Blogroll: God Gold and Generals
I read blogs, as well as write one. The 'blogroll' on this site reproduces some posts from some of the people I enjoy reading. There are currently 2 posts from the blog 'God Gold and Generals.'
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This splendid book and wonderfully colourful book is well titled: it examines in fascinating detail the experience of people going to church in the medieval period in England, up to and including the reformation. It’s not a theological book (though there is theology in it) but a book looking at what it would have been like to travel back in a time machine and attend church in say 1350.
As well as being well written and packed with great stories it’s also highly topical. “Save the parish” is a recent campaign to save the 12500 parish churches in England.
Speaking at the launch one lady said the parish church “speaks in itself of other values than the mercenary and the utilitarian. ... The church is a kind of guarantor of the holiness of the whole area.”. Quite a few have spoken of the evangelical wing of the church as having an anti parish agenda.
The CofEs director of evangelism and discipleship however argued “Throughout our history, there have always been other forms of churches alongside and within (parishes) — from cathedrals and chapels to fresh expressions and church plants, all of these come from and are part of the parishes. We need them all”
So the timing for this book couldn’t be better. What was the parish church like in its “golden age”? What was the typical experience of a parishioner? Were the reformers bent on destroying the parish? Read and learn.
From about 300 onwards people in Britain were going to church. We know there were three bishops at a council in France in 313, one from London and York and probably one from Lincoln. Following the Roman withdrawal, the pagan Saxons were converted until by around 680 the whole of Britain was nominally Christian
Britain was not urbanised so clergy (some secular ie often married) were sent out as missionaries from “minsters” (an anglicisation of the Latin word monasterium). The minsters taught preached and baptised. Towns grew up around the minsters - some new like Durham, some revivals of Roman towns like Winchester. The interaction of people with the church was intermittent - lengthy journeys were often needed. Landowners wanted to have churches to hand and new smaller churches emerged. Some were independent and even at odds with the Minster church. As time went by many of the minsters became monasteries that were “professionalised” - monks separate from the world. Religion became distinct: that of the clergy (monks, canons) and that of the laity. At larger churches, a chaplain might be employed to take care of the laity and the building was formally separated.
By the twelfth century, the parish system roughly as it is today was in place: boundaries could not be changed save by order of the bishop or even the Pope. There was no central creation: the authorities recognised the existing system. Often the driver was money: who paid for which church? Arguments over the finances of parish churches have a long history and are one of the main themes in the book might be characterised as “he who pays the piper calls the tune”.
Towns also had parishes, often a large number: York Lincoln Winchester and Norwich all had around 50 and London over a hundred. Parish churches were under the control of landowners although by 1215 the church had exerted control: the landowners became patrons with the right to propose a priest but the Bishop admitted him. In practice, though the local magnate had great power. The situation in large cities (particularly London ) was more complex: the parish system was designed for an agrarian rural context and though there were, of course, parishes in London their effectiveness varied. The whole north of England was always problematic: places like Manchester and Doncaster or Cumbria had either vast parishes or huge number of parishioners. Resources were concentrated in the wealthier southern areas.
The services, of course, were in Latin but on Sundays, the priest was expected in theory once in a while to explain the gospel in English. Parishioners were expected to attend church regularly. In the early medieval period the Eucharist was received at Easter and possibly other times, while communion was in both kinds: only later was it restricted.
But the parish church was not at all the most common church building: this was the chapel. (The word comes from the famous relic- the cloak or Capella of St Martin). These were very numerous: in Devon for example there were three times as many chapels as parish churches. There was a strong impetus to supplement parish churches with other places of worship: this tended to cause friction with the parish church as the new chapel drew away revenues and congregations. While these chapels were meant to be subject to and attend the parish church as well, in practice they were often independent especially if backed by local gentry. Chapels were often controlled and run by the laity. Orne writes “such chapels anticipated the free church meeting houses”. In fact, sometimes they were very near to that model: in the 1380s some Lollards near Leicester based themselves in the chapel of St Katherine where two of them showed their disregard for the veneration of Saints by burning her image to cook their cabbage soup!
Clergy had to be at least 25 and in theory educated, though periodic visitation reports indicate this was far from always the case. At the beginning of the medieval period many clergy were married and succeeding your father was common: by the 13th C though clerical marriage was illegal but in practice, many clergy were “married” with their wives or concubines disguised as housekeepers. Socially, clergy were below the gentry (who were often their employer) and some chaplains could be very poor: Chaucer places the parson above only his brother the plowman.
