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18 September 2014
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The Reformation: The People's View

By Carol Davidson Cragoe
Changing times

Image of tower at St Philips in Birmingham
The distinctive tower of the Anglican Cathedral of St Philip's, Birmingham ©
By the early 19th century, the old parish system was on the verge of collapse. Its boundaries had been set in the 12th century, and the landscape of England had changed enormously since then.

Growing cities like Birmingham, Liverpool, London and Manchester were particularly badly served, especially around their formerly rural fringes. Even if there was a church nearby, there was no guarantee that you could get a seat. In most churches, the pews were rented out to individual families - often a pew belonged to a house.

'Only an act of Parliament could create new parishes ...'

This placed a great pressure on space, as no one else could sit there. Galleries along the sides and back of the nave for free seating were built to try and cope with this problem, but even this often was insufficient to meet the expanding population.

Only an act of Parliament could create new parishes, as the parish was regarded as a unit of civil, as well as ecclesiastical, jurisdiction and therefore under secular control. Such acts were sometimes obtained, as in 1708 for St Philip's in Birmingham (now the cathedral), but this was a difficult procedure.

New chapels could be built within existing parishes, but as the funds often came from selling pews in advance, these 'proprietary' churches did not alleviate a shortage of seats. The situation was not necessarily any better in rural areas. In the north-west, for instance, old parishes were often huge and inadequately staffed.

'The ecclesiastical world had finally succumbed to the secular one ...'

Where established churches failed to meet people’s religious needs, Nonconformists often stepped into the breach. Both ‘old dissent’ and new forms like Methodism, made huge gains in England (and Wales) in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

The Act for Promoting the Building of Additional Churches in Populous Parishes, passed in 1818, made £1,000,000 of government money available for new churches. It also made it much easier to sub-divide existing parishes. The churches built with this money kicked off a programme of church building in the 19th century on a scale not seen in England since the 12th century.

It also led to a complete rethinking of the way Anglican churches were designed and how they were used. The ecclesiastical world had finally succumbed to the secular one, and now the state gained complete control of people’s hearts, minds and souls as they progressed through the journey of life.

Published: 2005-02-07

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