Academic journal article Anglican and Episcopal History

Anglican and East Anglican: The Episcopacy, the Bishop's Commissary, and the Enforcement of Ecclesiastical Law in Early Seventeenth-Century Essex and Hertfordshire

Academic journal article Anglican and Episcopal History

Anglican and East Anglican: The Episcopacy, the Bishop's Commissary, and the Enforcement of Ecclesiastical Law in Early Seventeenth-Century Essex and Hertfordshire

Article excerpt

In early-modern England, religion was under central government authority; the crown forged religious policy and expected energetic administration of that policy. Church courts could not accomplish this task alone, and ecclesiastical conformity depended on the cooperation of county administrators, parish church-wardens, and local overseers. Enforcement of crown religious policy was therefore held concurrently by bishops, shire magistrates, and village parishioners.

This essay addresses the impact of the late-Tudor and earlyStuart Anglican Church on the parishioners and local governance of two adjoining counties: Hertfordshire and Essex. The essay will first examine the religious policies of individual bishops and archbishops who held jurisdiction over these two counties, and how those policies affected the day-to-day working of the Anglican Church in early-modern southeastern England. The essay will then describe the institution of the commissary, a surrogate to the bishop of London, who strove to enforce ecclesiastical law in the London Diocese. This description will provide an English historical background to the Colonial American version of the commissary system. Lastly, the essay details the duties and responsibilities of the parish churchwardens, the sidemen, and overseers of the poor, illustrating their role in the enforcement of ecclesiastical law and the maintenance of the parish church.

From these descriptions of the Anglican Church in southeastern England, this essay also advances the argument that the early-seventeenth century saw significant changes in the relationship between parishioners and the Church of England. An examination of episcopal visitation records, the commissary's act books, county administrative records, and parish churchwardens' accounts reveal developing tensions in the early seventeenth-century between parishioners and regional church courts that perhaps undermined effective enforcement of religious conformity in Hertfordshire and Essex. There is some evidence that by the mid-1620s, Essex and Hertfordshire parishioners were increasingly being accused of verbal abuse of their ministers and fiscal neglect of their churches. While the bishop of London's commissary continued to denounce men and women for such transgressions as absenting them-selves from church, the commissary's court was starting to record more disruptive and impecunious behavior from these same parishioners. These adverse responses to episcopal authority were not only a reaction to crown intrusion into the confessional lives of parishioners; they were also a provincial backlash to increased monetary demands from Archbishop William Laud during a time of straightened finances.

Thus, in the decades before the English Civil War, parishioners of Essex and Hertfordshire were leaning away from their local churches and identifying their interests more closely with the secular and financial concerns of their shires. This essay will address the religious, political, and financial elements that account for a shift from confessional to secular, in the relations between ecclesiastic authority and provincial devotion. This interpretation has implications for the subsequent emigration of protestant congregations to America; as local financial dearth and political uncertainty were added to the more individual form of piety that motivated English congregations to establish centers in the New World.

The changes to religion initiated by King Charles I not only demanded new devotional practices in England; it forced many parishioners to make a choice between the physical beautification of their churches and their own economic survival. The Henrician and Edwardian reformations of the mid sixteenth-century had also demanded that parishioners purchase new items for their churches, leading to the financial undoing of many towns and villages. But in mid-seventeenth-century England, men and women appear to have new options. The organization of puritan congregations and the availability of New World settlement opened new opportunities for those in Hertfordshire and Essex who were distressed by economic misfortune and disgruntled by new demands on their religious practices. …

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