Church buildings are a massive topic but in short, the chancel was in theory reserved for the clergy (often behind a screen which meant the congregation couldn’t easily see what was going on, though they were supposed to be able to see the Mass). In practice, though those of higher rank often ignored this and as we get nearer the reformation more and more laity gained exclusive access to the chancel . The laity would also be increasingly seated: often if rich in elaborate stalls. Seating was by rank and by gender: men and women were by custom normally separated (women on the north men on the south: the north was the side of the saved at the Day of judgment, men, therefore, were better able to stand against the temptations of the lost on the south, which is why in a wedding even today the groom is normally on the right or south side. )
As time went by it was more common for the wealthy to sit together husband and wife. Services became more static and authorities began to order “none to walk or stand idly about talking”.
In general, church was much less behaved than now. A knight in Kent came to church with his hat on and a hawk on his wrist and when challenged struck the vicar in the mouth. Dogs were also popular with predictable consequences! The milder end of secular practices like teaching, morality plays, courts and “refreshments” were tolerated in church but there were frequent prohibitions of dancing and drinking.
In general there was a perpetual struggle for control of the parish between the church authorities and the laity. The ambitions of the church was to keep the laity out of power and out of the chancel where the mass was celebrated. But “this was never wholly achieved and was perceptibly undermined during the later Middle Ages”. After the high watermark of church control in say 1200, the (wealthy) laity steadily regained power and influence. Money talks. As now!
How widespread was church attendance? Certainly, the frequent complaints and clampdowns show a far from uniformly pious society. Most likely to attend would be the gentry (unless they had a private chapel) as this was the place they could receive respect and literally occupy the seats of power. Occasionally quarrels over who sat where ended in violence. The same attendance of the rich was true in towns for wealthy merchants and especially their wives (then as now women outnumbered men in church). An Italian visiting London in 1500 noted gentlewomen attending church every day with books (which were becoming increasingly popular) and rosaries. Children as now sometimes disrupted the services to the annoyance of others. Again the wealthier families would have gone en masse while their servants and their children laboured at home. Sometimes there were inducements to attend: either a condition of receiving alms or as a handout at an obit mass.
Complaints about non-attendance were numerous. Some worried commentators wrote of “the stalls of the tavern stuffed with drinkers while in the church stalls you shall see few or none”. Persistent non-attenders - often the poor or those of the working classes - were singled out and made to do penance, such as in one case a man ceremonially being beaten around the church carrying the shoes he had been selling! Despite that, there was tolerance for people whose work was deemed essential or those like fishermen who faced practical problems attending. There was a strong Sabbatarian belief in keeping Sunday special. A popular painting was of a bleeding Christ surrounded by the instruments of work that wounded him afresh. Teenagers then as now were famously hard to rouse out of bed to attend church. Sport was also a big temptation. A Gloucestershire clergyman found 14 people playing tennis when they should have been in church.
Of course, this led to an awful lot of people in the church who might not have wished to be there. People walked around, chattered, read, and especially sometimes argued. The main flashpoint topic was one of “precedence” - who was the social superior of others. Women were dragged out of their seats by other women who felt that they were of higher rank. Clothes were also important especially for the rich. Interestingly men wore hoods or hats only removing them at the elevation of the host. Kneeling became more common as people were seated which became increasingly the norm - you bought your own seat or had one built. Crossing oneself was also very common: a practice disliked by the reformers. Prayers were focused around the Lord’s Prayer the creed and the Ave Maria: as time went on praying these repeatedly were seen to acquire merit for the person using them. In the 1400s more and more wealthy people acquired what we would call devotional literature- prayer books, stories of the Saints and even the liturgy itself in book form were increasingly used and bought to church and read while the service was ongoing.
The overall level of piety is very hard to assess. Until the 1380s England lacked a pattern of “heresy” as was found in say France. Opposition tended to be around refusing to attend church, pay the church taxes or follow the church’s moral code. The church regarded this as disobedience, not heresy. Sceptics expressed their views through scoffing and ridicule. All this changed with the arrival of the Lollards from 1380 which meant the authorities cracked down on sceptics - many of whose beliefs were not full-blown Lollardy but rather widespread scepticism over disputed doctrines such as the real presence or dislike of the churches power and wealth.
This lay hostility to the church was paralleled by a systematic growth over this period of lay power. Not just through the local gentry but through associations such as guilds, companies and chantries. Services were very frequent - Mass should be celebrated daily and very often as well as specific “chantry priests” saying masses for the souls of the dead. Indeed a parish clergyman was “to a significant extent a chantry priest…his responsibilities complemented not replaced the praying for the departed”. Services were probably about an hour to an hour and a half and on Sundays, the laity was expected to attend matins and evensong and mass (so 4-5 hours in church). However, this expectation was widely ignored notably as, unlike the mass these services were not addressed to them. The congregation didn’t participate in these services: One could pray extempore, meditate or if literate read books such as a psalter.
