One of the more fascinating windows into the 19th century is the ministry of Charles Kingsley and his parish church at Eversley in northeastern Hampshire.
Rapid change was afoot
In the century that followed the great English revival, the Industrial Revolution roared on, bringing widespread social dislocation and rapid transformation in all aspects of life in the British Isles. The population of England expanded from nine million in 1801 to 33 million in 1901. Growth was dramatic in the towns and cities, especially as the agrarian economy of the countryside went into decline.
Society was highly segregated, and the working class, in particular, was forced into dense ghetto-like neighbourhoods with overcrowding, poverty, unemployment and inadequate sanitation. Thanks in part to the revival, the Church of England had become more effective in keeping up with these changes. New churches were planted and a wide array of reform societies organised to address the various social, economic and moral ills of the day.
A traditional parish might gradually emerge out of rather non-traditional circumstances! Small mission halls or even corrugated iron structures sometimes served as the first meeting places, often with the assistance of the local people. Sunday schools, day schools, libraries and charities then began their work, and eventually more comprehensive 'settlement' houses offered the whole gamut of services required in the most severely impoverished neighbourhoods.
Charles Kingsley shared this rising church concern for social conditions. This country parson, novelist, labour activist and advocate of 'Christian socialism' worked tirelessly among both the rural and urban poor because he was convinced that in baptism Christians were initiated into the kingdom of God - set free from self-concern to serve others. They were to be a positive force in the world, working towards a good society - much as we have seen at Little Gidding and in the Methodist societies.
When, in 1844, Kingsley first arrived at Eversley, he was told by a local farm labourer that there was an oppressive weight on the hearts of the local people - 'and they care for no hope and no change, for they know they can be no worse off than they are'. As Kingsley got to know those whom he had been called to serve, he became deeply convicted regarding the grinding poverty and spiritual darkness of their everyday lives. He was particularly effective at getting out amongst the people, sometimes working beside them in the fields, and calling on them as many as six or seven times a day when illness and other crises hit home.
A small and impoverished parish
Kingsley mobilised his small and impoverished parish to join him in this double listening - to the surrounding culture as well as to the gospel. Co-operatives were organised for the poor, 'shoe clubs', 'coal clubs', a maternal society, a loan fund and a lending library were founded each after the other. An adult evening school was established to address the problem of illiteracy, and Sunday schools and weekly cottage lectures were planned for general as well as Christian education.
Kingsley's revival of catechesis and confirmation provided a model for the whole Church of England. A church building that had formerly been vacant throughout much of the week was now buzzing with all sorts of activities on a daily basis. In its own way, Kingsley's parish church became 'a school for God's service'. Learning how to read, having wider access to the Scriptures, and gaining a deeper understanding of God's mission in the world remained the chief concerns of the church at Eversley for years to come. These commitments turned an insular country parish into a missionary church.
A new identity
Kingsley's vision of the kingdom of God provided the DNA for this new identity. The DNA worked inwardly and outwardly, moving beyond the 'come to us' mentality that sometimes marginalises parish life.
Kingsley sought to spread this DNA by popularising Christian social ideals in novels like Yeast (1850) and Hypatia (1853). He also knew how to use the print media of the day (magazines and tracts) like we use the internet - to get the word out, form networks and show how Christians think and act in the modern world.
Like Ferrar and Wesley before him, Kingsley reminded Anglicans that the church must always be agile enough to move from comfort zones to compassion zones, from self-serving to self-giving. These are the distinguishing features of the pilgrim people of God and, indeed, a mission-shaped church.