The following article was published by Professor A. H.Sayce in the August 1898 edition of The Contemporary Review and expands on a prvious article. “On some Excommunications and Public Penances in Somerset in the time of Archbishop Laud”, published by Mr. E. Green in the “Proceedings” of the Bath Natural History and Antiquarian Field Club for 1875.
HOW THE COMMUNION TABLES WERE SET ALTAR-WISE:
A STORY OF EXCOMMUNICATION.
IN the “Proceedings” of the Bath Natural History and Antiquarian Field Club for 1875, there lies buried an interesting paper by Mr. E. Green, “On some Excommunications and Public Penances in Somerset in the time of Archbishop Laud.” Some of the documents and manuscripts quoted in it throw a light on the history and discipline of the Church of England which will doubtless come as a surprise to a good many readers. To those relating to the parish of Beckington I wish more especially to draw attention.
Orders had been issued under various pains and penalties—which, be it observed, have never been legally repealed—that the communion tables should be placed ” altar-wise ” against the east walls of the churches, that they should be protected by altar-rails, and that upon the ” altars ” so erected ” Romish furniture,” as the Articles against Laud term it, should be placed, consisting of ” two great silver candlesticks with tapers in them, besides basons and other silver vessels.
Commissioners were appointed by the bishops to visit the churches in their dioceses and see that the law was carried out. In many cases the work of the commissioners was seconded by the clergy or by pious laymen and a period of restoration began which anticipated that of the nineteenth century. Large sums of money were spent by certain of the landed nobility in repairing or restoring the churches which their ancestors had despoiled ; thus at Abbey Dore, Viscount Scudamore made the Abbey church once more fit for divine service, and re-erected the stone altar which had been overthrown. The ancient altar-slab which was thus restored to its old place against the east wall in accordance with the injunction of the supreme court is one of the few which still remain in our English churches.
But while the work of the bishops and their commissioners was seconded in many cases, there were many more cases in which it encountered the most violent opposition. The towns were, speaking broadly, Puritan, while the country, where it had not remained Roman, was largely infected by the Puritan leaven. The Church of England, as we understand it, was mainly confined to the Court and the Universities.
Among the parishes in which the new orders were opposed and disregarded was Beckington in Somersetshire and what happened there may be regarded as typical of what was happening elsewhere.
In 1633, Dr. William Pierce, the Bishop of Bath and Wells, published the new orders in his diocese, and appointed commissioners to see that they were executed. The chancels of the churches were to be conformed to that of the cathedral of Wells, the communion tables to be set up “altar-wise,” railed in and furnished with candlesticks and candles. The clergy and churchwardens were called upon to inform one against the other, disobedient clergy being presented to the bishop by the churchwardens, and disobedient churchwardens by the clergy.
At Beckington it was the churchwardens, James Wheller and John Fry, who were recalcitrant. They had the support of the parishioners as well as of the lord of the manor, “Mr. John Ashe.” The Episcopal commissioners had found that the communion table in Beckington church was standing in the middle of the chancel, surrounded by a 41 wainscot border “and door, above which were seats for the communicants.
They accordingly reported that the church did not possess ” a decent communion table, neither was it placed under the east window, nor railed in otherwise than with a border about it where the communicants knelt, and that there were seats above the table.” All this was accordingly commanded to be changed. The churchwardens, however, protested, and on June 9, 1635, were in consequence cited to appear before the bishop’s court at Wells, over which William Hunt, the surrogate, and Dr. Duck, the chancellor of the diocese, presided. Here they were again admonished to obey the injunctions that had been issued, and to certify that they had done so by October 6 following. But the admonishment produced no effect, and the delinquents were therefore excommunicated in open court by the bishop.
Excommunication in those days was no light matter. It brought with it civil as well as ecclesiastical disabilities. Those who were under sentence of the greater excommunication were not only excluded from all church services and forbidden to sit at table with any but members of their own family, they were also unable to perform any legal act, and after forty days, if they remained unabsolved, could be sent to the county gaol. It is needless to add that that no excommunicated person could be buried in consecrated ground.
An appeal was allowed, however, to the Court of Arches, if the excommunicated person was backed by a sufficient number of his neighbours, and more especially by a full purse. To the Dean of the Court of Arches, accordingly, the churchwardens of Beckington went. In their defense they put forward the following fourteen articles, as reasons for their refusal to move the communion table from the place in which it stood:
- We have noe Injunction from his Royal Majesty.
- Noe statute confirmed by Act of Parliament.
- Noe Canon at all for ye altering of the Table.
- Noe articles to which we are sworne. Wee are to continue ye year of ye Church.
- Wee expect noe change of Religion (blessed be God).
- Wee are to continue ye year of ye Church.
- As we should be hereafter questioned in Parliament we know not how to answer it.
- Nor dare we call in question ye manner or forme of Religion soe longe hapily established.
- We have nothing to doe to place things in ye chancell.
- We be sworne to have God before our eyes and not man, and to looke to ye suppression of vice and maintenance of vertue, and we know noe vice in ye antient standing of ye Table, nor vertue in ye innovatinge it to a high altar.
- It is prohibited in ye table of degrees, in ye last date of it.
- All ye orthodox Bishops, Governours of ye Church upon reformation in King Edward’s time of blessed memorye have either written or
preached against altering ye Table.
- Divers of ye Bishops and the eminent Divines in Queen Marie’s time have sealed the same with their blood.
- All ye modern Bishops, Governours of ye Church since ye established reformation in Queen Elizabeth’s Rnigne, Kinge James, and King Charles, for almost 80 years have not altered ye antient standing of ye Communion Table, nor hath beene attempted untili this 2 or 3 years.”
