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Kirchengeschichte: Neuzeit


Brown, Stewart J.


The National Churches of England, Ireland, and Scotland 1801-1846.


Oxford: Oxford University Press 2001. XI, 459 S. 8. Lw. £ 60,00. ISBN 0-19-924235-6.


Keith Robbins

The United Kingdom of Great Britain, since 1707, had been in self-definition a Protestant state. It had been one, however, in which two separate ecclesiastical structures were established - the Church of England in England (and also in Wales, for Wales had no distinct ecclesiastical or indeed no political identity at this time) and the Church of Scotland in Scotland. While the two churches shared a common Protestantism, however, they continued to differ substantially on matters of ecclesiastical order, worship and theology. They continued to view each other with a rather distant suspicion. Some English enthusiasts for episcopacy declined to recognize the Scottish establishment as a Church. There was, therefore, a paradox. Protestantism bound Britons together but the two churches also exemplified traditions that were strongly English or Scottish respectively and entrenched a politico-religious difference. Episcopalians existed in Scotland and dissenting denominations existed in England, but both churches could still plausibly present themselves as the churches of their respective nations in their numerical strength and in the ways in which they were embedded in social structures north and south of the Border. Professor Brown's masterly volume begins by considering the implications of this inheritance. He then moves on to consider the first half of the nineteenth century when these comfortable assumptions were challenged from any quarters. By the end of the period with which he is concerned ecclesiastical establishments still remained throughout the British Isles but their foundations had been severely shaken.

The creation of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland in 1801 brought one immediate issue to the fore. While the English establishment could then claim perhaps 90 per cent of the population of England and Wales as adherents, the situation in Ireland was very different, with the (Protestant) establishment embracing merely some 10 per cent of the Irish population. The majority population was Roman Catholic. Catholic emancipation had originally been envisaged as the prudent political corollary of the new union but it had been blocked, largely by royal opposition. Was the Church of Ireland, apparently elevated from its minority condition into being a branch of the majority church of the United Kingdom (the Church of England), to proselytise and create a condition in which this new United Kingdom as a while had an underpinning which was Protestant? As B. shows, it was not for want of effort that the efforts that were undertaken failed. British governments would not give unambiguous support. For their own reasons, political and military, they came to recognize that Catholic Ireland had to be incorporated on a more consensual basis - hence the difficult path to emancipation in 1829. Many have argued that this step brought to an end the ancien regime in the United Kingdom more decisively than the Reform Act of three years later. Although the Church of Ireland was to survive as an established church for another half century, the fiction of its national character had been exposed. The United Kingdom could not be consolidated around a common set of Protestant values mediated through the established churches.

While Ireland constituted the most obvious challenge to the semi-confessional state, it was not the only one. Between 1833 and 1841, the Tribunes of the People mounted their attack on the ecclesiastical order during a period of increasingly rapid social and economic change. The landed and clerical elites were under pressure. Methodism and old Dissent grew and challenged, by their very numbers, the national claim of the establishment. It became apparent that conformity to one of the established churches could no longer be a requirement for full participation in the State. The State would not finance the building and other needs of the established church on the scale that was required if it was to maintain its position. The great merit of the examination of these issues in detail is that, as one would expect from an Edinburgh professor, he also gives due weight to this crisis, in all its many and varied ramifications, in Scotland as well as in England. The great split in the Church of Scotland in 1843 is given proper emphasis. A mild complaint from this reviewer, however, a professor in Wales, is that relatively little attention is given to the crisis of the Church of England in the principality as an element in this story.

Inevitably, there was an internal as well as an external aspect to this crisis. That is to say, it brought an old issue into new prominence. While some exponents of establishment lamented that they were being pushed aside as guardians of the faith and feared that they might shortly no longer be the ecclesiastical department of state, others urged, in Tracts for the Times, that it was time again for the Church to recognize, even to proclaim, its distinctive origins and mission and liberate itself. In an evolving, pluralistic, competing and free trade United Kingdom, claims and counter-claims were only to be expected. If the path from a Protestant State to a Liberal State was still not complete by mid-century, the trend was very evident and irreversible. In this situation, much heart-searching took place both in England and Scotland and for some it could only lead to conversion to Rome. Insofar as the Church of England remains the established national church in England (though no longer in Wales) and, on a rather different basis, the Church of Scotland is also the established national church in Scotland, it may perhaps seem premature to place so much emphasis upon these decades as the period in which the real foundations of establishment were fatally undermined. However, B. is surely right to conclude that even the national churches themselves, with the population at large, did move decisively away from the view that religion could or should be imposed by a religious establishment or be viewed as an expression of state loyalty, to one in which belief, and all that it entails, is seen as a personal and internal matter, however bewildering the ensuring consequences may be for the churches.