The ruins of Tintern Abbey

The Roman roots of the English church

Perhaps two new church histories have a salutary message for today’s C of E

This article is taken from the April 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

The fallout over the Church of England’s response to Covid-19 is still with us, although from its toxic half-life the Archbishop of Canterbury now seems to have moved on to the damnatio memoriæ of long-dead sinners of whom he has decided to disapprove.

A suspicion in some quarters, that the closure of churches and the legally dubious strictures issued to the clergy during lockdown were little more than a ruse by which the traditional parish model might finally be swept away, has produced a groundswell of discontent. No stranger to these pages, the Rev Marcus Walker now chairs “Save the Parish”, and has been elected to General Synod — the C of E’s governing body — to the chagrin of panjandra and mandarins alike.

Going to Church in Medieval England, Nicholas Orme (Yale University Press, £20)

As the war of words continued, it was immensely encouraging to see Yale University Press bring out two major new works that dig deep into the national ecclesiastical hinterland: Nicholas Orme’s Going to Church in Medieval England, and James G. Clark’s The Dissolution of the Monasteries: A New History. In its origins, English Christianity was doubly Roman: it came first with the Empire, clinging to the coat-tails of the army and its baggage-trains, with St Alban as its protomartyr.

It was reinvigorated by Gregory the Great a couple of centuries later, when he sent Augustine and his reluctant companions from Rome as missionaries to confirm — through preaching and converting — the kingdoms of what would become England, as an old prayer has it, in the faith of the Holy Roman Church.

The relationship lasted for a thousand years. Orme tells a tale of continuity that begins with the arrival of Augustine in Kent in 597 — the first to hold Justin Welby’s high office — and ends with the changes that followed Henry VIII’s break with the papacy in the 1530s. Augustine and his fellow travellers were monks; Clark’s story is one of blood-stained rupture, dealing with the destruction of a way of life that had given a steady rhythm to English Christianity for centuries.

St Augustine of Canterbury preaching before Ethelbert, King of Kent

Both authors have deep roots in Exeter: Orme is a doyen of his field who retired to an emeritus chair in 2007, after four decades teaching in the Department of History; Clark has been Professor of History there since 2013. For both, too, Yale has produced a thoroughly attractive and satisfyingly heavy doorstopper. I have never felt very attached to the adage that one should never judge a book by its cover; first impressions are important, or the Folio Society would hardly have done so well.

Clark’s is stark, haunting, and immediately recognisable as the ruins of Tintern Abbey, roofless and gaping in the valley that Wordsworth loved so well. Orme has a more unsettling start, for the spire of the church on his jacket unmistakably belongs not to England but the Netherlands; the image is taken from Villagers on Their Way to Church in the Getty Museum at Los Angeles, painted in 1550 by Simon Bening (c.1483-1561), the last of the Flemish Primitives.

Villagers on Their Way to Church by Simon Bening about 1550 (Tempera colours and gold paint on parchment)

Nevertheless, Orme’s mastery of the subject shines through soon enough; given his long and distinguished career, this is hardly a surprise. With a light and accessible touch he leads his readers through the give-and-take of churchgoing from the origins of the parish among the newly converted Anglo-Saxons to the role it inevitably played in the implementation of the Reformation at local level.

For the most part, this is the history of the centuries when English Christianity was transalpine and overseen by the pope, rather than insular and governed by the sovereign. For want of space, Orme passes briefly over the short reign of Mary, which had it been longer might well have reversed the policies of her father and brother, and restored the provinces of Canterbury and York to the ecclesiological and jurisdictional purview of the Bishop of Rome.

Orme’s focus is less on the prelates and princes whose ambitions and conflicts directed the broad sweep of medieval history, and more on the experiences of the people who lived through it all. In the earliest days their nascent faith was established against the backdrop of the “Christianisation of the landscape”.

If they didn’t normally attend on Sundays, why turn up for a thrashing?

That was a process helped by the early missionary-saints, who with zeal that sometimes verged on spiritual masochism took on the rooting-out of the remnants of pagan practices, or simply lived and prayed in places that no one else would have dreamed of inhabiting. Their witness passed into legend; Thomas Lacey’s take is not much sung nowadays, but it’s in the English Hymnal at no. 544: “O Faith of England, taught of old / by faithful shepherds of the fold, / the hallowing of our nation.”

This sense of holiness and nationhood intertwines as Orme’s work progresses. He demonstrates in successive ages how the parish churches functioned in the midst of the people whom they served, and on the way we meet the clergy in their various orders and roles. They were essential to the sacramental function of the cultic rites, but not to the wholesale leadership of their communities; the laity feature prominently, and not only the men.

