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parish churches

parish churches. There are parish churches of all sizes, ages, and architectural styles, with internal fittings equally diverse. What is common to all of them is that they are buildings at the centres of their communities, that is of the ‘community of the parish’. As such they embody the history of groups of people often otherwise poorly documented, in an area of importance in their lives; a history which in some cases stretches back for over 1,000 years. In the past religion played a much more important role than it does for the majority today. The rights and wrongs of how God should be worshipped aroused great passions, and parish churches have been built and rebuilt, furnished and refurnished throughout their history in conformity with these shifting and often conflicting ideals of worship. The abiding interest of parish churches is their diversity and the light they can throw on the practice of religion in thousands of communities over hundreds of years.

A parish is a territorial area, with a church at its centre, served by a priest having the ‘cure of souls’. The parochial system developed piecemeal from the 10th cent., but was in place by the 13th. From then until the early 19th cent. the parish and priest was supported by a landed endowment, the glebe; by a tax payable by the parishioners, the tithe; and by various, semi-voluntary, offerings like mortuaries. It was within the community of the parish that ordinary people received Christian teaching and the sacraments of the church; baptism, confirmation, marriage, and burial. The parishioners supported their priest through their tithe payments, but their obligations did not end there. By the early 13th cent. at the latest it was established that the rector could only be expected to maintain the fabric of the chancel of the church from his income, the parishioners being responsible for the upkeep of the nave of the church and for the books and vestments needed for the services held within it. The imposition of this collective responsibility resulted in the emergence of a real sense of community in the later Middle Ages, with the people taking a dominant role in the organization of parish life and the form and development of the church building and its contents, through their elected representatives, the churchwardens.

There are examples of parish church buildings from all periods, like the Saxon church of Escomb (Co. Durham), the Romanesque church of Kilpeck (Herefordshire), or the great Decorated church of St Mary Redcliffe (Bristol). But the majority of surviving medieval churches were added to piecemeal, by the people who used them and worshipped in them. The entire community might contribute to the rebuilding of the whole or a part of the fabric, as happened at Bodmin (Corn.), but generally additions were made by individuals or groups within the parish, the individual patron, or the trade and religious guilds. Two generations of the Canynges family, merchants of Bristol, contributed substantially to the rebuilding of St Mary Redcliffe; whilst the trade guilds attached to St Michael's, Coventry, built a series of guild chapels leading off the aisles of the church, and the Palmers' Guild of Ludlow, a society dedicated to assisting pilgrims, had a large chapel built in the parish church of St Laurence. The Reformation brought an end to the extensive rebuilding of the later Middle Ages and there are comparatively few churches built between the mid-16th and early 19th cents. The churches built by Wren after the Great Fire of London are an exception, and there are fine Hanoverian churches at Stoke Edith (1740–2) and Shobdon (1752–6) in Herefordshire. The 19th cent. saw another massive church-building programme as the Church of England tried to provide for the growing population; in 1815 about 8½ million, by 1850 over 17 million, and by 1901 32½ million. About half of all those parish churches which remain in use were built after 1815: these include Victorian rebuildings of older churches but more often represent the foundation of new parishes in the expanding industrial centres. These churches are often in the Gothic or, more particularly, the 13th-cent. Gothic style. Victorian churchmen perceived in the Middle Ages a Christian ideal which they sought to emulate.

Parish churches may not often have been rebuilt after the 16th cent. but their interiors were often remodelled. The numerous altars, and images of the saints in stone, wood, glass, paint, and needlework, were swept away in the Reformation and its aftermath. In the 19th cent. church interiors were completely remodelled along the lines advocated by the Victorian reformers to provide space for the proper celebration of the liturgy. Thus, whereas parish churches are of very diverse architectural styles, their interior arrangements are generally 19th cent., and reflect a desire for both processional space and a focus on the altar. The interior space was unified by creating level floors for the nave and aisles. The sanctuary was screened off and raised above the floor of the nave by steps, the altar was returned to its medieval position near the east wall, railed off and raised on further steps, so that space was created for the parish choir and organ within the east end. An unrestored interior like Holy Trinity, Goodramgate (York), shows by contrast the chaotic nature of a medieval interior, with its varying floor levels and with its added 18th-cent. pulpit and box pews; St Mary, Whitby, has also kept its box pews.

Lynda Rollason


Anderson, M. D. , Looking for History in British Churches (1951);
Cox, J. C., and and Ford, C. B. , The Parish Churches of England (5th edn. 1946–7);
Duffy, E. , The Stripping of the Altars (1992);
Randall, G. , The English Parish Church (1982);
Smith, E. , English Parish Churches (1976).

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