The Use of Hierarchy in the Post-Reformation Church: Laudian Altar Policy in the Diocese of Winchester*

By Abraham, Peter | Anglican and Episcopal History, June 2003 | Go to article overview

The Use of Hierarchy in the Post-Reformation Church: Laudian Altar Policy in the Diocese of Winchester*


Abraham, Peter, Anglican and Episcopal History


The Laudian "altar policy," requiring the communion table in a church to be moved to the eastern end of the building and railed, continues to fascinate historians of early Stuart England. This is a natural consequence of the extensive verbal war, and indeed material conflict, which made the topic so controversial at the time. The culmination of the religious disputes of the period was the trial and execution of the archbishop of Canterbury, William Laud, in which many of the themes of early Stuart ecclesiastical history came together.

When Laud was tried in 1644 much was made of the altar policy as a central part of his perceived ambition of reconciling the Church of England with the papacy. In Puritan William Prynne's account of the trial, one of the most forthright attacks on Laud's policy, the author displayed the way in which he felt the altar policy had been promulgated across the country. Prynne saw Laud as a Romish fox, who, having been released from his kennel at Lambeth, was chased

...from thence by his Popish lent [bent?] to the Kings own royall Chapel at Whitehal & Westminster Abbey, from thence to the Vniversities of Oxford and Cambridge; from thence to Canterbury, Winchester and most other Cathedralls in England; and from thence to our Parish Churches and Chapels.1

Such a statement is worthy of further examination. As the support of the monarch would have been essential if any changes were to be achieved, it would be natural for the archbishop to instigate any such policy from the king's own chapel and the royal peculiar of Westminster Abbey. Indeed, some recent scholarship has emphasized the role played by Charles at the time, and thus somewhat diminished the impact of Laud on ecclesiastical strategy, particularly with regard to the strictness with which the policy was pursued.2 Similarly, if a national program was to be followed, it would be prudent for the policy to be promoted at the educational centers of Oxford and Cambridge, so that those entering the ministry in future could be taught the benefits of such views. As Laud's own cathedral was Canterbury, one would expect that communion tables within that diocese would have been some of the first to undergo such changes. Why, however, did Prynne focus attention in this statement upon the diocese of Winchester? It is true that the archbishop's palace at Lambeth was situated within that diocese, but this would appear to be more of a coincidence than of any real import. It may be that the diocese was particularly specified either because it had followed the policy with greater enthusiasm than others, or because it may have acted as a precursor and model for Laud's program.3 This article will examine this later possibility in more detail.

Laud has been portrayed as instigating his policies, to varying degrees, throughout his career, particularly testing his program during his time as dean of Gloucester, where he "ordered that the communion table be moved to the east end of the cathedral."4 Having been given the insignificant bishopric of St. David's by James in 1621, Laud only really began to have an influence on religious policy after the accession of Charles. After his translation to Bath and Wells, a diocese which has been termed his "laboratory,"5 Laud was elevated to the see of London, and it was here that the altar policy emerged as a focal point of disagreement, with the notorious St. Gregory's case of 1633.

At St. Gregory's the removal of the communion table "from a tablewise to an altarwise position" where it was "railed...at the east end of the chancel"6 was a move to which some of the parishioners objected. The dispute was brought to the attention of the Privy Council, which met on 3 November so that the king could decide on how the church's stance on the position of the communion table could be clarified.

Because a variety of practices had been employed since the Reformation and there was no hard and fast rule, the church's viewpoint needed such clarification. …

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