But the mass was the key service above all on Sundays and festivals. The high point of the service was the moment of consecration, as the ordinary people would rarely take communion, perhaps only at Easter: the wealthy remember would often be near to the altar but the “common folk” would be excluded by the chancel screen, though this was supposed to be pierced to allow visibility. This elevation produced excitement - one reformer wrote of people crying out to the priest “hold up Sir john hold up” while others said, “stoop down thou fellow before that I may see my maker”. When communion was given or the pax circulated (an image in place of kissing each other) it was in the order of precedence and gender - which led to fierce arguments. In Essex in 1522 a gentleman was so irate at being offered the pax after others he smashed it in pieces on the clerk's head.
Prayers were made (often in English) and announcements were made. Pardoners (as vilified but Chaucer) might appeal for money or sell indulgences. This brings us to preaching which was of course one of the main complaints of the reformers - that people didn’t understand their faith. Numerous archbishops issued instructions calling for good preaching and educated priests for “the ignorance of priests casts the people into the pit of error”. Sermons if they occurred would have been in English normally and 10-15 minutes long.
However numerous complaints about non-existent or incomprehensible preaching indicate these instructions were not followed often due to the poor education of the priest himself. In response to this help was made available by the 15th C in the form of model sermons, explaining a Bible passage or the Saints day. A kind of medieval Proclamation Trust!
Many people attended other sermons (normally in the afternoon) and in the cities, there were ample opportunities to hear notable preachers. Friars became increasingly important and friaries focused heavily on sermon preparation. Friars increasingly began to circulate in rural areas and would draw large crowds, often to the annoyance of the parish priest who couldn’t compete with these highly educated itinerants. . Such preachers had their work cut out - if they were judged dull the congregation would up and leave (unlike the mass, attendance was voluntary). Outbursts from the pew could be violent: when the “revivalist preacher” William Swinderby of Leicester attacked women’s adornments the women of Leicester threatened to stone him. But normally the Mass did not emphasise teaching and the communication was through sight and ceremony not instruction.
Finally, we come to the reformation. The reformers were drawing in powerful undercurrents. There is no particular evidence, argues Orme, of increasing anticlericalism, though it was certainly there. The growth in lay influence has been commented on: more specific was growth in the power of the King. Royal emblems in the church begin to appear much more frequently. The clergy were much more strictly controlled by the state which also taxed them much more heavily. Devotion to Christ (as opposed to Mary or the Saints) became much more prevalent, though the cult of the Virgin Mary was still very important. Pulpits became more prominent and the arrival of printing made standardisation and explanation of liturgy much easier.
For the parish church itself, the biggest change of the reformation was the availability of the Bible in both Latin and English - it should be placed in the chancel for “every man that will to look and read their in”. Services were to include the Bible read in English. Images were not necessarily removed but kneeling or offerings to them were forbidden.
Interestingly enough for high church fans of the parish, the reformers were dead against the chapels which they regarded as encouraging superstitious worship of Saints and weakened the authority of the parish church. The reformation was the triumph of the parish church versus other expressions. Preaching was encouraged: a minimum of four times a year was the expected standard (!). The prayer book was introduced: for the first time, there was a standardised national liturgy.
The reformers were keen to encourage communion more frequently but met with little success. Reshaping the nature of worship was more successful “Sunday services became more Instructive partly because they were in English”. Confession became counselling. Many of the changes can be classified as “uniformity”. Every service should be the same and the instrument to achieve this was printing. The multiple non-parish alternatives before the reformation were removed: the injunction of 1559 forbade the practice of worshipping elsewhere. Only two services took place: morning and evening. The priest - or minister as the words were used interchangeably- and congregation were brought much closer together. The parish church services were much more educational and bought a much greater familiarity with the Bible. Saints, images and even the cross as a symbol were jettisoned.
But much in terms of religious practice remained the same and the parish became the arena for much stricter enforcement of religious uniformity. The parishes and vicars and bishops remained just as before. “Churchgoing kept much of its ancient character “ argues Orme. People were required to be in church for a lengthy period of time on Sunday (probably an hour and a half in the morning and less in the evening). The reformers were not particularly bothered about how the congregation reacted during the service and people continued for example to kneel and the men to doff their hats at the name of Jesus. Reformers “remained attached to many aspects of the past: a Christian state and society, parish structures, church patronage, infant baptism, and many more. “
So for those who wish to “save the parish” often though not always in contrast to “evangelicals” seeking change a few thoughts to conclude
The parish system in medieval England was far from uniform and in fact, most churches were outside the parish system and there has always been tension between the parish church and other churches.
