Oxfordshire parish churches in wartime

Stephen Slack, OHCT trustee, looks at a new book revealing the state of Oxfordshire parishes just before and after the First World War.

The Parish in Wartime  (Oxfordshire Record Society Publications, 2019, Vol.73) is edited by Dr Mark Smith and published by Boydell and Brewer

The power to conduct a ‘visitation’ is an ancient aspect of the exercise of episcopal office.  A function of the diocesan bishop’s role as ‘chief pastor’, it involves an inquiry into the state of the local church so that (in the words of the Canons) the bishop may “get some good knowledge of the state, efficiency and ability of the clergy and other persons” and “means may be taken thereby for the supply of such things as are lacking and the correction of such things as are amiss”.

Diocesan visitation records – the written answers sought, in more recent times, to a questionnaire circulated by the bishop in advance of a visitation – are accordingly a valuable resource for those studying the history of a diocese.  And the records of the 1914 and 1918 visitations by Bishop Gore of the diocese of Oxford (so far as they relate to Oxfordshire) contained in the latest volume published by the Oxfordshire Local Records Society are no exception to that rule:  they provide a revealing insight into the state of the Church of England in the county at both the beginning and the end of the First World War.

The questions posed in both visitations – addressed only to incumbents – were relatively sparing in number:  21 in 1914 and 11 in 1918.  Readers will look in vain for material about the state of parish churches, since the questions on both occasions were concerned with what might now be termed ‘mission and ministry’ – focusing in 1914 on matters such as the practice as regards Holy Communion and baptism, religious instruction, the encouragement of interest in the work of the Church overseas and lay representation.

The bringing together of the responses inevitably produces a volume of a kind which few are likely to read from cover to cover.  And selective quotation from it will not provide a fair or representative picture – especially given the diversity of views amongst the clergy who responded (226 of them in 1914).  But even on a cursory reading, a number of themes emerge clearly, and are drawn out with sympathetically and intelligently in the excellent introduction by Dr Mark Smith.  Overall, the picture the responses paint is that (to use his words) “the Anglican parochial machinery was being operated at top gear”.

One of the striking aspects of the vigour that implies is the conscientious engagement of the clergy with education – both in church through Sunday Schools, Bible Classes and the teaching of the Catechism (even if that was often only rendered possible by sustained support from the female members of the parish priest’s household) and in the elementary and secondary schools of the parish.

But there was less continuity with earlier periods of Anglican history when it came to public worship:  the returns show substantial provision being made for the weekly celebration of the Eucharist (with early and multiple celebrations on Sundays in many places, and regular celebrations on saints’ days even in small country parishes).  And in the course of the War many clergy sought to increase that provision further, as part of a conscious attempt to make the Eucharist, rather than Matins or Evensong, the main Sunday service.  This greater emphasis on sacramental worship seems to have been more the result of clerical views about the nature of the Church than a response to demand.  And lying behind that was the High Church character of the clergy of the diocese:  in 1903 it had the fourth-largest number of Tractarian incumbents in the country – even though its parishes were generally small and rural.

That said, many clergy also sought to extend the range of worship on offer beyond the sacramental, in order to meet the challenges posed by the trauma and suffering generated by the War.  In particular, much use was made of intercessions focused on parishioners serving in the Armed Forces, whether after the third collect at Evensong or during special services held in the afternoon – a development which seems to have been welcomed by parishioners.

The effectiveness of such attempts to respond to the challenges of wartime was the subject of specific questions in the 1918 questionnaire.  Showing a greater interest in change in the Church generally, it also asked about the perceived effect of both the War and the ‘National Mission of Repentance and Hope’ of 1916 (a major initiative promoted centrally by the archbishops).

The responses to the question about the effect of the War may lend weight to recent scholarship challenging the previous orthodoxy that it led to a fundamental disillusionment with the Church of England:  the clergy of 20% of parishes believed that the War had had no effect; and the remainder viewed its effects as being most significant in terms of the dislocation it brought and, more contentiously, both greater materialism (encouraged by increased agricultural incomes) and greater ‘unruliness’ on the part of children and younger people (as a result of the absence of so many fathers).  Furthermore, many clergy identified benefits to parish life from the War, in terms of more intense and committed faith, a greater sociability and a deeper appreciation of the value of self-sacrifice.

However, the responses to the 1918 were by no means free from doubt about what had been achieved or concern about the future.  The ‘National Mission’ was considered by most Oxfordshire clergy to have had no or little effect in bringing more people into the Church (even if it had deepened the faith of some existing members); young people, on whom great hopes had been placed, were moving away or turning their backs on the Church; the clergy were ageing; and the increased emphasis on sacramental worship had been divisive because it excluded many who felt it was not for them.  Smith suggests that the last of these changes was particularly significant, widening the gulf between the core and the periphery, so taking the Church further away from being a National Church to being a gathered church.

The light that this interesting volume throws on that issue and others helps not only to explain how the Church responded locally to some of the pressing questions it faced at the beginning of the 20th century but also why the Church finds itself where it does now.  Might it also help to illuminate how should it respond now to some very similar questions (such as the effectiveness of national initiatives in a parish context, the need to adapt worship to meet changing circumstances, and how to strike a balance between ministering to the current faithful and making new disciples) that continue to arise in the very different conditions of the early 21st century?

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