parish churches

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There are parish churches of all sizes, ages, and architectural styles, with internal fittings equally diverse. What is common to all of them is that they are buildings at the centres of their communities. The rights and wrongs of how God should be worshipped aroused great passions, and parish churches have been built and rebuilt, furnished and refurnished throughout their history in conformity with these shifting ideals of worship.

The parochial system developed piecemeal from the 10th cent., but was in place by the 13th. From then until the early 19th cent. the priest was supported by a landed endowment, the glebe; by a tax payable by the parishioners, the tithe; and by various offerings like mortuaries. By the early 13th cent. it was established that the rector could only be expected to maintain the fabric of the chancel of the church from his income, the parishioners being responsible for the upkeep of the nave and for the books and vestments needed. The imposition of this collective responsibility resulted in the emergence of a real sense of community in the later Middle Ages, with the people taking a dominant role in the organization of parish life and the form of the church building and its contents, through their elected representatives, the churchwardens.

There are examples of parish church buildings from all periods, like the Saxon church of Escomb (Co. Durham), the Romanesque church of Kilpeck (Herefordshire), or the great Decorated church of St Mary Redcliffe (Bristol). The Reformation brought an end to the extensive rebuilding of the later Middle Ages and there are comparatively few churches built between the mid‐16th and early 19th cents. The churches built by Wren after the Great Fire of London are an exception, and there are fine Hanoverian churches at Stoke Edith (1740–2) and Shobdon (1752–6) in Herefordshire. The 19th cent. saw another massive church‐building programme as the Church of England tried to provide for the growing population.

Parish churches may not often have been rebuilt after the 16th cent. but their interiors were often remodelled. The numerous altars, and images of the saints in stone, wood, glass, paint, and needlework, were swept away in the Reformation. In the 19th cent. church interiors were completely remodelled along the lines advocated by the Victorian reformers to provide space for the proper celebration of the liturgy. Thus, whereas parish churches are of very diverse architectural styles, their interior arrangements are generally 19th cent. The sanctuary was screened off and raised above the floor of the nave by steps, the altar was returned to its medieval position near the east wall, railed off and raised on further steps, so that space was created for the parish choir and organ within the east end.

Subjects: British History.

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