The reformers (“evangelicals “ we might say) far from wanting to undermine the parish worked to achieve the exact reverse.
Money has always been a big issue. Who pays? No taxation without representation - a powerful cry today (the cry “why should I pay for something I totally disagree with” has a long history!) The tensions in the parish were often between the clergy and the laity - with the latter over time gaining increasing power and influence. The parish system was geared for the rich and powerful who enjoyed even in the same church a very different experience of “the local parish church” to the poor in exactly the same service .
Wealthy parishes also had huge staff and money while poorer parishes especially in the north struggled with few staff and huge congregations. There was no mechanism for helping the north whilst Resources were very unevenly distributed and were controlled by the rich. Cities especially London functioned completely differently and the parish church system was above all one of wealthy southern rural communities. Plus ca change!
The degree of understanding of what was happening for the congregation was low - and that was often true of the priest as well. This worked to some extent (though of course was one of the central complaints of the reformers) as with a few exceptions everyone was to a greater or lesser extent “religious”.
Most obviously the parish system functioned and flourished because everyone had to be in the church whether they liked it or not - at least twice on a Sunday and a minimum of 30 times in addition on various feasts and Saints days. While the reformation abolished most of the latter it reinforced the enforcement of church attendance not least to guard against hidden Catholicism.
The church was central and serious to everyone’s life. Just look at the money poured into church buildings which stand as mute testimony to the massive centrality of God to all aspects of medieval life. That is to state the bleedingly obvious hardly the case today. The situation today i suggest is much more like 600 than 1500 - a pagan nation ignoring God. The minster church seeking to reach the pagan may be a more relevant model than a parish one ministering fo a captive audience.
Having said all that with all its limitations the parish church has endured for 1000 years plus (in some cases longer). It wasn’t in the Middle Ages a monolithic centralised system but was surprisingly diverse and varied. Most churches were not parish churches. Parish churches were geared for and run by the rich.
The irony of irony is that the modern “standardised” parish and its “standardised” worship was to a large extent the product of the reforming evangelicals. Far from dismantling the parish church, they built it.
This is a brilliant book most attractively produced and sold at a very reasonable price.
Dr Frederik Mulder has produced a very thorough and incisive analysis of the situation facing the Church of England.
You can read his argument or watch his video here
He knows the situation well having undertaken a series of theological studies and has discussed the key issues with some of the people he cites.
Let me try and summarise his case. I will start with what I agree with.
1. Evangelicals are losing the fight in the Church of England. This to me is indisputable despite vainglorious claims in the past. Lloyd Jones was I believe right and Stott was wrong in 1966. Stott himself indicated at the end of his life, suggests Dr Mulder, a shift in his opinion
Mulder chronicles a long and dismal record of retreat beginning with the crucial amendment to the Declaration of Assent to the 39 articles in 1968. One cannot avoid admitting that worthy evangelicals like Jim Packer and Michael Green seem to have been duped into a crucial change where effectively you could deny the articles, whilst rather weaselly saying they were correct at the time they were instituted. From then on a whole series of ordained liberal academics and bishops systematically and openly denied crucial doctrines such as the virgin birth, the resurrection and the atonement.
Dr Mulder doesn’t spell this out but others have pointed out since the - in my view disastrous- Keele NEAC meeting of 1967 evangelical Anglicans went from saying they were contending for the reformed faith and truth to accepting evangelicals were but one of the many traditions in the CofE and that crucially come what may they wouldn’t leave.
2. The failure of church discipline. What happened when all of this above occurred? Nothing. Lee Gatiss is quoted in 2019 as admitting that there has been a complete collapse in discipline. He is quoted as saying “You can get away with preaching almost anything”. Don Cupitt who denied even a personal God, was supported Mulder points out by the ABC and when the Bishop of Durham denied the resurrection he was backed by 18 bishops and the ABC.
3. The failure of evangelical response. What was the evangelical response for example to the new liturgy for transgender people? Moaning and groaning and letter writing but nothing really changed. If there is an evangelical strategy it certainly hasn’t been communicated
4. The author gives some interesting and deeply sad personal anecdotes of his recent experience trying Anglican churches in Winchester. He is told even in the evangelical Anglican church that it’s all about “building bridges”. Don’t rock the boat is the watchword.
