The custom of the English Church: parish church maintenance in England before 1300

The custom of the English Church: parish church maintenance in England before 1300

By Carol Davidson Cragoe

Journal of Medieval History, Vol.36:1 (2010)

Abstract: A division of responsibility for parish church fabric and contents between rector and parishioners first appeared in English ecclesiastical legislation in the early thirteenth century and was to remain in place until the mid-nineteenth century. It is often suggested that this responsibility was forced onto parishioners by a clergy keen to limit their own financial liability and that this marks the point at which parishioners first become involved in their local churches. This article looks at the development of these statutes from their origins in the Anglo-Saxon period through to their full realisation in the later thirteenth century. It argues that there were many among the thirteenth-century ecclesiastical hierarchy who were opposed to this change, and that far from being forced on parishioners, allowing parishioners to take responsibility for part of the church was a pragmatic solution to problems brought about by changes to both parishes and parish churches.

Introduction: In his 1224 statutes for Winchester diocese, Bishop Peter des Roches set out arrangements for maintaining the parish churches. These statutes required that:

If a rector of any church is unwilling to repair the chancel, our officials are to repair it without delay out of the goods of the church. The same is to be done in churches where the books or vestments are deficient, if the rectors, having been reminded, do not wish to provide for such things. The parishioners are to be compelled to repair the body of the church according to what they hold.

The system of church maintenance envisioned by des Roches in the 1224 Winchester statutes would become common in the later middle ages, but at the time his division of responsibility for church care between rector and parishioners represented a significant break with past English custom. Late tenth- and early eleventh-century Anglo-Saxon laws had given the clergy responsibility for maintaining the entire church, and it is likely that this was also the practice in the earlier Anglo-Saxon period. Between the Conquest and the early thirteenth century, Anglo-Norman ecclesiastical legislation did not mention any other system for paying for church maintenance, implying continuity with the Anglo-Saxon arrangements. Thus, des Roches’ statutes were something entirely new and different. By the mid-thirteenth century the division of responsibility between rector and parishioners was described by Bishop Robert Bingham of Salisbury as ‘the custom of the English church’, but, as this article will argue, that was as much wishful thinking as a statement of universal custom at the time. Nonetheless, the division was strongly expressed in late thirteenth- and early fourteenth-century statutes, and in Lyndwood’s Provinciale of the fifteenth century, and firmly established thereafter. Responsibility for church maintenance was shared between the rector and the parishioners until 1923, when responsibility for the chancel also passed to parishioners. This completed, almost exactly 700 years after Peter des Roches’ statutes, the transition from the full clerical responsibility for church buildings of the Anglo-Saxon laws to a new system in which full responsibility for parish church fabric rested with the parishioners.

The introduction of this division of liability for church maintenance is often seen as a turning point in the history of the English church, and in particular in the spiritual and communal lives of English parishioners. It has been argued that the division of liability for church fabric was introduced by clergy keen to diminish their own financial responsibilities by making parishioners shoulder part of the burden, and that through the imposed requirement to care for the church, parishioners were forced to become more pious and church-focused individuals. For instance, Emma Mason suggested in an oft-cited article that ‘humble villagers […] were now compelled to contribute towards church fabric’, leading to ‘a real improvement in the personal dignity of the parishioner […] and a parallel increase in his assuming real responsibility for the life of his local church.’ Similarly, Eamon Duffy argued that ‘what was imposed on the laity as their collective responsibility became the focus for their corporate awareness’, and that these responsibilities ‘helped create the distinctive forms and institutions of lay religion’.

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