The fourth-century decrees of Pope Gelasius had required the use of tithes - a tax at the rate of one tenth of all goods and produce on land - to fund church maintenance, pay salaries to the clergy and provide relief for the poor of the parish. This system was adopted in England in the late tenth century, but fairly quickly it evolved along completely different lines from those originally intended.
'The monks were able to "appropriate" churches by paying a vicar to perform all church services ...'
After the Conquest many of the new Norman lords wished to found monasteries, in keeping with established tradition in their homeland across the Channel. In order to provide the monks with an income on which to live, the secular lords donated entire manors, and the advowson of the churches on the manors, to the newly established monasteries - the abbot of the monastery then collected rents from his tenants in the manner of a secular lord.
The monks were able to ‘appropriate’ the churches on their newly acquired properties by paying a vicar to perform the necessary church services. This was a cost to them, but they would keep the salary low, and the monasteries still made a healthy profit. In addition, the monks used the tithes to maintain their own buildings, but said this excused them from contributing their full share towards the maintenance of the church.
Consequently, to prevent many parish churches from falling into disrepair, 13th-century bishops issued orders, known as statutes, to rectify the problem. These episcopal statutes introduced the concept that parishioners had to pay for the maintenance of the nave, whilst the rector bore the cost for the upkeep of the chancel.
'... churchwardens were elected by the parish to look after the church and its ornaments.'
Parishioners had to find extra funds to pay for liturgical fittings such as candles, bells and the font. To meet these demands on the local community, churchwardens were elected by the parish to look after the church and its ornaments. In later years, churchwardens (and their modern equivalent, the vestry) not only maintained the parish church, but also looked after other secular aspects of parochial administration, such as repairs to, and upkeep of, roads and bridges.
For the most part, when repairs or rebuilding became due, the relationship between parishioners and clergy seems to have remained cordial. A church like Northleach in Gloucestershire, rebuilt in the Perpendicular style in the late 15th century, suggests that parishioners and clergy often co-operated on large-scale projects.
However, life may not have been so amicable at Cley-next-the-Sea in Norfolk, where the elaborate 14th- and 15th-century nave, transepts and tower are in marked contrast to the much smaller, simpler chancel.