“When did the Church of England lose the working classes?” The answer is that it has never had them in any great numbers since the Reformation and we need to ask “Why?”
It is true that from 1837 and the beginning of the Victorian era there was a tremendous revival, building churches, forming all manner of Societies and groups to ease the many problems associated with moving from a rural economy to an industrial one.
However many of the parish churches built in that period seem to have been appropriated by the growing middle class, with strict demarcation lines concerning who sat where (according to their social class).
In my Victorian church in Taunton (b.1842), the middle class trades-people occupied the nave, the boys of the public school of Kings College the gallery (also with comfortable pews), and the slum-dwellers and Work-house folk the hard back-less forms in the gallery.
True, The Church affected more people’s lives then than for many years previously, with various clubs and groups, especially Sunday Schools, to which the children were “sent” whilst the parents occupied themselves in more secular activities.
For many, the growing number of “High Churches” with colour, music and ceremonies, much of which was decried by the Bishops of the day and viewed with suspicion, attracted people who normally had no colour in their lives.
Churches like St. Michael’s, Swanmore, with its vestments, candles and even incense and plainsong chanting became an attraction to many ordinary families (the latter being comfortably used by all classes and types).
Many do not realise that it was customary in some parishes to have a “Mission Hall” to accommodate those who were not so welcome at the parish church. All Saints, Ryde had one in Prince Street, Ryde, and my own Taunton parish church was built to cope with the town’s numerous slum dwellers,
The sad truth is that we lost the ordinary folk through the Reformation, when so much that went on socially as well as spiritually was centred on the parish church, where everyone was involved and took part in so many of the religious occasions.
Processions were frequent with all the company joining in, often carrying candles, and people learned much of the Faith by the worship activities in which they were engaged.
In an age when few could read or write, the stained glass images, the statues of the saints (often related to trade or work activities) with the craft Guilds and the mystery of the worship itself, all made an impression on the working people who saw their church as their spiritual centre, coupled with the jolly supping of after-Mass Ale (brewed by the Churchwardens).
For the pre-Reformation churches, worship was not only solemn, but joyful participation of everyone. Consider now, if you perhaps advertise a service for families where there is to be a procession with candles to some particular place in the building, you will be surprised at who and how many will attend.
There is the story of the Bishop, taking part in a High Church Mass enquired “Why do the boys hold the candles?” “Simply” replied the priest “Because the candles hold the boys”.
Worship is not something done on our behalf by a select few by others; where possible it needs to be an occasion when everyone can feel they are contributing to the best of their ability, gendering a sense of “Joy”.
An old hymn bids us sing “Oh day of rest and gladness, Oh day of JOY and light”. Are our Sundays like that?
Perhaps we need to consider our worship and how we can create a greater sense of congregational participation?
Suggested reading: “The stripping of the altars” which traces the effect the Reformation had on English worship.
Having recently (March, 1949) been licensed as a Reader to the parish of All Saints’, Ryde, I was let loose on an unsuspecting Evensong congregation to preach my first sermon.
At that time, the 9.30 Sung Eucharist was the least well attended service on a Sunday, far eclipsed by what people called the “Proper Service” of Sung Morning Prayer, despite the 9.30 having been originally instituted in the late 1920s by the then Vicar, Hugh LeFleming, who was considered to be “Very High”.
As a result, a brash 23yr. old, I preached on the text “They all with one accord began to make excuse” and expounded why the people might consider they ought to attend the 9.30 service.
Primarily, because it was the only service specifically established by Jesus, whereas both Matins and Evensong were “man-made”, by the inspired Archbishop Cranmer (who incidentally in the Prayer Book established that his aim was to make the Eucharist the main service of the day). This was reaffirmed finally by the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, which assumed that Matins and Evensong would proceed and follow the Sunday Communion.
Incidentally, there are only three references to sermons at services, strangely, the Eucharist, the Wedding and Ordination services! No such provision at Matins and Evensong; but a sermon or homily at every Communion Service and to conform I have always preached a (short) sermon as prescribed!
In the post-Reformation chaos, the Communion Service was demoted, often only celebrated as little as four times per year and did not begin to occupy the place that Cranmer had intended until the mid-1800s with the Oxford Movement.
On Easter Day in 1837, there were only 8 communicants at St. Paul’s Cathedral apart from the Cathedral clergy and choir which signifies the low status of the Communion service in the Church of England at that time.
Yet, rightly understood, the Communion is not only from the Gospels, but it IS the Gospel, the “Good News”, for it enshrines all the great Christian verities.
