The Church and the Clergy in the early 1800s.


Throughout Europe during the Middle Ages, there was continuous disagreement between the Church and State.  In 1533 these differences came to a head in England when Henry VII requested a divorce from his first wife, Queen Catherine of Aragon for not producing a male heir.  The Pope denied his request and after several attempts to reverse the decision, Henry VII ended up breaking all ties with Rome and created the Church of England.  Under the Act of Supremacy in 1534, Henry VII was allowed to divorce Queen Catherine of Aragon in spite of papal opposition.  The act rejected papal authority and declared the King to be the supreme head of the English church.  The Church of England then aimed to regenerate the church and free it from corrupt Roman tradition.  However, despite all of its efforts, the church experienced a decline in active participants and was not prepared for the serious spiritual challenge that the Methodist and Evangelical movements presented in the eighteenth century.

Parish churches played an important role in the community as social institutions.  Public religious practice was not only for the purposes of worship, but also for the social interactions it provided.  Aside from giving people direction in life and salvation, the church provided a gathering place for the community.  The community could feel a sense of togetherness that separated them from their neighboring parish, bringing together the rich, poor, young, and old as one, regardless of class and in the absence of social pressures. 

The expectations of the clergy in a parish were fairly low.  Clergy were expected to be readily available to members of the parish, maintain the church property, keep the peace, serve the purposes of poor relief, visit the sick and comfort them in their time of need, and be a good preacher who was conscientious and punctual in the conduct of worship.  Most importantly they were expected to be social and involved in the community.  The purpose of this was so they could be well informed on everyone in the parish and serve them when congratulations or consoling was in order. 

Residence in a parish was also important.  Having the clergyman readily available to his parishioners was an advantage.  However, not all clergymen lived in the parish.  A majority of them took up residences in villages nearby which may suggest they felt more socially at ease living within the community.  Data suggests that there were large groupings of livings outside rural areas of a community obviously designed to give parishes a greater advantage.

The clergy of a parish were often appointed by patronage, which was seen as a trust.  It was the duty of patrons to favor men that were deserving and merit was usually a prerequisite for preferment.  Patrons usually educated themselves before giving favor to a certain individual.  They did not want a nomination to reflect poorly on themselves, and those attempting to develop influence in a community knew that their influence would not stretch far if a poor nomination were made.  Most nominating patrons were also practicing churchgoers.  They knew quite well that they would have to live in the same community as their incumbents, as well as receive their Sunday sermons.

By the late eighteenth century, and with the birth of the Methodist movement there were 13,500 Anglican priests in England, but only 11,700 livings (a church benefice and all of the earnings attached to it) to support them.  Several of these livings also paid very poorly, therefore many priests held more than one.  The Church was very dependant on political influences and half of all landowners and the government had the right to appoint all bishops and hundreds of livings.  The Church, for the most part, became more of a political power than a religious one.  The focus of the Church was shifted more towards preserving the aristocracy rather than on religion.






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