Other Religious Faiths
Since the seventh century England has always had a single official Church. The country has been divided into parishes and dioceses, and for centuries every person was a member of their parish church, which they had to attend. Through the Middle Ages the Church followed the rule of the Papacy; even after the Reformation the structure remained intact, but now with the monarch as head of the Church. In both periods dissenting movements, be they Lollards or Anabaptists or some other, were denounced as heretics, persecuted and driven underground. But in the seventeenth century the Church of England’s supremacy became more limited as it gradually came to accept the existence and legitimacy of a number of independent Protestant denominations.
Civil War Sects
This Nonconformist tradition was established in a series of separate bursts. During the Great Civil War and the Interregnum, 1642-1660, various sects that had an underground existence before began to flourish openly. Most prominently, the Anabaptists (or Baptists) rejected traditional theology and insisted on the need to gather together congregations of true believers regardless of parish boundaries. The rejection of the comprehensive state church made such “sectaries” seem dangerous to the political and social stability of the country in the years immediately following the civil war, as the victorious Parliament endeavoured to re-establish a national church, but without a hierarchy of bishops.
The 1650s saw a period of toleration for Protestants of “tender conscience” like the Baptists, but even Oliver Cromwell’s Protectorate found it difficult to tolerate George Fox’s Society of Friends, popularly known as Quakers, who refused to recognise authority, social or political, as higher than their conscience. After 1660 attempts were made, notably through Parliament’s Clarendon Code, to suppress these dissenting sects, but they proved irrepressible: in 1669 there were reported to be about 60 Anabaptists in Hook Norton, led by persons who had been soldiers in Cromwell’s armies. In 1683 there were 36 Baptists and 18 Quakers.
Parliament finally decided their support was essential to preserve the safety of Protestantism, and in 1689 passed a Toleration Act allowing these nonconformists to meet for worship. The sects continued to thrive in the eighteenth century mainly in those places where they already existed: in 1738 there were 18 families of Baptists in Hook Norton, and fourteen families of Quakers; both sects had their own meeting houses here. In other words, about a fifth of the parish belonged to one of the old Dissenting sects.
Methodists, Schisms and Catholics
The second burst of Nonconformity came in the eighteenth century with John Wesley’s itinerant preaching and the establishment of Methodist churches. This movement grew until it was the largest of the non-Anglican churches in Britain and almost seemed like a second established church. In the nineteenth century various churches broke away from the older sects, notably the Primitive Methodists, who appeared in Hook Norton in 1845. In 1851 a religious census showed that more worshippers went to the four Nonconformist chapels than to the parish church: on the census Sunday, 277 people attended Anglican services, 160 Wesleyan Methodist, 120 Baptist, 100 Primitive Methodist, and 11 Quaker. Later the Baptists, too, suffered a secession, when the Strict Baptists set up their own chapel in the 1890s.
These dissenters all came out of a radical Protestant tradition and continued to suffer civil and legal disadvantages until 1828. Roman Catholics were considered more subversive and suffered heavier penalties, but bans on public worship and organising schools were removed in 1778 and 1791 and all civil penalties finally removed in 1829. A hundred years later a Catholic community appeared in Hooky and opened its own church in 1932, which lasted until 1997. Each of these non-Anglican churches contributed to Hooky’s life and character, each has its own history to recall, from a period not so long ago when religion was central to everyone’s lives. Nowadays only the Baptist Church survives in the parish as an organized Christian community alongside the established Anglican Church.
With the broadening of British culture, non-Christian denominations have also begun to appear. There seems to be no tradition of organized Judaism or Islam in the parish, but an active Buddhist group has been meeting regularly in the village since about 1989. Their spiritual aspirations maintain a local tradition going back over 370 years of fostering religious movements that fall outside the Anglican mainstream. Nowadays some locals say they have become Buddhists because they feel that the Christian churches have acquired layers of ceremonial and hierarchy that obstruct the expression of religious truth as once expressed by Christ; these sentiments are exactly the same as those expressed by successive generations of Protestant dissenters before them. These religious movements have all sought God and salvation according to the best lights of their conscience, as have the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church.
Something similar may be true of the nine local people who in the 2011 census declared themselves to be Jedi Knights. Perhaps they do adhere to the 16 teachings and 21 maxims of the Jedi Church, which believes that there is one all-powerful force in the universe and that a sense of morality is innate within each of us. But if their response was simply a tongue-in-cheek response to the census question on religion, they should be numbered with the growing proportion of the population – thirty per cent in 2011 – who count themselves as belonging to no religion.
© Donald Ratcliffe
Martin Greenwood: Pilgrim’s Progress Revisited: The Nonconformists of Banburyshire, 1662-2012 (Charlbury: Wychwood Press, 2013)
Mary Clapinson, ed.: Bishop Fell and Nonconformity, Oxfordshire Record Society, vol. 52 (1980).
- H. Lloyd Dukes, ed.: Articles of Enquiry Addressed to the Clergy of the Diocese of Oxford at the Primary Visitation of Dr Thomas Secker, 1738, Oxfordshire Record Society, vol. 38 (1957).
 Mary Clapinson, ed., Bishop Fell and Nonconformity, Oxfordshire Record Society, vol. 52 (1980), pages xiv-xv, 38-39, 44-45.
 H. H. Lloyd Dukes, Articles of Enquiry Addressed to the Clergy of the Diocese of Oxford at the Primary Visitation of Dr Thomas Secker, 1738, Oxfordshire Record Society, vol. 38 (1957), pages 83-84.