Anthea Jones brings her review of the English Parish up to the present

The paradox of nineteenth century reforms of the Church was that as the parochial pattern was made to fit rather better the distribution of the population, it was simultaneously deprived of its civil functions. Poor relief became the business of elected Guardians of Unions of parishes. Civil registration of births, marriages and deaths passed to Union registrars. Later in the century elected Boards became responsible for the provision of schools, quickly overtaking the educational work of the Church. Elected Rural and Urban District councils replaced the old parish vestry meetings of rate-payers.

New churches, empty pews

Parliament adopted a two-pronged approach to parochial reform: firstly, money was provided to build churches, and enabling Acts were passed to allow the creation of new parishes. It might be suggested that the energy and resources put into building new churches put the cart before the horse. It was a naïve assumption that if large spaces were provided in which the people of the growing towns could attend services, they would cooperate and go to them, especially given the bleak buildings that were erected with the funds granted to the Church Building Commissioners. It was indeed starkly obvious how far this policy had failed when the religious census was taken in 1851. Information was collected on the numbers attending morning, afternoon and evening services on census Sunday, 30 March 1851; people going to church more than once were counted more than once and some probably went to both church and chapel. Adding together attendances at all three services and relating the figures to population over-estimates actual churchgoers but gives an index of attendance. The new churches had many empty pews on census Sunday. Horace Mann, who wrote the report on the religious census, suggested that fifty-eight per cent of the population were able go to church, allowing for children, the infirm and sick, those working and those left at home to look after the house; he concluded that, at the most optimistic, half of those who could did go to church, and of that number only half went to the Church of England, and the other half attended Nonconformist chapels or Roman Catholic churches. The Church of England faced a crisis of attendance, especially in the sixty-six large towns which were separately analyzed.

The progress of dividing large parishes had resulted in 1255 sub-divisions made under Acts of Parliament by 1851, and Mann also noted that a number of ‘conventional’ districts existed through informal understandings between clergy. He said that the Church needed more agents; there was ‘No scheme for giving to a clergyman the cure of souls, within a small and definite locality, apart from the very onerous duties which attach to the possession of a church’. He put forward suggestions about a lay ministry.

Slimming the fat cats

The second prong of attack on parochial reform forced the upper hierarchy of the Church to reform itself, after the Whigs had instituted a comprehensive survey of church livings. In 1836 a permanent Ecclesiastical Commission was created, with powers to annex income from bishops and from cathedral deans and chapters in order both to finance new parishes and clergy, and to improve the financial resources of the poorer half of the existing parochial clergy. The gap between the upper part of the clerical hierarchy and the lower was seen as bad publicity for the church and unacceptable given the challenges faced. From this date the Ecclesiastical Commission steadily modified the parochial structure, and was given more powers to do so by further Acts of Parliament. By 1911 there were nearly 14,500 parishes, compared with 10,540 in 1835. Parsons in new urban parishes faced formidable tasks in creating any presence, community or identity in a conglomeration of streets and courts with no traditional focus to build on. The parish ideal was based on a rural model of one parson and one parish church, but its triumph precluded other patterns of ministry and collaboration.

Lack-of-planning blight

Despite its more wide-ranging powers, the work of the Ecclesiastical Commission was still ad hoc – often a new parish was created at the behest of a patron who could nominate the incumbent, rather than in pursuit of a comprehensive plan. Quite often small rural parishes were set up where chapels had previously served the community, and many of these in the twentieth century have been absorbed back into the larger units from which they had been abstracted. Anomalies were perpetuated, but they had the advantage of local impetus which no centrally imposed and tidy scheme encourages. Not until the twentieth century did the policies of the Ecclesiastical Commissioners, and their successors the Church Commissioners, lead to the erosion of parish autonomy, and the weakening of the links between parishioners and ministers. This has been particularly the result of removing direct financial support from the parishes and administering it centrally.

In 1918 every adult male was given the vote in parliamentary elections, and this changed the whole thrust of parliamentary business. Although the Church of England was not disestablished, crucial decisions still being subject to parliamentary consent, the Church’s general affairs were side-lined to a separate Church Assembly, and subsequently to the Synod. There remains an obligation to provide parochial services of baptism, marriage and burial for every citizen in his or her parish if required, but no state assistance to fulfil this.


Four problems confront the maintenance of a parochial ministry. The decision to allow clergymen to retire with a pension means that as more and more draw a pension, the central funds inherited from the nineteenth-century reforms are increasingly absorbed, leaving less for current ministry. Secondly, rural parishes continue to function effectively in many places, but reducing the numbers of rural clergy in order to direct resources of money and manpower to the cities and towns has not been very successful in expanding urban ministry, while it has reduced the strength of rural ministry. Thirdly, church attendance continues to fall, partly because it keeps up best where there is a local parson and church, but this is ceasing to be the pattern of ministry. Fourthly, not as many men are entering the church as ministers, and the introduction of women priests has only gone some part of the way to supply the need.


The parochial pattern developed in an untidy way in response partly to initiatives by individual land-holders and partly by bishops. The King’s Government secured support to ministers from their parishioners, although the amount of support varied enormously. From the sixteenth century there was a clear appreciation that some changes were needed to make the pattern more rational and appropriate, but only during the Civil War were serious modifications attempted. By the nineteenth century population growth had begun to underline the inefficiencies of the system, while the clergy themselves did not always see their function in a modern, utilitarian way; a gentlemanly approach was most obvious in the rural parishes, while the towns were neglected and voted with their feet against the Church of England. Reforms forced on the Church by Parliament have left it a most anomalous situation which needs a variety of solutions, and probably the rediscovery of local loyalties.

Is the Church of England organization or evangelism? This is the crucial question and challenge to all parts of the Church both nationally and locally in the parishes.

Anthea Jones is the author of A Thousand Years of the English Parish published by Windrush Press (2000)
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Pull Quote: Is the Church of England organization or evangelism? That is the crucial question.