THE PARISH IN WARTIME: Bishop Gore’s visitations of Oxfordshire 19l4 and 1918 edited by Mark Smith (Oxfordshire Record Society vol.73 2019 cvi+601pp ISBN 978 0 902509 75 7) £35


Here is another beautifully produced annual publication by the Oxfordshire Record Society in association with Boydell and Brewer. The Society’s volumes are always absorbing, and this reviewer was captivated from the start when its editor, Mark Smith, used his acknowledgements to praise the ‘excellent coffee’ of the Oxfordshire History Centre (a thoroughly accurate observation) as well as the remarkable people who had assisted him, including Kate Tiller, who also wrote the foreword.


As Dr Tiller explains, ecclesiastical visitation returns have been frequently published; they are often the documents of choice of the local historian researching in record offices for evidence of parochial ecclesiastical and social change. However, such interest has mainly concentrated on the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Church. Victorian visitation returns, in particular, could be comprehensive. Incumbents were often asked to complete the answers to more than thirty questions (often subdivided). Subjects included patronage; residency; stipends; tithe income; parish registers; the physical state of churches and glebe houses; and church attendance figures. Towards the middle of the nineteenth century when sacramental worship was becoming popular in the Church of England, interest developed in baptism, the regularity of holy communion and the numbers taking it. There was also enthusiasm for parochial education in church schools, even down to the minutiae of school reading-book preference. As Mark Smith’s excellent introduction makes clear, Victorian visitation returns exude purposive energy.


However, rather than choosing to revisit those well-mined visitation returns, he has broken new ground by selecting the Oxfordshire visitation returns of Charles Gore from two First World War years, 1914 and 1918: a most suitable selection for a publication marking the end of the decade that included the centenary of the war as well as the founding of the Oxfordshire Record Society. While the contents allow us to observe continuity between Victorian visitation returns and those of the second decade of the twentieth century their importance also lies in the noting of differences between responses at the beginning of the war and near its end. Though there were fewer questions in war-time questionnaires compared with their Victorian counterparts, some (on sacramental ministry and religious education) were highly similar, but others, such as on mission overseas and lay representation on church councils, were different. They no longer included questions on the size of congregations. Some 226 parishes responded to the 1914 survey, giving a picture of parochial life in what Smith terms ‘the last unclouded summer before the war’: a picture that was in many senses very similar to that of the late-Victorian parish. The 1918 survey, sent out in March when the war seemed never-ending, was different. There were only eleven queries contained in six questions, two of which asked for untrammelled clerical comment rather than statistics, the aim being to discover change and innovation under wartime conditions. Perhaps the most significant question from the local historian’s viewpoint, asked, ‘What can you report as to the moral and spiritual effect of the different classes in your parish: a, of war time, b, of the National Mission?’ Other questions concerned changes in worship patterns and clerical methods as a result of the war; lay representatives to parochial church councils; and reforms in religious education. There were 229 returns.


One advantage of consulting visitation returns is the mining of specific facts and figures to create statistics through which findings may be compared, either between parishes or over time. When additional research tools are used, the results gain added weight. Mark Smith’s use of the 1911 census and various diocesan records is a good example of this technique. His helpful graphs and charts are testimony to its success, revealing at a glance statistical information on the age of the clergy; their educational background; how long they waited to secure an incumbency; their preference for sacramental worship; the number of Church schools; and much more. But, as he remarks, analysis of the returns is actually more complex, the clergy demonstrating many different views, ‘produced at least as much by differences in character as by their parochial experience’. Such complexities appear in the questions which required discursive replies, resulting, for instance, in differing opinions on whether immoral conduct was caused by the war, and on the efficacy of the National Mission of Repentance and Hope of 1916. The National Mission was the Church of England’s major response to the war. It asked people to consider whether wars were caused by corporate and individual sin, and urged them to respond through repentance and increased Christian worship. Messengers were sent to preach in cities and towns, and special services and prayers took place throughout the country. Historians have frequently considered the National Mission to have been a failure, but Smith’s analysis of the Oxfordshire replies reveals positive as well as negative results. Nevertheless, the discursive nature of the replies, clerical ‘differences of character’, and the fact that Bishop Gore was particularly keen on the Mission, all suggest that the responses should be viewed with a degree of scepticism. Readers might wish to analyse the results for themselves, in conjunction with local newspaper reports, parish magazines and parochial records, and come to their own conclusions. Indeed, one of the joys of The Parish in Wartime is its potential influence on local historians to encourage them to examine and compare the visitation returns of their own diocese, and perhaps engage with groups elsewhere to compare and contrast results nationally.


Mark Smith’s eventual conclusion is that the parochial efforts of the Church of England during the First World War had a decided impact on those who were already regular churchgoers, but that others were hardly touched, leading him to suggest that, during the twentieth century the National Church would slowly become a gathered Church. It is to be hoped that others will emulate him by asking questions of twentieth century bishops’ visitation returns in their own dioceses, and that they will share their findings with others.


JANE PLATT is a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society and an archivist at the Oxford, Centre for Methodism and Church History, Oxford Brookes University. She is the author of Subscribing to Faith? The Anglican Parish Magazine 1859-1929 (2015), editor of ‘The Diocese of Carlisle 1814-1855: Chancellor Walter Fletcher’s ‘Diocesan Book’ (2015), and author of Making their Mark: Learning to read and write in nineteenth-century Cumberland (2019). She is currently editing the six volumes of late-seventeenth century notes on the history of Westmorland written by the antiquarian clergyman, Thomas Machell.


Review from The Local Historian, volume 50, No 3, July 2020.