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Prayer-book Parish Churches

Gordon Ashman

Reprinted from an article in West Gallery no.6, Spring 1994

For nearly years 300 our forbears worshipped in 'prayer-book' churches; churches which were built or reshaped in the spirit of changes brought about by shifts in both doctrine and liturgy which swept away the Latin prayer-books and services, introduced congregational worship, and moved the focus of worship from the chancel and altar to the nave of the church and the pulpit. Much of the music of west gallery style was born (and died) in such churches. The essence of 'prayer-book' churches were two- or three-decker pulpits, box pews, and galleries. The style was English, even local, practical, sometimes homely, and in total contrast to what had gone before - the Roman Catholic, pre-Reformation churches. Equally, the 'prayer book' church interior was in total contrast to the "restored" churches which we have been left by Victorian reformers.

Pre-Reformation Parish Church

The pre-Reformation parish churches of the early years of the reign of King Henry VIII would be unrecognisable to most readers. Firstly, there would have been the riot of colour and gilding:- pictures of biblical scenes painted on almost every surface, the rood screen with its golden and polychrome depiction of the crucified Christ dividing the chancel from the nave; next, the stained glass and the numerous altars about the building, each with its own lamp; lastly, the smoke and smell of incense, the tinkle of small bells, the prayers for the souls of the dead in Latin. In short, our English churches must have looked, sounded, and smelled as foreign to us as the churches do today in Italy, Spain or Latin-America.

I suspect that many of us are under the impression that the great sixteenth century changes in the established English church are due almost entirely to a mixture of the greed of King Henry VIII and his ex-communication by the Pope. Better informed views tell us that the protestant reforms were inevitable and that it was Henry's boy son, Edward VI, with his Lutheran attitudes, who established the Protestant Church of England and issued the first English prayer-books. The more extreme protestants swept out the evidence of the Roman church. Depictions of Christ and the Virgin Mary were destroyed, paintings were whitewashed over, not a single complete rood survives, and services were reduced and Anglicised. The churches stood empty and bare, changed, and ready for further change. The new English prayer book of 1547 required that the congregation should take part in all aspects of the services, and although it did not say anything about the position of the pulpit and the altar, it did require that the Lesson was to be read so that all could hear it. This led to pulpits being positioned in the nave, and, when wooden tables replaced the stone altars, they were often brought into the nave for communion. The whole balance of worship was thus shifted from the altar and chancel at the east end of the church into the nave, and chancels became little-used.

Evidence of this division of the church survives in churchwardens' accounts, some of which make the parishioners responsible for the structure and upkeep of the nave (including payments to the quire,) whilst the priest was held to be responsible for the chancel, altar, etc. In extreme cases, presumably where disputes had arisen, entries may be found for "our churchwarden" i.e., the parishioners representative, and "the rector's churchwarden." It is not hard to believe that some of the later disputes between vicars and bands may have had their early seeds of discontent sown in such circumstances.

The next change which came was the introduction of seats in the nave. The new style of worship required the congregation to be seated for much of the service but few churches, except in the south west and East Anglia had ever provided seats. Some installed benches, but box pews, presumably to reduce the dreadful cold, dampness, and draughts which must have penetrated every sinew, gradually became popular. In some cases, the wealthier owners of the box pews (for the spaces in the church were either owned or rented), even installed their own personal stoves. Soon after these changes, for the combined reasons of both ritual and practicality, Archbishop Laud encouraged the permanent placement of the altar at the east end of the church, protected by the communion rail with which we are all familiar. The rail is conveniently placed for kneeling communicants, but it began life as a series of balusters, closely spaced to prevent dogs fouling the sanctuary, and in churchwardens' accounts as late as 1850 can be found entries for payments to the dog-whipper.

Prayer-book Parish Church

The last change, and the one which is perhaps of greatest interest to members of the WGMA, was the introduction of west and other galleries. From the early 1700s there was both a growing need to provide space and places for the poorer members of the congregation, and an increasing interest in the improvement of church music. Since almost all of the available space within naves was already in use, and, in any event, was owned or leased by the local landowners and wealthier members of the parish, the only place in which to provide more seating was by building upwards or making galleries. Throughout the eighteenth century churchwardens' accounts abound with entries for the building of galleries, often of crude construction - in one Shropshire parish trees were felled and the trunks floated down the River Severn. to provide gallery posts. Soon there was room for both the servants from the houses of the gentry, and for the growing bands of artisans and tradesmen who, together with the young people of the parish, made up the quire. The change from Catholic chantry to English 'prayer-book' church was complete, and until about 1840 its congregation worshipped 'to the honour and glory of God' in English, and to the accompaniment of its west gallery quire.

Langton-by-Partney, Lincolnshire

Langton-by-Partney, Lincolnshire

Pulpit, Waterperry, Oxfordshire

Pulpit, Waterperry, Oxfordshire

Photos used with permission from the West Gallery Churches website

Gallery, Clodoch Musicians desk, Clodoch

Gallery and music desk, Clodock church, Herefordshire

Between 1830 and 1840 two movements were born which meant the end of both the `prayer-book' church and of west gallery music within the Anglican church. The first was an architectural movement which centred on Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin (1812-1852) who imagined an idealised medieval church building, and the second was a reforming liturgical movement which centred on Cardinal John Henry Newman (1801-1890) who imagined an idealised medieval church ritual. Significantly, both Newman and Pugin later became Roman Catholics.

When, in about 1840, Pugin's architectural followers and Newman's Tractarian or Oxford Movement adherents were joined by the ecclesiologists of Cambridge's Camden Society, the fate of most of our parish churches and all of our quires was sealed. Puginists changed the shapes of the churches, destroying much in a storm of so-called "restoration." Tractarians altered the services, replaced the independently-minded quires with conformable boys in surplices and moved them from the west galleries into the 'dim, religious glow' of Pugin's new chancels. What little was left of our church interiors and church musicians after Pugin and Newman had done their worst was set upon, reviled, and unceasingly condemned by the Camdenians in their journal The Ecclesiologist (1).

I have suggested that Victorian vandalism laid waste the interiors of most of the parish churches in England. Many readers might consider my view extreme, but if you look in your local (or indeed, in any) parish church you will almost certainly find that the layout of the interior cannot be older than 1840. A few scraps of church furnishings, a pew here, a font there will be much older, but the shape and style and format of worship will be no more than 150 years old - with a few noble exceptions - the churches the Victorians forgot. (2) You will have to look hard and most will have to travel far to find them. They are often in remote and out of the way places - had they not been so they would not have escaped the ravages of the "restorers". But find them you must, and perform in them too, if you have any real interest in west gallery music and musicians. Their atmosphere, their ambience, even their acoustics are so far removed from modem churches that to perform in them is a spiritual experience even for the unbeliever.

We must count ourselves fortunate that not only do some 140 churches substantially retain their truly Anglican interiors, but those which do survive are widely distributed around the country and are marvellous in their richness and diversity. From the tiny church built into a farmhouse at Dale Abbey in Derbyshire, through the eccentric glories of Whitby in the North Riding of Yorkshire, and the seventeenth-century treasures of Brougham in Westmorland, to the glowing Spanish mahogony pews at Avington in Hampshire, or Hardy's own rustic favourite at Winterbourne Tomson, the survivors are a joy. With an effort most members of the Association should be able to visit such a church; with rather more effort most singing groups should be able to find such a church and perform in it. I have shown the approximate location of many of the surviving churches on the map at the end of this article, and I have listed as many as possible, using the old English county names.

Editor's Notes
(1). The journal of the Camden Society, The Ecclesiologist, was first published in 1841. It was both authoritative and authoritarian, and dictated the shape and content of Anglican church interiors until the end of the nineteenth century.
(2). There are very few books of any sort on the subject of 'prayer-book' churches, much less any good ones. There are three shining exceptions:
Firstly, Churches the Victorians Forgot by Mark Chatfield, published by Moorland Publishing of Ashbourne in 1979. This book is a treasure-trove of information and contains details of most of the churches listed below but sadly, it is out of print. 1 have spoken to the publishers but there are no plans to reprint in the foreseeable future.
Secondly, The Shell Guide to English Parish Churches by Robert Harbison, first published in 1992 by Andre Deutsch. This book is well-produced, beautifully illustrated, and describes many of the churches listed below.
Lastly, The Buildings of England series by Nikolaus Pevsner, with a volume for each of the English counties is miraculous. There is nothing in the world to surpass the wealth of information each book contains.

Click HERE for a map and list of locations of 'prayer-book' parish churches



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