A history of the church in England

The early English church

Christianity became established in Britain during the period that the British were governed by Rome, probably by the second century CE. During the fifth and sixth centuries, however, England had been Augustine of Canterburyconquered by the pagan Anglo-Saxons (made up of Angles, Saxons and Jutes – tribal groups from the coastlands of north-east Europe) and the Christian communities which remained were scattered. In 597 CE, Pope Gregory I sent a groups of monks from Rome, led by Augustine of Canterbury, to plant Christianity in the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Kent. On arrival, he found groups of Christians around the Welsh borders and in the West of England, whose traditions were Celtic.

Though the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms gradually adopted the Christian faith, Celtic and Roman Christians clashed over some aspects of Christian practice, and these differences were resolved by a synod in Whitby in 667. Roman Catholic practice largely prevailed, emphasising:

  • rule by bishops

  • urban Christian centres

  • uniform religious practice.

The influence of some aspects of Celtic Christianity remained, however, and it continued to predominate in some areas of Britain.

Despite further disruption caused by the invasion of pagan Vikings during the late eighth and ninth centuries, by the time of the Norman invasion (1066), the monarchs of Anglo-Saxon England were Christian, ruling over a Christianised land.

The medieval church

For 400 years, Christianity in England continued its allegiance to Rome, with periodic tensions between popes and monarchs claiming authority over each other. Mass (Holy Communion) was a spectacle watched by lay people, rather than a communion meal. The Church controlled social life through:

Religious orders of monks and nuns dominated the landscape. Such communities were centres of prayer, but also of learning, hospitality, farming and business.

Bishops were key political figures, influential in national decisions. At best, the Church was a spiritual and moral guardian, but at times it became corrupt, exercising power for financial gain or abusive social control.

In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries there was an increasing interest in direct spiritual experience of God and questioning of some of the emphases and attitudes of the church.

The Reformation in England

Under Henry VIII, the English (Anglican) Church became independent of Rome. Henry was responsible for closing all religious communities, for political and financial gain rather than for religious reasons. By 1600 it was a Protestant Church, emphasising:

The Protestant Reformation also removed:


Not all English Christians thought that this Reformation went far enough. Offended by the Church of England's link with the state, or rule by bishops, or a prayer book, they broke away and formed new groupings: Presbyterian, Congregational and Baptist in particular. During the disrupted politics of the 17th century, more radical groups like the Quakers emerged. These are all Nonconformists because they did not conform to the state church.

However, from 1662 until the 1820s, it was technically illegal to be anything other than an Anglican. During this period, the Church of England (and some of the Nonconformists) was:

  • influenced by rationalist thinking

  • bound by class hierarchies

  • antagonistic to religious experience

  • hidebound by tradition.

18th century developments

Two new and related movements breathed new life into Christianity in England in the 18th century: the Evangelical Revival and the Missionary Movement. The Revival woke up many traditional churches, Anglican and Nonconformist, and gave birth to new denominations, especially Methodism. Key features of the revival included:

  • emphasis on the need to be born again

  • enthusiastic biblical preaching

  • strict spiritual disciplines: prayer, fasting, social work

  • gathering in small groups, or societies.

19th century Evangelicalism

During the 19th century, many English Christians identified themselves as Evangelicals, meaning that their faith centred on:

  • the cross

  • the Bible

  • new birth

  • energetic Christian service.


The Evangelical priority was to convert unbelievers, both in England and around the world. Many became missionaries and this activity led to:

  • new Christian communities in Asia, Africa and elsewhere

  • Bible translations and distribution

  • Christian schools, hospitals.

English Christians were also very active in social concern, challenging ills like slavery, child labour, prison and labour conditions, and urban squalor.

The Oxford Movement

In the 19th century, there was much debate about whether the Church of England should remain established, playing a formal role in the life of the nation. Most Anglicans wanted the link between Church and State to remain, but some agitated for less state interference in church affairs. This led in 1834 to the formation of the Oxford Movement, born of a desire to reduce parliamentary control. It rapidly became a movement stressing:

  • Catholic identity

  • elaborate liturgical worship

  • Baptism and Holy Communion as effective signs of God's grace

  • sometimes, sympathy with Roman Catholicism.

Challenges to belief

The 19th century was a time of great challenge for English Christians. Scientific discoveries led to new theories about the age of the world, and seemed to deny the biblical doctrine of creation. Darwin's Origin of Species proved the greatest challenge, questioning whether life:

  • was created, and / or evolved

  • had purpose, or was random

  • was ultimately benevolent, or ‘red in tooth and claw'.

20th century crises of faith

The 20th century saw this crisis of faith continue.

  • Two World Wars fought by supposedly civilised Christian nations caused many to lose their faith.

  • Genocide [Armenia, Russia, of the Jews, Rwanda] raised the philosophical question as to whether God can be good, if he exists.

  • Modernity, with its confidence in progress, reason and order, collapsed into post-modernity, which questions all absolute truths, values and meaning.

Church attendance declined as a result of this.

Cultural diversification

Successive waves of immigration have increased the numbers and profile of adherents of other faiths, notably Islam. Some faith groups have become actively evangelistic, often copying Christian methods to achieve growth.

The church today

The present picture is mixed. England is highly secular: for many, religion of any kind is irrelevant. Consumerism, increased wealth and leisure activity have created a hedonistic society, with pleasure a primary aim. Belief in God remains high, but is more likely to be expressed in a privatised way – as personal spirituality - than in a church community. England could thus be described as a post-Christian country.

At the same time 20% of churches in the U.K. are experiencing growth. These are mostly Evangelical, Charismatic or Pentecostal, emphasising detailed preaching and teaching, lively worship and new forms of gathering, like café church.

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