In this fascinating book Roy Strong tells the dramatic story of the English parish church, from the first temporary buildings erected in Anglo-Saxon times to its uncertain future in the twenty-first century. Starting with the Christianisation of Britain by missionaries from Ireland and Rome, he takes us on a journey through the Middle Ages, when elaboration and beauty in church art and architecture reached their peak in the building boom of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. He describes in vivid detail the rituals and ceremonies at the heart of the parish community – the processions and celebrations of the church year, the public piety and rites of passage that guided parishioners through their lives and, most of all, the miracle of the Mass performed every Sunday.
The rich spirituality of medieval Catholicism was destroyed by the cataclysm of the ‘long Reformation’ in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, which replaced the splendour of Catholic ritual and its adoration of the Sacrament with a simple service that centred on the preaching of the Word; moreover, it abolished age-old concepts of devotion and salvation. From the mid-seventeenth century reformers tried to repair the damage caused by the iconoclasm of the Reformation by re-introducing images, decoration and ceremonial to the average country church. From the ‘beauty of holiness’, advocated by Archbishop Laud in the 1630s, to the liturgical revival of the Oxford Movement in the nineteenth century, they looked back to the Middle Ages for a tradition of worship that engaged all the senses.
At the same time, we witness the gradual dissolution of the parish church as the social hub of the local community; first the Catholics, then the Dissenters, and later the Methodists would leave the church and form their own congregations. In addition, the disintegration of the rural community from the early nineteenth century would change the social setting of the English country church for ever. Yet despite the dramatic changes that took place inside the parish church over the centuries, the building remained a symbol of continuity, etched into the tableau of the English countryside. Over the last few decades, however, the building itself has come under threat and Roy Strong concludes that, in order to survive, the country church will need to find a new role within a changed countryside.
Roy Strong’s little history is an elegy for the English country church – and a passionate plea for its preservation.