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The Survival of the Church of England in the 17th Century

John Morrill re-examines a stormy period of religious history.

Between 1643 and 1647 the Church of England was destroyed, Its system of government by 'archbishops, bishops, deans, archdeacons etc.' (as a canon of 1640 expressed it) was scrapped; the Book of Common Prayer was proscribed and its use made a criminal offence; the celebration of the major Christian festivals – Christmas, Easter, Whit etc. – was also prohibited. The leaders of the church were all dead, in prison, in exile, or in hiding; the universities were ruthlessly purged; between a quarter and a third of the parish clergy were ejected from their homes and positions. Dioceses were replaced by county-wide ecclesiastical co-operatives, and cathedral churches were converted into prisons, shopping precincts, or large parish churches; and churchwardens and others were directed to remove all the 'monuments of idolatry and superstition' (stained glass, statues, carvings on fonts and other furnishings) which had survived the first reformation of images in the mid sixteenth century. The lands and revenues of the Bishops and of the Cathedral chapters were handed over to the creditors of the state.

Little remained of the old system; and a new 'presbyterian' system of government, a new Directory of Worship (not a prayer book but a manual for the construction of improvised worship), a new catechism and a new confession of faith were introduced. The rigidities of the new structures and the freeing of minds and of the presses led to clamours for liberty for tender consciences outside these new structures, for those convinced of the advantages of the 'New England Way' or committed to the gathering of the godly into exclusive Christian communities. Mutual recriminations within a fractured and disintegrating puritan movement were only partly arrested by the conservative measures introduced by Cromwell at the end of his life.

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