The Other Church Closure

Gerald Barton, Editor of In-touch reflects on an earlier closure of churches in England

We are living through almost unprecedented times. Never in our lifetimes have we seen all our churches close their doors and the regular round of church worship come to a halt across the country. However, it’s not the first time this has happened, at least not in England. There was a time some 800 years ago when the cathedrals and churches in England were forced to close their doors and worship cease. While we may hope that our churches can re-open in a matter of months this closure was far longer lasting five years from 1208 until 1213. How did this come about?

In 1205 the Archbishop of Canterbury, Hubert Walter died. Electing a new Archbishop was to prove problematic and divisive. Under pressure from King John, the cathedral chapter elected John de Grey, Bishop of Norwich to succeed Archbishop Walter. However, the younger members of the chapter, in an act of ecclesiastical independence elected Reginald, the sub-prior of Christ Church, Canterbury to be the new archbishop. Appeals to Rome by both parties followed with the result that Pope Innocent III rejected both elections. A group of canons from the cathedral chapter went to Rome empowered to act for the whole chapter. The Pope ordered them to hold a fresh election in his presence. This time a third candidate was chosen, Stephen Langton who was consecrated archbishop by the Pope at Viterbo in 1207.

Stephen Langton (c1150 – 1228) was born in Langton by Wragby in Lincolnshire and studied at the University of Paris and lectured there in theology until 1206. Pope Innocent III, with whom he had formed a friendship in Paris, called him to Rome and made him cardinal priest of San Crisogono.  By that time Langton was recognised as the foremost English churchman and his piety and learning had already won him prebends in Paris and York. Doubtless, he was Innocent’s preferred choice.

King John refused to accept Langton and went so far as to declare anyone recognising him as Archbishop a public enemy. In July 1207, King John expelled the entire Canterbury cathedral chapter who, by that time were unanimous in favour of Langton. The Pope responded in March 1208 by placing the king under interdict, suspending all sacraments and public worship in England. Cathedrals and churches closed their doors, bells no longer rang and people could no longer attend mass. At first, mass was not said at all, but later resumed but only once a year and behind closed doors.

The history of this time that is readily available describes the events and the actions of the ‘great people’ involved. However, I would be fascinated to know what the ordinary people made of all this and how they felt about not being able to attend the regular round of church services or seek the church’s blessing for their activities. Few of course were educated enough to read and even fewer would have had access to the Bible which was only available to the great churches and monasteries and was, in any event only ever read in Latin. The common people only knew what they were told by the priests and what they could understand by looking at depictions of Biblical events and the lives of the saints in church wall paintings. Some may have feared for their souls and their chances of reaching paradise. When religious observance is seen as a pre-requisite for your standing with the Almighty after death, not being able to attend mass or worship may have seemed a matter of significance for your fate in eternity.

It’s difficult to know what church really meant to people back in the early 13th century. Our current lock-down also calls into question what it means to us today. For us, attendance at worship can be easy and habitual and, perhaps not something we ponder as to its deeper significance. As our churches seek to find other ways of bringing us together through services available on-line either as pre-recorded services we can view at the same time or whenever is convenient or as live-streamed events, how far can these go to replace or substitute for our physically gathering together?

We humans are social animals and we tend to shrivel away without the contact of our fellow creatures. Faith is also not only private but also public. Coming together in public acts of worship reinforces the faith we hold in common even though we may not spend much time actually discussing it at the time.

The question of on-line holy communion sharpens this focus further. Is communion ‘valid’ if we are not physically there to share the elements blessed by the minister/priest? What, in any case does ‘valid’ mean in that context? Further, does it have to be a minister or priest that does the blessing? For some churches, regular attendance at mass is a religious duty that must be fulfilled. Even for Methodists, regularly taking communion is a requirement for being in ‘good standing’ with the church. Holy communion can be deeply meaningful at a personal level, but it is also a shared, public act in which we all come together as an expression of our common faith.

I suppose we could just say that for the moment we can just put these things on hold and wait for our churches to re-open as they will in the none too distant future and certainly faster than they did in the interdict of 1208 – 1213. However, in the meantime we have the opportunity to ask ourselves what we feel the deeper meanings and significance of coming together for worship and holy communion to be so that when we return to our churches we can do so not with just a sense of relief, but also with a sense of renewal and refreshment.

So, how did the interdict of the early 13th century come to an end? With the barons plotting against him, King John was forced to make peace with the Church. In May 1213 he capitulated to the Pope and accepted Stephen Langton as Archbishop of Canterbury promising to pay the Pope £12,000 and an annual subsidy thereafter, thus making England for some years a feudal fief of the papacy. The interdict was lifted and the cathedrals and churches opened their doors once more.


First published on: 3rd May 2020