chapter  4
The Church of England in crisis: the Reformation heritage
Pages 18

Nineteenth-century Britain saw the established Church of England in the throes of a major crisis of identity. Christianity itself was threatened simultaneously by the alienation of educated men as a result of the spirit of free enquiry into science, history and theology; by the belief of many that the Scriptures were incompatible with new high moral standards; by the suggestion that the Old Testament did not represent literal truth; by the militant unbelief of the secularists, among whom George Holyoake and Charles Bradlaugh were prominent; and by the failure to arouse the interest of the new urban working classes. All Christian denominations and sects were affected but the Church of England more than any or all of the rest. The Church of England claimed to comprehend all the Christians of England and Wales, yet it patently did not do so in a Britain in which the existence and practice of other religious organizations were formally tolerated and, moreover, in which their members were accorded civil rights. The crisis of the established church reached its climax with the repeal of the Test Acts (1828) and the emancipation of the Catholics (1829) but, when this crisis was past and the patient seemingly recovering, another and an uglier presented itself - attacks upon the church's temporal privileges. Militant dissenters

assailed the church's monopoly over rites de passage (births, marriages and deaths), demanded freedom from paying rates to support a state church, claimed control over the education of their own young and the right to university degrees. Such agitation fuelled the activities of the Liberation Society, which campaigned for disestablishment.