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18 September 2014
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The Reformation: The People's View

By Carol Davidson Cragoe
Parish churches today

Image of the exterior of St Mary's at Tedburn St Mary in Devon
A feature of the landscape - St Mary's, Tedburn St Mary, Devon ©
A 21st-century visitor to an Anglican parish church does not see the church as it was in the Middle Ages - all that was swept away at the Reformation. But neither does he or she see it as it would have been in the 17th or 18th centuries - almost all post-Reformation changes were swept away in the 19th century.

There is no doubt that many churches were in need of attention and repair in the early 19th century, but restoration could go too far. At St Mary-in-Castro, Leicester, for instance, a medieval arcade and aisle were taken down and replaced in 1850 by George Gilbert Scott, on the highly questionable grounds that they didn't 'go' with the rest of the church. From the late 19th century, the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (SPAB) has advocated a more sensitive approach to historic buildings.

'The future of the parish church is, in many ways, as uncertain now as it was after the Reformation.'

Since the 20th century, the Anglican Church has slowly moved away from its past. A new Common Worship service has recently been introduced, although technically the 1662 Book of Common Prayer still remains in use. Many parish churches now have altars in the nave, so the services can be seen and heard by the congregation.

The future of the parish church is, in many ways, as uncertain now as it was after the Reformation (although for very different reasons). Church attendance has fallen by about a third since 1970, and many parish churches are now too big, in the wrong place, or simply an unsuitable arrangement for modern congregations.

As a consequence, some have found other uses, others have simply been abandoned. The decline in church-going bears testimony to the breaking down of the community ties which previously centred on the local church.

However, parish churches can still provide an amazingly vivid picture of the twists and turns of religious history since the Reformation. The buildings contain countless clues about the past, and richly reward a visitor's close attention.

About the author

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


Published: 2005-02-07

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