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Response to Review no. 508

It is always a pleasure to be reviewed by so acute an observer of the Hanoverian Church as Dr Gregory and while I cannot quite bring myself to share his generous appreciation of Brownlow North’s custody of the pastoral administration of the Winchester diocese, I am certainly grateful for his generous commendation of my book.

I share his frustrations with the tendency of textbook writers and historians in adjacent fields to overlook much of the work undertaken in the last twenty years on eighteenth-century religion in general and the Church of England in particular. It will doubtless be necessary, for a little time yet, to continue to emphasise the deficiencies in the traditional account of the Church in the long eighteenth century. Perhaps the most serious problem with that account, however, was not so much the bleak picture it painted of the Church’s ability to provide pastoral care for the people of England and Wales, as its sweeping nature. The narrative of neglect was sweeping not just in its ambition to provide a global account of an obstinately local institution but also in its impatience with the complexity of the phenomenon under discussion – characteristics not entirely absent from some of the ‘revisionist’ and ‘counter-revisionist’, ‘optimistic’ and ‘neo-pessimistic’ historiography of the last two decades.

In this context I suspect that Mark Goldie’s oft-quoted call to abandon the historiographical framework derived from the Victorian reforming agenda remains a timely one. The development of an alternative is of course much easier said than done but none the less urgent for that. One obvious place to start is to set aside the much-debated and rather tired issue of whether the Church was a ‘success’ or ‘failure’ (presumably ultimately a judgement we would need to leave to God!) and instead to substitute a less ambitious inquiry into what the Church (so far as we can talk about the Hanoverian Establishment in such monolithic terms) was trying to do. This inquiry immediately confronts us with the need for a more accurate appreciation of the inherent complexities and ambiguities of the parish system – a phenomenon which Hanoverian Churchmen and reformers did not, unlike their historians, have the luxury of ignoring. It was my aim in editing the Winchester material to take a small step forward in this direction and I am grateful to Dr Gregory for drawing attention to my commentary on the messy ecclesiastical geography with which Hampshire’s Churchmen had to work. The Winchester material is also suggestive of a wide range of other complexities and ambiguities – in, for example, the relationships between incumbents and curates, the Church and dissent, and families and churchgoing. All of these would repay further investigation in the cause of understanding both the practice of Anglicanism in the long eighteenth century and the reform agenda that emerged towards the end of it.

This is barely a beginning, however, and other large issues immediately suggest themselves – not least the nature of response to changing statutory frameworks which effectively removed the legal though not necessarily the social and communal obligation of church attendance and also the impact of theological change on both clerical and lay perceptions of the task of the Church. Clearly an alternative agenda for research in this field would require a rather wider range of components and a more systematic engagement with recent developments in the general historiography of the period than could be set out here. It may, however, be worth considering this set of questions in the light of a modest proposal (though not in the Swiftian sense) for one place to start.