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In the circumstances of nineteenth-century England, the argument for an Establishment must in fairness be pronounced to be convincing. The parochial system, worked by a married clergy, was unquestionably a civilizing influence which nothing else could have replaced. Whether it was in equal measure a religious influence may be doubted: the English Churchman was rarely so well informed in his faith as the Irish Catholic or the Scotch Presbyterian, and he was not called upon to be so active in his membership as the English Dissenter. The Church was on the defensive: Nonconformity had the strategic initiative. The Church was aristocratic: the Church was the greatest landed proprietor in the kingdom: and in the sixties even well-disposed men might wonder anxiously whether the Church was still the bulwark it had once been against Popery and Infidelity. — G. M. Young, Victorian England: Portrait of an Age

For its entire lifespan, the Church of England has experienced one crisis after another. Forged in crisis in the sixteenth century, driven underground for part of the seventeenth, challenged by freethinking and Methodism in the eighteenth, and beset with internal quarrels in the nineteenth, it has been weakened by secularism and unbelief thereafter. In our own time, religious allegiance is widely seen as intellectually unrespectable and socially discordant: a shift which has particularly affected Anglicanism, so long synonymous with belonging. Conversely, among those who yearn for alternatives to secular credos, it can seem the least enterprising of spiritual paths. — Alison Shell, Time Literary Supplement

Protestantism established a precarious toehold in England very shortly after Luther's initial protest in 1517, but for many years Protestants remained a tiny minority, frequently persecuted. There was, however, widespread discontent both at the extent of corruption within the English Catholic Church and at its lack of spiritual vitality. A pervasive anti-clerical attitude on the part of the population as a whole and in Parliament in particular made it possible for Henry VIII to obtain an annulment in 1533 of his first marriage (to Catherine of Aragon) in the face of papal opposition, and in 1534 the Act of Supremacy transferred papal supremacy over the English Church to the crown. It was not until the 1550's, however, under Edward VI, that the English Church became Protestant in doctrine and ritual, and even then it remained traditional in organization. Under the Roman Catholic Mary I a politico-religious reaction resulted in the burning at the stake of some prominent Protestants and the exile of many others, which led in turn to a popular association of Catholicism with persecution and Spanish domination. When Elizabeth I succeeded to the throne in 1558, however, she restored a moderate Protestantism, codifying the Anglican faith in the Act of Uniformity, the Act of Supremacy, and the Thirty-Nine Articles.

From the time of the Elizabethan settlement on, the Church of England (the Anglican Church) attempted, with varying degrees of success, to consolidate its position both as a distinctive middle way between Catholicism and Puritanism and as the national religion of England. Under Charles I, the "popish" High-Church policies of the Arminian William Laud alienated the Puritan wing of the Church, and after the victory of Cromwell's (frequently Puritan) parliamentarians over Charles's (frequently Catholic) Royalists in the Civil Wars of 1642-1651, the Anglican Church, by now the Church of England, was largely dismantled.

The Puritan emphasis on individualism, however, made the establishment of a national Presbyterian Church during the Interregnum impossible, and the Restoration of the Monarchy under Charles II in 1660 facilitated the re-establishment of the Anglican Church, purged of Puritans, who split into various dissenting factions. It remained the official state church until the passage of the Toleration Act in 1690, which permitted Dissenters to hold meetings in licensed preaching houses. Thereafter it grew both politically and spiritually weaker, and the eighteenth century found it largely unprepared for the serious spiritual challenge which was implicit in the appearance of Methodism.

At the time of the birth of the Methodist movement in the late eighteenth century, there were 13,500 Anglican priests in England, but only 11,700 livings (fixed incomes derived from Church lands and tithes and attached to a particular parish) to support them, and many of the livings paid so poorly that many priests held more than one. Some priests, too, thanks to political and social influence, controlled more than one of the wealthy livings. In addition, the Church was far too dependent upon political and economic interests to reform itself: half of all livings were granted by landowners, and the government had the right to appoint all bishops, a number of prebends, and hundreds of livings, so that it is not exaggerating too much to say that the Church became, to a considerable degree, the preserve of the younger sons of members of the aristocracy who had little interest in religion and less interest in the growing numbers of urban poor. There were, in consequence, over 6,000 Anglican parishes with no priests at all, and it was into this void that the Methodist evangelicals stepped.

Four Punch cartoons from the late 1850s and '60s commenting on problems in the Established Church. Left: Alma Mater. Middle left: A Pan-Anglican Washing Day. Middle right: A Pan-Anglican Oversight. Right: Orthodox. [Click on thumbnails for larger images.]

In the nineteenth century the Church of England remained a middle way, but had to widen its doctrines considerably. This process was facilitated to a considerable degree in part because many upper-class Anglicans, tired of doctrinal disputes, wanted only a rational, moderate, practical religion which would permit them to worship in peace. This "Latitudinarian" outlook made it possible for the Church to absorb not only the Evangelical movement which, fueled by the same energies which had given birth to Methodism, broadened the Anglican Low-Church faction, but also the Oxford Movement which, fueled by the same activist impulses, presided over the revival of a High-Church faction at the other extreme. During the greater part of the nineteenth century the Evangelicals remained dominant among the clergy, but the universities had become bastions of the High-Church faction. At the same time, the Roman Catholic Relief Act of 1829 emancipated Catholics, and this put still more pressure on the Church, as many High-Churchmen, notably Newman and his disciples, would eventually defect to Catholicism. Meanwhile, the Broad Church faction received governmental support which was out of all proportion to its size. In the mid-nineteenth century, then, the Church of England was disorganized. Though its adherents were largely conservative, a considerable portion of its leadership was, ideologically speaking, perilously close to Catholicism, and the religious census of 1851 showed that it was reaching only about fourteen percent of the population of England.

Although the real authority of the Church diminished thereafter, evangelical fervor diminished as well, and there was a considerable movement of industrial wealth from the old Nonconformists to the established church. The public schools and the universities, even after they were freed of religious restrictions, remained bastions of Anglicanism, and in 1919 the Church attained a still greater degree of unity when, after the passage of an act which effectively separated Church and State, it established an assembly which would, fifty years later, become the main legislative body of the Church.

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The Oxford History of Anglicanism. Rowan Strong, General Editor. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019.

Content first created 1988

Epigraph added 26 July 2019; link added 9 April 2021