England is a land of churches and parishes. How did we get them? You might suppose that some saintly Anglo-Saxon bishop thought that they were a good idea, and introduced them. You would be wrong.
The earliest English churches (up to AD 900) were minsters, each of which served large areas of the countryside. Our present system of churches and parishes developed in the 900s. England by then was Christian, and people wanted local churches where they could worship. The creation of these churches was led by local landowners, who had the means to establish them, and their parish – the area that the churches served – was the same as that of local estates. This meant that the church and the social community were the same.
These local lords and ladies provided, or organised, a piece of land for the church and churchyard, a church building, a house for the priest, and a glebe: a few fields for him to farm. It followed that they also appointed a priest when necessary. This last power still survives as what is now called ‘patronage’: the right of individual people or organisations to appoint parish clergy, subject to the Church’s rules.
So the Church, as an organisation, did not found churches and parishes. Its leaders adopted the parish system; they did not create it. They did, however, lay most of the duty of maintaining the church and churchyard and the contents of the church on the parishioners. This has continued down to the present day.
Things began to change in the nineteenth century, with the Industrial Revolution. Two things happened. In towns, there was a need for churches to serve the growing population. In the countryside, there were now fewer people to support the rural churches. Money was needed to build new town churches, and this came initially from a government grant but mainly from the confiscation of the assets of the cathedrals in 1840. These assets were given to a new body, now called the Church Commissioners, to use to build churches and pay clergy salaries.
The result of this was to centralise the Church. Hitherto, bishops had done little but ordain clergy, vet their appointments by the patrons of the parish churches, and (through their archdeacons) inspect church buildings. Now they became involved in decision making about new parishes. They started to hold diocesan synods, and they developed diocesan administrations on a larger scale to deal with finance, mission, education, and so on. These administrations are expensive and generate no income, so parishes now bear the extra burden of helping to fund them.
During the twentieth century, bishops and their administrators began to take control of the resources of parish churches. They united parishes under a single cleric. They sold ‘surplus’ clergy houses and glebes. This was a piecemeal process, and it was rarely questioned. Yet, were not these houses and glebes given for the use of the parish? Should the proceeds of those assets, if sold, not remain with the parish? After all, the parishioners are still expected to maintain the parish church, and those resources would be a valuable asset to help them do so. Just imagine if a rural parish church council today was able to rent out a former clergy house and several fields of glebe!
I am not arguing that bishops and diocesan administrators have no legal right to sell clergy houses and glebe lands, to unite parishes, and to close churches – subject to the consultations and limitations that the laws lay down. But I do wish to contest the assumption that they have a moral right to do, a right that overrides those of parishioners.
Parish resources and parish boundaries were, in origin, created locally. They were not provided by a central authority. The maintenance of parish church buildings, churchyards, and their contents has been paid for by the parish community for over a thousand years.
When changes to parishes are being proposed, and the disposal of churches, clergy houses, and glebes, parishioners have a right to say ‘These were provided for this community. As far as church and churchyard are concerned, they have always been maintained by this community. We have a right to agree to changes, not simply to be ordered to accept changes. We too have a right to the local assets of the church, and to their value, if they are sold.’
Nicholas Orme is Emeritus Professor of History, University of Exeter, and the author of the recent book ‘Going to Church in Medieval England’.