Saturday 6 May 2017

That Was the Church that Wasn't

Somewhat belatedly I have read Peter Hitchens' article on the good old C of E as he remembers it.

There used to be an old saying among folklorists. They said that people always used to say it was the previous generation that believed in fairies. Maybe in the same way people always think it was their childhood - or the last generation - when the Church of England was last truly the Church of England.

England's Dreaming

To some degree this is always a myth. Let's look at the history of the C of E since the Reformation. First up it got converted back to Catholicism - then back again .Then a certain amount of Prayer Book-based stability under Elizabeth and James I - then the Puritans threw all the organs out on the grounds that any kind of enjoyment was unbiblical. Many village churches then had "quires" or "bands" right up to the Oxford Movement. So in Thomas Hardy's own village of Stinsford the tradition of singing with an organ goes back no further than about 1840. About the same time that Hawker of Morwenstow invented the Harvest Festival.

By that time, the Industrial Revolution was underway. Many left the churches, headed into the big cities and took to lives of poverty, vice and not getting up on Sunday mornings. The figure for regular worshippers, at the height of the Victorian Church's power, was about 40% of the population - but a tiny fraction of that in the poor districts of London. It declined into the early 20th Century. And while the upper classes continued to provide their younger, less intelligent sons to be ministers, the upper classes themselves barely bothered to go to church otherwise.

So Peter Hitchens' long-lasting tradition - the good old C of E at prayer - really only began in the middle of the 19th Century. And really only lasted till the early decades of the 20th Century. The timeless beauty of the BCP and the KJV may go back 400 or so years - but the traditions built around them are bumpy, uneven and - for the most part - of terribly short duration. The good old C of E, like folk dance, children dancing round a maypole, arts n crafts and Imperialism, is a Victorian invention. We may not see its like again. But then we probably never really did.


  1. I think the myrh of the "Good old CofE" only survives because of reruns of "trulelife real history" documentaries like Miss Marple, Foyles War, Granchester, and Downton Abbey. Oh, and Midsomer Murders, of course, for a modern commentary on the real CofE.

  2. I think you could add Dorothy L Sayers's novels to that list (especially The Nine Tailors) - and she presumably knew what she was talking about, as her dad was a vicar.

    1. Agreed, especially as we have a set of handbells in our church. But sadly no tower bells, it is a modern building with no tower.

  3. Go to tell Newcastle's Whitecoats, fallen to the last man at Marston Moor for King and Church.


Drop a thoughtful pebble in the comments bowl