It is a gathering of people who, by setting at its heart the Cross with its good news of our redemption, enables us to be “friends and children of God” and brothers and sisters “in Christ”; confirmed by our sharing this sacred meal of bread and wine, that by the power of the Holy Spirit becomes none other than life-giving Presence of Christ Himself.
St. John (chapter 6) is a discourse on the significance of the bread and wine and we need to remember that when he wrote this, he was quite old. The Lord’s Supper had been celebrated for some 50 years, enabling him to reflect on its full meaning and importance.
It is clear that the words of Jesus in that chapter were not accepted by all the disciples, so that some of them abandoned Him; yet, when it is presented to modern congregations who have received suitable instruction it can be an evangelistic force.
Even young children find it intelligible in its simplicity.
That is why in “Evangelism” we are bound to teach and enable people whom we encourage to join us, eventually to share in the Communion, the Christ-given service that “joins us to one another and to God”. To do otherwise would be to fail to offer them full participation in this Divine Society, whose earthly focus is the altar of the Lord.
Being now enabled legally to offer Communion to quite young children after basic instruction without Confirmation some striking impact is being made to accommodate complete families and good teaching material is being produced to assist to that end. Encouraging results have been reported for this approach which is worth thinking about and that therein is some hope for The Church’s future Mission.
St. Paul’s, Weston-super-Mare, the church where my Somerset family worship, considers that it is a poor attendance if less than 300 folk of all ages come to the 11 a.m. “People’s Service”!
Although, to be honest, it would not be my choice of worship and has little resemblance to the Church of England in style, they certainly “pull them in”, despite the sermon being rarely less than 45 minutes! I was bound to ask my son Denys, “What is the attraction?”
The music is mainly singing Choruses, supported by a Group (with very loud drummers), few, if any traditional hymns, and everyone is handed a coffee as they enter to take with them to their seats.
Yet it attracts a wide range of worshippers, professional people such as doctors, solicitors, executives and middle class together with life’s failures such as drug and alcohol addicts and all the social problems that seem to beset seaside towns with their variegated communities.
“That’s the answer”, Denys said. “People look around the town and note that within it is a community of Christians who are seeking to carry out Jesus’ commands; to heal the sick, feed the hungry, proclaiming the Gospel to the poor and disadvantaged, ministering to the elderly and young families alike. The young people are taught to assist with this work.
People see “The Gospel” in action through The Church as it seeks to make a positive difference to people’s lives”.
St. James (Jesus’ brother) in his forthright Epistle reminds us that “Faith without works is dead”! (James 1, v22-3, v1-end.
That is why, from the beginning, Christians sought to act in loving service to the sick and needy and were foremost in ministering to the outcasts of Society (with whom Jesus delighted to mingle and eat).
It is because of this that similar churches, mainly evangelistic in style are prominent in the list of communities that seek to fulfil these commands.
Note the impact that “The Church on the Roundabout” at Newport has on the people that pass it daily and its obviously welcoming exterior.
The truth is, outsiders could see us as self-centred. Too often The Church is pleading for help from the community in which it is set, but rarely asks that Community what we Christians can do for them. In every community, no matter how large or small, there are lonely, elderly people, hungry or financially poor families, people with problems of guilt, youngsters who are disillusioned and anxious for their future, driven to despair or self-harm.
“Do not forget to do good and to share, for with such sacrifices, God is well pleased” (Hebrews 13)
This has been the Church of England’s failure, where despite its privileged position as “The Established (Official) Church” in years past it has not always been very concerned with issues that affect people’s daily lives.
However, a cautionary note: whilst we should all desire to help those who need it, if we were to embark on a burst of philanthropy, simply that it might encourage people to join us for worship, it could echo Archbishop Thomas a Becket’s words in “Murder in the cathedral” (T. S. Eliot); “The last crime is the greater treason, to do the right thing for the wrong reason”.
If we seek to do good to others it must be for their own worth; it needs to be for love of people, conscious that they are all valuable to God, for whom His Son died.
We, all of us, need to be proud of our Anglican heritage, but we need to be more proud of humbly following the example of Jesus and the saints who put people’s welfare (physical and spiritual) at the heart of God’s message of love.
In the dark, far-off days of the 1950s, with the awakening of some clergy that “Outreach” would need to be a priority, reaching out to a generation that had lost faith in almost everything. Movements arose, one of which was “Parish and People”..
This was intended to transform the relationship between priests and the people committed to their care.
