Hello and hi. The Anglican Church in my neighbourhood looms large and sentry-like, dominating the skyline. However, those lovely Anglican’s were kind enough to put a small sign outside of the church indicating that the local Catholic church is just down the road on Fashoda Ave. You see, St. Swithun’s Catholic church is so tiny, so miniscule that if you were to blink as you walked towards it-you just may miss it. And that is the Gospel truth. Of course, if you are Catholic-you should already know where the church is. Just sayin’.
The Catholic Church in England and Wales is part of the worldwide Roman Catholic Church in full communion with the Pope. Further, Celtic Christianity, with some traditions different from those of Rome, was present in Roman Britain (from the first century AD).
The English Church continuously adhered to the See of Rome for almost 1000 years from the time of Augustine of Canterbury-but in 1534, during the reign of King Henry VIII, the church, through a series of legislative acts between 1533 and 1536 became independent from the Pope for a period as the Church of England, a national church with Henry declaring himself Supreme Head. Under Henry’s son, Edvard VI, teh Church of England became more influenced by the European Protestant movement. The English Church was brought back under full papal authority 1553, at the beginning of the reign of Queen Mary, and Catholics were as pleased as communal wine with that news. Yes, yes they were. From 1553 onwards, loads of stuff happened but please note, that this is only a blog post and not Sunday School.
Fast forward to modern day…in the 2001 UK census, there were 4.2 million Roman Catholics in England and Wales-approximately 8% of the population. 100 years earlier in 1901, they had represented only 4.8% of the population. In 1981, 8.7% of the population of England and Wales were Roman Catholic. Further, an Ipsos Mori poll found that in 2009 there were 9.6% Catholics about or 5.2 million English and Welsh Catholics. Sizeable populations include North West England where 1 in 5 is Catholic-as a result of large-sclae Irish immigration in the 19th century-as well as the high number of English recusants (a person who refused to submit to an authority) in Lancashire.
Christianity arrived in the British Isles in the 1st or 2nd centuries. Records indicate that Romano-British bishops attended the Council of Arles in 314, which confirmed the theological findings of an earlier convocation held in Rome in 313. The Roman departure from Britain in the following century and the subsequent Germanic invasions sharply decreased contact between Britain and Continenal Europe. Christianity continuted to flourish in some areas. During this period, certain practices and traditions took hold in Britain and Ireland-collectively known as ‘Celtic Christianity.’ Distinct features of Celtic Christianity include a unique monastic tonsure (the practice of shaving some of the hair on the scalp) and calculations for the date of Easter. Regardless of these differences, historians DO NOT consider this Celtic or British Christianity a distinct church separate from general Western Europeman Christianity. Please note that I am not getting all high and mighty here, rather, am just letting you know what went down. Pictured below is an example of monastic tonsure.
During the Mediavel times, England and Wales were part of western Christendom. During this period, monasteries and covents were prominent features of society providing lodging, hospitals and education. Likewise, schools like Oxford and Cambridge were important. Members of religious orders (notabley Dominincas and Franciscans) settled in both schools and maintained houses for students. Clerics like Archbishop Walter de Merton founded Merton College at Oxford and THREE different Popes-Gregory IX, Nicholas IV, and John XXII gave Cambrige legal protection and status to compete with European medieval Universities. Haha….you really ARE in Sunday School today. Respect.
England remaiend a Catholic country until 1534, when it FIRST officially separated from Rome during the reign of King Henry VIII. In response to the Pope’s refusal to annul Henry’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon, Parliament denied the Pope’s authority over the English Church and dissolved the monasteries and religious orders in England.
In 1536–41 Henry VIII engaged in a large-scale Dissolution of the Monasteries,which controlled most of the wealth of the church, and much of the richest land. He disbanded monasteries, priories, convents and friaries in England, Wales and Ireland as he appropriated their income, disposed of their assets and provided pensions for the former residents. He did not turn these properties over to a Protestant church of England (which indeed did not yet exist): they were sold, mostly to pay for the wars.
Of course I have been brief here and have exlcuded what came after, mainly the Stuart era, the 18th and 19th century. If you want to know what happened…find your way to a library, or Google. ‘Google is your friend’ I was once told. Ok, more than once.
20th century to the present
English Catholicism continued to expand throughout the first two thirds of the 20th century, when it was associated primarily with elements in the English intellectual class and Irish population. Numbers attending Mass remained HIGH in stark contrast with the Anglican church. Again, that is the Gospel truth.
By the latter years of th 20th century, low numbers of vocations affected teh church with 16 new priests for England and Wales in 2009 compted to 110 thirteen years earlier. Annual vocation numbers have been variable in recent years. Parishes have been closed or merged (Liverpool reduced from 60 t0 27 parishes) and of course, sexual abuse scandals have also damaged the Church.
As in other English-speaking countries such as the US and Australia, the movement of Irish Catholics out of the working-class into the middle-class suburban mainstream, often meant their assimilation with broader/secular English society and loss of a separate Catholic identity.
In closing, there is much more to be said about Catholics in England and Wales. I have only scratched the surface here. In fact, I have annointed you with some preliminary knowedge. You are welcome. If you are interested, you should check out this link How Many Catholics are there in Britain? from the BBC, it is long-but not as long as this post. I promise you that. Enjoy.