President’s Symposium, April 2012

Devon churches and their history

‘They go from strength to strength’ is the one-liner on DA symposiums from this year’s Symposium, held on 14 April. A team of leading scholars in their fields, headed by Exeter University’s Emeritus Professor in medieval history, Nicholas Orme, explored aspects of Devon churches and their history in depth and breadth from the middle ages to the present, incorporating archaeological insights; how they were built and used; and how they have interacted with society. The success of the programme was foreshadowed by a record 132 bookings and underscored by many appreciative observations during and after the event.

John Allan presented an array of examples to show that Devon’s churches were a rich resource for understanding the middle ages, ranging from the 11th-century carvings of Luppitt font to the 16th-century Greenway porch at Tiverton church. Five Exeter churches have Anglo-Saxon fabric, and new evidence from that period has recently been found at St. Stephen, Exeter. The strengths and weaknesses of selected sources were considered, including, on the one hand, Pevsner’s disregard for geology and building stone, and, on the other, the engravings of John Le Keux in the Transactions of the Exeter Diocesan Architectural Society (e.g. of the Atherington rood screen in volume 2 of 1844).

Nicholas Orme examined, from a social historian’s perspective, the great changes in how churches were used during the English Reformation. In any period, churches carry messages about religion and society. Consecration was a means of externalising holiness, but the use of the church porch for baptism (because babies were not Christian until they had been baptised) and marriage died out after the Reformation. Likewise, the chancel was not much used as the clergyman moved nearer (literally and figuratively) to the congregation which became less isolated from the service. The mass was converted into holy communion, and services were in English, not Latin, enabling the church to develop an important teaching role.

Desks were provided for the clergy, and seating was introduced for both clergy and worshippers. Historians do not fully understand church seating, though it was a feature of all churches by 1500, and the allocation of seats facilitated organising the congregation more closely and commonly reflected the social order – with the gentry at the front. Much did not change. People continued to accept their place in society and the clergy had the central role in services. Much of the fabric of the buildings remained the same: for instance, chancel screens often stayed in place, but they were ornamental, rather than functional, parts of the building. By and large, continuities were as strong as change.

Jonathon Barry traced the development of dissent and the Anglican church in the 17th and 18th centuries, a period in which few new churches were built or buildings altered, but much appeared on the walls (e.g. royal coats of arms). Regular church attendance was compulsory, though it became lawful to go to other trinitarian protestant places of worship after 1689. Dissent differed less from the Anglican church in doctrine than in form and offices. Both were churches of Christ, rooted in the trinity, and people attended for social as well as religious purposes. As it developed, dissent became more evangelical, and preaching changed, aimed at reaching the heart, rather than the mind. An emerging theme was the need to keep the congregation ‘engaged’, evidenced by the growth of music.

After lunch, Bruce Coleman surveyed the growing rivalry of church and chapel in 19th century Devon, while Richard Parker spoke about man and God in Victorian churches. Religion became increasingly politicised, divisive and the cause of conflict (e.g. in education). The Victorians disliked Georgian approaches to religion, such as the failure to challenge the status quo and the acceptance of local hierarchies.

In the final session, the President gave an objective, yet well-textured, analysis in answer to the title of his talk, What happened to churches after 1900? There is relatively little research on 20th century religion: its decline (666 full-time parish clergy in the diocese in 1926; 211 now) and the lack of relevant local records may be part of the reason for this. He balanced the emerging divisions against the church’s responses to changes in society – more informality, less deference, greater awareness of discrimination – which have become visible in, for instance, the spread of family services (involving children); more variety in the form of services (after the uniformity of the Book of Common Prayer); and much more involvement of lay people. In line with such changes, the Anglo-Catholic tradition was being challenged by the revival of the evangelical wing.

This account – through the wrong end of a telescope – does less than full justice to a stimulating Symposium. The one-liner at the end was, ‘put the date of next year’s in your diary now – Saturday, 13 April 2013’.

Paul Luscombe