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18 September 2014
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Towards the Floodgates of Religious Reform

By Carol Davidson Cragoe
Present day

Image of the statue of St Michael and the devil at Coventry Cathedral
St Michael triumphs over evil, Coventry Cathedral  
The 19th century was a period of great vigour and change for the Anglican Church. In addition to major programmes of structural repairs, many cathedrals were updated for congregational worship.

The screens enclosing the choir and restricting access to services were removed. Seats were put in the nave so that more people could attend services, and artificial lighting (gas first, and later electric) allowed cathedrals to be used at night. All this work clearly had an impact, as church attendance rose in the 19th century.

'... a number of major new churches were built during the 20th century.'

Despite the Church’s increased religious vigour, its role in society was being diminished. A series of early 19th-century parliamentary acts allowed non-Conformists, Roman Catholics and other non-Anglicans to vote and to become Members of Parliament.

State or civil registration of births, marriages and deaths was introduced in the 1830s (the origins of the modern registry office wedding). This removed from the Church its former role in charting the progress of people’s lives. These changes have accelerated into the 21st century, as more and more people have chosen civil weddings and funerals, and church attendance has slowly fallen.

Nonetheless, a number of major new churches were built during the 20th century. Sir Basil Spence's Coventry Cathedral (1956-62) is perhaps the best known 20th-century English church. The ruins of the old cathedral, bombed by the Nazis, stand beside the powerful, almost brutal-looking new church as a potent symbol of resurrection.

Frederick Gibberd used an even more innovative design for the Roman Catholic cathedral in Liverpool (1960-67). His circular nave with its tall, central lantern placed the altar at the heart of the building and reflected the 1960 Vatican II reforms of the Catholic liturgy which brought the mass closer to the people.

In the early 19th century, there were many traditionalists who believed that giving greater civil rights to non-Anglicans would lead to the collapse of English society and the death of the Anglican Church. In the event, British society has not collapsed – it has thrived as non-Anglicans, and indeed many non-Christians, have taken an important role in public British public life.

The Church of England has fared rather less well. It remains the established Church, with the British monarch at its head, but church attendance is falling all the time, and there are calls for the remaining vestiges of a State role for the Church to be abolished. For now the system established by Henry VIII remains in place, but how much longer it will continue remains to be seen.

About the author

Carol Davidson Cragoe is Assistant Architectural Editor of the Victoria County History.


Published: 2005-02-04

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