Of particular interest is Orme’s study of those who didn’t show up on Sunday morning, at a time when non-attendance was a regular concern. There were those who were excused, like shepherds and fishermen, and those who were not. Penalties for serial offenders included “being ceremonially beaten round the church”, which has elements of dark humour: if they didn’t normally attend on any number of Sundays, why would they turn up for a thrashing on another?

The quixotic attempts of the pious to guide and correct the ribald exist alongside a steady pulse that beats slowly in the background. Orme reminds us of the plodding march of time, day-by-day, week-by-week, and year-by-year. The changing of the seasons was reflected in the liturgical life of the parish, and in the same way also transferred to the human lifecycle; in an age of limited travel people were baptised in their parish churches, married there, and buried in their graveyards.

He concludes that most of the life of a 15th century parish church, of which much had been established for centuries, survived the Reformation. The depth and detail of his work lies in his characters, both saints and sinners, with all their wants, needs, foibles, hopes and fears. It is their complicated humanity — which does not seem so very different from our own — that makes them so appealing.

The Dissolution of the Monasteries: A New History, James G. Clark (Yale University Press, £25)

If parish churches made it through the Henrician reforms more or less intact, the same can hardly be said of the monasteries. Christianity might have sanctified the landscape — in that context Clark calls them “signs and signals” — but the dissolution of the religious houses left it strewn with deserted buildings that soon became wrecks. They became Shakespeare’s “bare ruin’d choirs, where late the sweet birds sang”, and it does not take much imagination to conjure up an image of the immensity of many of the great buildings as they originally stood: Tintern, Fountains, Rievaulx, among others.

Clark takes us into their lives on the cusp of closure, the working-out of their various fates, their brief restoration under Mary, and their final disappearance under Elizabeth. That said, some of the arrangements relating to the confiscation of property, and its income due to the Crown, were so convoluted that they were still being dealt with under William IV.

There’s a clever pun in the title, for, by the time the King’s Commissioners started sniffing around, many monks and nuns — though by no means all — were living in conditions that verged on luxury. Shades of the Clerk from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales linger: “I am obedience, heart and soul; that is, as far as reason will allow.” The lives of some of those nominally vowed to poverty were so different from those of the ordinary parish clergy, not to mention those of their parishioners, that a number of religious communities were not necessarily universally valued or admired by their neighbours, and by the 15th century, their various forms of clothing had even become an object of open derision in certain quarters.

Clark introduces us to the various players tasked with carrying out Henry’s commands, some of those who opposed them, and others who were perfectly happy to go with the flow. A compliant superior received a far better deal than one who went under duress; some did very well indeed.

Some went prayerfully to the gallows, preferring death to the breaking of their vows

At Wilton, the abbess, Cecily Bodenham, could hardly hand her keys over to the Commissioners fast enough, and ended her days in comfortable retirement. Six new cathedrals emerged from suppressed abbeys and priories — Bristol, Chester, Gloucester, Oxford, Peterborough and (briefly) Westminster — and for a pliant priest-monk there might be plenty of preferment to be gained under the new arrangements. Henry Holbeach, the former prior of Worcester, took full advantage; he ended his days as Bishop of Lincoln, about to bed a wife.

Direct quotations of records, complete with the original spellings, involves a bit of enjoyable light work to decipher what the subjects are discussing; it is totally engaging as a motif, and enables Clark to draw the reader deep into his narrative. Again, this is a story of humans being human; it amounts to a litany of jealousy, lust, greed, bravery, cowardice, indifference, and the rest. At its denouement, some went prayerfully to the gallows, preferring death to the breaking of their vows; the great majority went quietly away, and it is hard to blame them.

Having cast off their distinctive dress, passing through the gates they re-entered the world both figuratively and literally. What is particularly telling is that when Mary came to the throne and briefly restored the religious life in England, there was next to nothing English about it. It may have been Roman, but it was simultaneously inorganic, self-conscious, and inexperienced; fewer than 20 monastic pensioners returned to their vows.

These books have much to say about how religious identity implanted itself deep in the English psyche, and also about what is now known as “change management”. Perhaps they also have a salutary message for today about where the C of E might be heading. Orme’s position that “a church’s personality is holy” seems to be obvious; recent developments have taught us that there are hierarchs for whom it is not.

Clark’s simultaneous lesson is that once a way of life is disrupted, it is not automatically resumed with alacrity or enthusiasm when the opportunity arises; habits are abandoned easily enough. Easter will soon be upon us, and the number of communicants in the parish registers — one of the figures used by ecclesiastical statisticians for gauging church attendance — will either tell a tale of continuity, or one of rupture. It will be a telling yardstick as to how well, or how badly, the Church of England has weathered the storm.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover