‘Wouldn’t it be nice if more people came to church!” This thought must have been in the minds of many church leaders and churchgoers over the last 100 years. Be careful what you wish for! There was indeed a time when many people came, and it produced as many problems as are now caused by their absence.
From about the 900s, when a network of local churches began to spring up, lay people were encouraged to come to the one in whose parish they lived. By about the 1200s, the Church was establishing a disciplinary system which aimed to enforce church attendance on Sundays and about 40 festival days: around a hundred days in the year. Enforcement continued through the Reformation and, after falling apart during the Civil War, reappeared under Charles II. Only in 1689, with the passing of the Toleration Act, did compulsory church attendance come to an end.
How did compulsion work in the Middle Ages, between the 1200s and the Reformation of parish worship in the 1540s? What the law states is not what always happens on the ground. It proved impossible to make everyone come to church on the appointed days. Shepherds had to be up on the hills with their sheep. Fishermen needed to fish when the herrings came in. Servants were wanted at home to prepare the dinner that their employers relished on getting back from Mass. Medieval writers made other allowances: for travelling merchants, messengers, pilgrims and millers dependent on wind or water power.
A whole third of the population, children under 14, were not required at all. There were no Sunday schools or any kind of regular instruction until the Reformation. Only when children reached puberty were they considered able to sin and therefore to require the benefits of church attendance, confession, and receiving Communion.
Then, beyond the permitted absentees, there were many others who did not wish to come. Sunday attendance centred on a parish Mass at about 8 or 9 am. This cut into people’s one clear day of leisure. Some wished to lie in bed, like the Colchester shoemaker described as behaving “as it were a hound that should keep his kennel”. Others wished to get on with their work, in workshop or peasant holding. Craftsmen who made things liked to go to other churches to sell them, where they could find a crowd of potential buyers.
It could also be a long way to church, on wet muddy roads in winter. In southern England, there was usually a church every two or three miles, but the north had huge parishes. In Carlisle diocese, parishioners in remote areas preferred going to a nearer church in another parish, but that was not allowed. Outlying dwellers often built their own chapel. This was permitted for weekday services, but then they wanted to use it on Sundays. Rows erupted, to the extent that the people of Templeton in Devon imported a friar to consecrate their chapel and dug fake graves to prove that it had ancient rights as a church.
In theory, the Church authorities had the power to make people come. In practice this was difficult. No wise parish priest wished to alienate his flock, with whom he had enough trouble getting the tithes and offerings that formed his income. If he cited a persistent absentee to the court of the local archdeacon or bishop, the process would take time and cause offence. He had allies, admittedly, in those of his parishioners who came dutifully and could not see why other people did not.
One gets the impression that non-attenders brought into the Church courts were unpopular locally, sometimes for other reasons as well. But even a fine or penance in the courts could not stop the disaffected offending again and again.
When they were forced to come into church, they could make themselves a nuisance. Some carried weapons with them, especially in the more lawless Wales and the North. Others brought their dogs or showed off their wealth and insouciance with a hawk on their wrist. One man washed his hands in the font; another gave the holy bread to his dog. They wandered about, talked, or shouted out. “What be you but whores, harlots, or bawds?” “Leave thy preaching, for it is not worth a fart.” The more people there were in church, the more there were of the restless, resentful and rude.
Even the respectable had their limitations. Social rank was crucial to our ancestors. It has left us a lasting reminder in church seats. A major motive for putting them into churches was so that everyone should have a particular place corresponding to their place in society. The gentry, or the wealthy citizens in towns, would sit in the chancel or side chapels. People of the yeoman or master craftsman rank would be in the front pews of the nave, and the poor at the back. Sometimes men and women were separated, but wealthy couples tended to sit together.
This policy worked while people were kneeling or sitting down. But there were times when they came out and mingled. Five times a year they had to make an offering of a penny or so at the altar. When the priest had consecrated the wafer and chalice of wine, he kissed the pax – a wooden tablet – and the congregation came out in turn to kiss it. When Mass was over, the priest blessed the holy loaf (provided by each household in turn), and his clerk shared it out. There were also processions on certain days in which the laity joined.
This led to disputes over precedence. Chaucer described how angry his Wife of Bath became if anyone went up for the offering before her. In Essex in 1522, John Browne, a gentleman, ordered the parish clerk to give him the pax first on the following Sunday. When that day came, the clerk gave it to the patron of the church and his wife, then to Browne who took the pax and broke it in half on the clerk’s head, causing blood to spill on the floor.
There was perhaps only one day in the year when everybody was in church. That was Easter Sunday, the sole occasion on which they normally received Communion. Absence was punished, and the social pressure to be there (it was also a day for making an offering) ensured that virtually everyone came. But no sooner had they received their consecrated wafer and sip of unconsecrated wine, than some produced food and started to eat it. They had fasted from meat and dairy products through the six weeks of Lent. They had refrained from eating before Mass, and now they simply could not wait to begin.
So getting everyone into church was never easy. The Reformation made church services much simpler, but this did not solve the problem of attendance and in the end, with the Toleration Act, the unwilling had to be freed to go. At least those who come to church today wish to be there, and for the most part are happy to go along with the services as they proceed. If we want more people to come, things may not happen quite as we expect!
Nicholas Orme’s book, Going to Church in Medieval England, is published by Yale University Press, priced £20
Image caption: Circa 1500, A medieval friar preaches to his congregation in the open air from a moveable pulpit. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
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