Anglicans in the archives

Anglicans in the archives

Jill Morris looks at the history of the Church of England, and records of clergy available online

Jill Morris, is a regular writer for Discover Your Ancestors Periodical.

Jill Morris

is a regular writer for Discover Your Ancestors Periodical.

The Church of England – now part of the worldwide Anglican Communion – has its origins in Henry VIII’s break from the Roman Catholic Church in the 1530s, but has since maintained its position as via media between Catholicism and those Protestant churches that broke away during the seismic changes brought by the Reformation. Henry’s daughter, Elizabeth I, did not take the title of Supreme Head of the English church, nor did she wish to ‘make windows into men’s souls’ as far as people’s beliefs were concerned. Hence the Anglican Church occupies a middle ground, retaining an ordained clergy and the concept of apostolic succession, yet separate from papal Roman Catholicism.

Canterbury CathedralClergy
Canterbury Cathedral, mother church of the Church of England
Clerical Directory

By the 1700s Anglican clergy – bishops, priests and deacons – had by and large grown lax. Most of the wealthier parishes were held by the wealthier clergy, many of whom had a great deal of political influence. Becoming an ordained member of the priesthood was more often than not seen as a way for aristocratic and influential families to maintain power and land rather than as a calling from God. The social gospel had been all but lost – the plight of the swelling numbers of poor in the burgeoning cities of the Industrial Revolution was ignored.

This gaping void was later to be filled by the Methodist movement, with its focus on preaching to those the established Church had left by the wayside. By the 1800s, the Church of England was slowly realising that change was needed, and movements of reform from within its walls saw expansion of the laity and church involvement in some of the most pressing issues of the century, including poverty, health and education.

Henry Stern’s record in the 1907 Clergy List
Henry Stern’s record in the 1907 Clergy List at

The Anglican evangelical movements of the 1800s and their appeal to the lower classes had the effect of opening up ordained positions within the Church of England to people from far wider walks of life, and far fewer became absentee landlords. Clergy began to represent broader social spectrum, although not anyone could apply – one still needed an education, and there was a selection process to pass, which included demonstration of a genuine Christian calling. However, many men found that ordination meant his family became upwardly mobile, and it is not unusual to find generations of the same family entering the Anglican ministry. This, and improved 19th-century record keeping, means that if you have ordained Anglican ministers in your family records relating to him and his profession should be accessible (see the case study box).

Timeline of the early anglican church:

Elizabeth I becomes Queen of England and establishes the Church of England
The Book of Common Prayer and the Thirty-Nine Articles become the basis of Anglicanism
Elizabeth is formally excommunicated by Pope Pius V, breaking communion with the Catholic Church
King James Bible, new translation commissioned by James I, introduced
In the Commonwealth, c25% of Anglican clergy refuse to conform to Cromwell’s Puritan reforms
The Act of Toleration gives non-Anglican Protestants – but not Catholics – freedom of worship

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