This was the moment when a new name for the weekly Sung Eucharist appeared, “The Parish Communion”. The Communion should be the spiritual and “renewing” point, each Sunday.
A Parish Meeting was to bring priest and people together to be partners in the Divine enterprise and to think less of the idea of “Going To Church”, but instead “Being The Church”. Every member should consider themselves part of the parish team, discovering talents and knowledge they could put at God’s service.
The common idea at the time was that everything depended upon the priest, supported by the PCC which seemed almost to be apart from the congregation. Yet in the Early Church there was this sense of being altogether, the decisions being taken by the whole gathered people rather than by the PCC and priest.
Together with this sense of sharing in the worship by God’s people, which needed to involve participation by as many as possible, there was set aside time and opportunity for instruction and social gatherings under the title of the Parish Meeting.
The Church was to be a Community where everyone as a valuable member could make their individual contribution
This regular (Monthly?) gathering was to be the opportunity for instruction in the Faith as well as a social gathering, especially when it included food and eating together. Remember that in the Early Church, most worship began with a meal where eating together was a bonding community activity .
Having worshipped God at Sinai the Jews we are told, “sat down to eat and drink”, a normal component part of the worship in Old Testament times.
Eating together has a sacramental aspect, it is a sign of fellowship, for using the words of the Catechism, it is a far cry from the Puritanism of the post-Reformation for it can be “an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace”.
Jesus, seems to have loved a party. Criticised as being “a wine-bibber and a friend of sinners”, He was different from the traditional Jew, but very much a man who would approve of the concept of “Parish and People”
19 May 2019
ME I am battered and bruised after a fall last Sunday, but I haven’t broken any ribs and thorough tests at St. Mary’s indicate that I am still basically up together! Thank God.
It’s some while since we had a flurry of meetings and plans for “Outreach”, seeking to bring the Gospel to our parishioners, including a summary of what we should be doing to implement our Bishop’s great plans (which includes borrowing a large sum of money to implement them). Yet there seems to be no great missionary activity going on in the Island around us.
Which brings me to one of my “High Horses” and I want to talk about the “4 Cs” of Outreach, and remembering that I am also a trained printer, brought up in a pub, served 4 years in the coal mines, I have always used these influences to impinge on “Mission”. Therefore, we turn to the essential that is “Communication” for which The Church exists.
So much so, that for years I carried around from parish to parish a complete printing plant with which I could produce teaching that I hoped would reach out to the general population, of whom the greater percentage are completely ignorant of the Gospel and the Christian Faith.
Therefore, at the top of my list comes “Communication” which comes from a Latin word which means “to share”.
Matthew records at the end of his Gospel that Jesus at the Ascension gives a command to His gathered disciples “You then, are to make disciples of all nations . . teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you, and lo, I am with you to the end of the age”.
Are we doing that? Have we an excuse for not so doing?
Never before has so much technology enabled us to produce printed matter so cheaply and efficiently, and in every parish I have worked, the plan has been to open a line of communication between The Church and the people we are called to serve.
That is where many parishes fail, for they do not even bring the people’s attention to the great festivals and observances to enable them to know exactly what Christmas, the Cross, the Empty Tomb signify.
Acting in faith, over many years we were enabled to send a Parish paper (tabloid style) into every house in each parish as we did in growing Wootton (still going strong after over 40 years), that I used to describe as “The silent visitor”.
It got through the letterbox and was able to say what needed to be said, in understandable language and it had its effect (not always pleasing everyone, but then Jesus wasn’t worried about that either).
It doesn’t need tremendous financial cost with the ability to produce acceptable communications very economically.
Unless we teach our local community the truths of the Gospel, we are depriving them of the benefits that faith brings to us in good times and bad, depriving people of the recipe for peace and stability, which are the fruits of the Gospel.
If our faith means anything positive to us who are The Church, we have a duty to our neighbours to ensure that they may not miss out because of His Church’s lack of energy and thought.
In the 1940s, surveys showed how little the average person in this country (which was supposed to be “Christian) knew about the Christian faith and this knowledge is even more minimal, even non-existent for the majority in this 21st century.
Might we consider as a first step in Evangelism, the issue of a suitable broadsheet prior to each of the Church Seasons, explaining what it is all about?
During my short tenure as Hon. Priest-in-charge of St. Michael’s, Swanmore (2011-2013), we did just that and by the time I left there, “The Messenger” as it was called had begun to change people’s perception of their parish church for the better.
“C” is for “Communication” and we are Christians because over the years, people have shared their faith with us to our spiritual benefit; ought we to be doing the same?