The result of this appeal was a letter from the dean, Sir John Lambe, to the bishop, asking the latter to absolve the appellants for a short period of time, in the hope that they might thereby be induced to submit. This the bishop did with some reluctance, the absolution being extended over twenty-seven days. But all was of no avail, and at the end of the time specified, as the churchwardens continued obdurate, they were again excommunicated in open court on January 13, 1636. Shortly afterwards, at the Lent Assizes, they were further indicted for brawling in church, probably in consequence of an attempt upon their part to prevent the removal of’ the table. Thereupon they appealed again to the Court of Arches, sending at the same time a petition to the Archbishop of Canterbury, to which about a hundred signatures were attached. The petition ran as follows:
“We the inhabitants and parishioners of Beckington do humbly certify that the Communion Table of our Church hath and doth stand in the midst of the chancel, being the most convenientest place, time out of mind and beyond the remembrance of any of our parishioners now living. And that near threescore years since the pavement of the said chancel upon which the Communion Table standeth was new made, and in the new making thereof raised about a foot above the rest of the ground, and then also compassed about with a fair wainscot border in which there is only one wainscot door to come into the said Table, which door is kept fast and none doth enter thereat but the Minister and such as be doth require, which said Communion Table doth at the day of the date hereof stand so conveniently and decently as aforesaid. And we the said parishioners with an unanimous consent do humbly pray, That it may so continue freed from all innovation, and so do humbly take our leaves. Dated this 19th of December 1635.”
The petition received scant courtesy at the hands of the archbishop. Those who had signed it were threatened with all the terrors of the High Commission Court and ordered to obey their bishop, while the archbishop declared that he would ” lay ” their two solicitors ” by the heels.” The Court of Arches also decided against them, and an appeal to the King himself produced no reply. Altogether as much as £1800 had now been spent in legal proceedings without any result; and after the churchwardens had remained excommunicated for about a year they were finally arrested on a writ of Capias excomiminiailnm and imprisoned in the county gaol.
The rigours of prison life, however, proved too much for the constancy of the delinquents, and at their own ” earnest request and submission ” they were released and absolved, in consideration of the following penance. First of all, on June 26, 1637, they were to stand in the middle aisle of Beckington church, and there, after the Gospel for the day had been read, ” openlie and penitentlie ” and in a loud voice repeat the following declaration after the rector:
“We James Wheller and John Frie doe here before this Congregation assembled acknowledge and confesse that we have grievously offended the Divine Maiestie of Almighty God and the laws ecclesiasticall of this Realme of England in that we have in contemptuous manner refused to remove the Communion table in the Chancell of the parish Church of Beckington and to place it close under the East wall of the said Chancell in the same manner and forme as the Communion Table standeth in the Cathedral Churche in “Wells, and to remove the seates placed above the said table ; being hereunto lawfully and judiciallye monished and warned by the Right reverend father in God, the Lord Byshop of Bathe and Wells. And in that for our contempt and disobedience in not performing the said lawfull command of the said reverend father wee have suffered ourselves to be lawfully excommunicated and so to stand for the space of one whole year last past or thereabouts, not fearing or regarding the dreadful Censure of the Church. And in like manner have suffered ourselves to be lawfullye aggravated and signified according to the laudable lawes and statutes of this Realme, thereby in a loyall manner to compelí us to our due obedience to the lawfull command of the Churche, and wee doe hereby protest that we are right heartily sorry for the same. And we doe faithfullie promise never from henceforth to offend in the like again, but to demeane ourselves as shall become good Christians and dutiful subjects. And we do ask God forgiveness for this our synne and offence and you all here present for our evill example. And we doe desire you all to pray for us and with us to Almighty God that it may please him of his infinite goodness to forgive us of this our offence.”
This declaration made, the penitents were required to kneel down and say the Lord’s Prayer.
A certificate that the penance had been performed was forwarded to the bishop by the rector of Beckington and his two new churchwardens, one of whom, it should be noted, was unable to write. But the penance itself was by no means complete. It had still to be gone through on the two following Sundays in the parish churches of Frome Selwood and SS. Peter and Paul at Bath, the fact being certified in each case by the incumbent and churchwardens as well as by an additional member of the congregation. The certificates were examined and passed by four members of the Episcopal Court, and the two penitents were at last duly reconciled to the Church. One of them, James Wheller, however, never got over the disgrace of the penance, and died shortly afterwards, as was alleged, in consequence of it.
It is needless to point out the conclusions which may be drawn from this curious history. But there is one point in connection with it which cannot be overlooked. The transformation of the communion table of Beckington into a “high altar ” is part of the history which has made the Church of England such as it is to-day. Writers and speakers whose knowledge of the past is but slight often seem to imagine that the Reformation in England was confined to the middle of the sixteenth century. So far as the Church of England is concerned, however, Chat is not the case. The Prayer-book and formularies under which the modern Churchman lives did not take their final shape till after the Restoration. They were the work of men who had grown up under the influences of Laud and Pierce, and who would have heartily sympathised with the Bishop of Bath and Wells in his treatment of the churchwardens of Beckington. The doctrine and discipline of the English Church, as they exist to-day, were finally moulded, not by the compilers of the second Prayer-book of Edward VI., the use of which never extended beyond a few months, but by Churchmen who excommunicated and imprisoned the opponents of altars and candlesticks, who drove the spiritual forefathers of the Evangelical movement from their pulpits and parishes, and who even, while engaged in the revision of the Prayer-book, introduced the use of incense into the cathedrals and Chapel Royal. We need not wonder that the position of the Church of England is so little intelligible to all except its own members, and is not always intelligible even to them.
A. H. SAYCE