993, pp. 265-282.

[6] Jacob, W. M., The Clerical Profession in the Long Eighteenth Century, 1680-1840, (Oxford University Press), 2007, examines the concept of ‘profession’ during the later-Stuart and Georgian period, with special reference to the clergy of the Church of England.

[7] See, for example, Brown, Callum G., ‘The mechanism of religious growth in urban society: British cities since the eighteenth century’, in McLeod, Hugh, European Religion in the Age of the Great Cities, 1830-1930, (Routledge), 1994, pp. 237-260, a synoptic overview. See also, Burns, Arthur, The Diocesan Revival in the Church of England c.1800-1870, (Oxford University Press), 1999.

[8] Lee, Robert, Rural society and the Anglican clergy, 1815-1914: encountering and managing the poor, (Boydell), 2006, considers the church in Norfolk.

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

[10] See, Stafford, William, ‘Religion and the doctrine of nationalism in England at the time of the French Revolution and Napoleonic wars’, in Mews, Stuart, (ed.), Religion and national identity: papers read at the nineteenth summer meeting and twentieth winter meeting of the Ecclesiastical History Society, (Oxford University Press), 1982, pp. 381-395.

[11] Clayson, Jim, Frow, Edmund, and Frow, Ruth, ‘John Wade and The Black Book’, Labour History Review, Vol. 59, (2), (1994), pp. 55-57.

[12] Simon, W. G., ‘The bishops and reform’, Historical Magazine of the Protestant Episcopal Church, Vol. 32, (1963), pp. 361-370, considers the period between 1820 and 1850.

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