5. Crucially Mulder points out that for some evangelical Anglicans COME WHAT MAY they will never leave. I can recall having this discussion at university 40 years ago. “Would you leave the Church of England, “ I rather provocatively asked my friends “if the Archbishop of Canterbury said we should worship the devil?” Silence and rather embarrassed grins were the answers. Sadly, as Mulder points out for some evangelicals the attachment to the CofE is so strong that “their British Anglican identity trumps orthodox belief”. I can’t help thinking that belonging to a cosy establishment which is respectable and privileged is a major factor for some.
He points out how sad and self-defeating it is when evangelical people staying in the church denigrate and criticise friends leaving (say to AMIE) as “abandoning the flock”. This is something I have observed. In fact, Church of England evangelicals should make common cause with those leaving for other Anglican causes such as AMIE and equally other evangelicals outside Anglicanism. This is exactly what Lloyd Jones said - it’s madness when we visibly identify with those who deny basic Christian truth and separate from those who affirm it.
Pragmatically this also means I suggest that the stronger the alternative option the better for the evangelical people within the CofE, not the reverse, because there is a credible alternative. If there is no alternative then the outcome is clear.
As a layman, I would love to see a closer alignment with AMIE, FIEC etc. The Gospel Partnerships are a good example of what this cooperation can look like.
What I don’t agree with
Frederik’s conclusion is that evangelicals should leave the Church of England. He quotes a number of passages from 2 Timothy and Ephesians and elsewhere about having nothing to do with false teachers. In particular, he criticises Lee Gatiss and others for advocating getting elected and working in synods as this contradicts these scriptural instructions, given the highly liberal views of some of the other synod members. This he feels violates the scriptural principles on association with false teachers
I’m not sure this makes sense. Imagine you have a synod or a church meeting and one person out of say 500 a was advocates false teaching. Do you then boycott the meeting? I suggest not, rather you struggle and try and correct the false teaching. The question is whether the struggle is lost. When it is lost then and only then leave. In the meantime fight for what you believe in.
Spurgeon followed this strategy with the Baptist Union in the “ Downgrade Controversy “ only leaving when he was defeated eventually by a vote of 2000-7. (I am not arguing that Spurgeon would have stayed - he would never have been an Anglican full stop - but that if you have a cause you fight for it until it’s lost. I understand Frederik's view that by attending synod you associate with false teachers: my contention is that on the contrary by contending for what’s right and refuting false teaching you are not associating but repudiating such teaching.
I don’t believe it is right to leave now for the following reasons.
1. The official teaching of the church has not changed - though Frederik argues that the change around the 39 articles amounts to such a change I’m not convinced .
2. There are (finally!) some clear red lines. The “Anglicanism trumps everything else” view espoused above is not held by many evangelicals. People will leave in a worst-case. My own rector Angus MacLeay has been very clear about what his red lines are (see 1, you can read his interview on this in the latest EN.) I fully support his stance and am reassured that there are circumstances where he would say “enough”. Interestingly we should consider John Stott who in 1995 said he would have to leave if an alternative to biblical marriage is officially approved. JC Ryle who is often quoted in favour of staying must be spinning in his grave following the 1968 alterations to the Declaration of Assent and the Myth, Jenkins, Cupitt and Liverpool Cathedral Bishop and 2018 official transgender liturgy approved by all the House of Bishops and defended at Synod by an Evangelical!
To me, it’s fundamental that there has to be a point where we say “this far and no further”. Having no such red line is a recipe for endless compromise and is tantamount to hoisting a white flag.
3. There are ever stronger and better-established alternatives if the “worst comes to the worst” : the “lifeboats” are more seaworthy and numerous. In particular the revitalised CEEC I believe can provide a clear articulation of what the red lines are and what the overall plan is for evangelicals - something that has been I believe lacking in the last decades
4. An increasing number of Anglican evangelical leaders have been speaking openly to their congregation about the desperate seriousness of the situation. This “mobilisation” of the laity is vital as this has been a major weakness of the evangelical position.
5. Lloyd-Jones instruction to associate with fellow evangelicals and refuse to associate with false teachers - in other words for evangelicals to prioritise truth over denominational loyalty - is increasingly occurring at the local level. I would love to see that this trend increases. The Gospel Partnerships are a great vehicle for such collaboration.
It may be that the situation in the Church of England deteriorates, that the red lines above are crossed and evangelicals need to leave. But in the meantime let’s contend for the faith once delivered to the saints.
Coming back to Dr Mulder’s video and article I think he makes a very accurate and penetrating diagnosis of the severity of the disease. Especially he skilfully traces out how related failures to stand up and be counted has brought us to the position we are in. We disagree to an extent about the treatment needed but are fully in agreement about the seriousness of the situation.