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It Could Be Worse; It Might Get Better

I emerge from my grading closet just long enough to acknowledge Rod’s post on the decline of the Church of England and to offer a bit of historical perspective that might make room for hope. On Easter Sunday 1800, in St. Paul’s Cathedral, the very heart of the Church of England, do you know how many people received Holy Communion?

Six. Six.

Throughout the eighteenth century church attendance — not just the receiving of Communion — had declined throughout England, even as the population had grown. There were fewer and fewer churches offering fewer and fewer services. For instance, in 1714 seventy-two churches in London offered the service of Morning Prayer every day; just eighteen years later that number had declined to forty-four.

And yet by the middle of the nineteenth century, thanks largely to the rise of Anglo-Catholicism, there was an explosion of church attendance and church-building throughout England, along with an emphasis on the centrality of Holy Communion that had not been seen in England since the Middle Ages. It was not something that anyone had expected.

It might also be worth noting that many of the prime movers of Anglo-Catholicism were former evangelicals — “former” not because they had rejected the key tenets of evangelicalism, but because they had found evangelical spirituality limited and insufficient to meet their needs. A strongly biblical evangelicalism was the seed-bed of renewal for English Catholicism. Nobody expected that either.

Christian renewal happens in strange ways and at strange times, but it happens. I wouldn’t write off even the Church of England just yet.

(By the way, I will be writing about some of these matters in my biography of the Book of Common Prayer, to be published in this series sometime within the next year, I hope.)

about the author

Alan Jacobs is a Distinguished Professor of the Humanities in the Honors Program at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, and the author most recently of The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography.

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