Religion throughout history has been a dominating social factor, and in Britain during the nineteenth century, this same religious domination can be seen. The Victorian era was marked by the Church of England, which developed such an influence in politics as well as religion that it became difficult to separate the two. The power of the church created many problems: lack of space, not relating to its people, hypocrisy, etc. The atmosphere of the high church compared to that of the dissenting groups explains why the shift of religion occurred with such a large response.
Wealthy (High Church) vs. Middle Class (Dissenters)
In the high church, funding came from the wealthy which in turn gave them a piece of the church as property-pews. These pews were branded with a family name and would pass from generation to generation. If the family moved, the pew would remain vacant not open for others to sit in! This left the lower classes to standing rooms or sitting on the floor, neither of which leave a person feeling morally or spiritually uplifted. This example of people buying pieces of the church displays how it was growing more concerned with political and economic interests and less concerned with its common spirituality.
The church’s dependence on these interests created a place that did not welcome the middle and lower class worshippers, but was a ”preserve of the younger sons of members of the aristocracy who had little interest in religion and less interest in the growing numbers of urban poor.” This close relationship between church and state created a hostile atmosphere between it and society. The Church developed associations to the social burdens of the time poverty, disease, and oppression. And became known as a group of “elite hypocrites” rather than a mass of parishioners. Since the high church only preached to about fourteen percent of the population in England, it was only a matter of time before the majority rose up and found spiritual refuge among the dissenting groups.
Service and Worship
Style of worship differed greatly between the Church of England and the dissenters. The Church of England had a more formal structure to it, where the dissenting churches allowed for the freedom of expression, class and respectability did not allocate where you would sit. Adorning your “Sunday best” was no longer a requirement for attendance. This tradition of the Church of England humiliated the lower classes because many “sacrificed their ‘Sunday best’ for other investments more vital to living, like food. In the house where everyone was supposed to be equal in the eyes of God, people were slapped in the face with reminders about their position in society”. This rejection of strict rules and traditions created a worship of God that was more personable and attainable for those who could not purchase their redemption.
Preachers of the Church of England were unreachable, especially in comparison to the common minister. Preachers were highly educated and used a “highly refined language” which would go right over the heads of the congregation. They were talking at the people and not to the people. On the other hand, the dissenting ministers talked to the people and not at the people. The congregation and the ministers had a friendly relationship built off of understanding not off of superiority and inferiority like the high church. The high church excluded many of the lower classes, but welcomed the aristocracy with open arms. The dissenting religions were outlets for those being excluded. It was an escape from the hypocrisy (preaching equality versus living equality), an escape from the tradition, and an escape from the distance (in terms of relationships).