The Woodforde Family

A History of the Woodforde Family from 1300


THE COMMUNION TABLE CONTROVERSY
 

 

The Communion Table Controversy

Striking at the very heart of the puritans' beliefs, the Canons of 1603 required that the Communion Table was to be placed at the east end of the chancel of the church in a position formally occupied by the altar.  The one exception to this rule was during the celebration of Holy Communion when it could be placed in the body of the church in a position from which  the minister could be more conveniently heard by the participating congregation.  However, in many churches with puritan sympathies, including All Saints Northampton,  the table remained permanently in the body of the church.  The original stone altar at the Church of All Saints had been replaced by a wooden table in 1550. 

In time the inclusion of the table within the main body of the church led to a number of abuses.  Sometimes churchwardens would use the table as a writing desk in order to transact the business of the parish; children used it as a school desk from which lessons were taught; during services, hats and cloaks were draped upon it and sometimes it was even used as additional seating with members of the congregation perched irreverently upon it. Archbishop Laud's reaction was to issue an injunction that the tables should be taken back to the east end of the chancel and railed in.  In most dioceses this ruling found unilateral reasoned support but in a number of parishes it met with bitter opposition.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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Stephen Butt 2004 - rev 29/02/04
 

 

 

The Controversy at All Saint's Northampton

The first reference in the diary to the Communion Table controversy at All Saints appears on 12 November 1637:‑

 

" Mr Newton preached both times very well I blesse the Lord.  But I find the Com(munio)n Table removed to the very top & there is a ... (illegible) it seemes to come up to it "

In the previous month the Revd Thomas Ball had been summoned before the Episcopal commissioners and admonished by them on a number of matters.  The citation included references to the Communion Table and to the way in which the Sacrament was administered:‑

" that the communion table be not taken away from the east end of the chancel, and that it be cancelled;  and that he appoint so many communions betwixt this and Candlemass, as that all the parishoners may receive the same, and give notice to the parishoners to come up and receive at the rails, kneeling upon the bench there; and that he do not come out of the cancelling to deliver the communion to any factious person. "

(Minutes of proceedings of the Commissaries for the Bishop of Peterborough)

The churchwardens were also ordered to place the communion table altar-wise close to the east end of the church and to remove seating extending thirteen feet to the north of the table.  They were also required to observe the mannerisms and gestures of the ministers and parishioners as to whether they bowed at the name of Jesus and whether parishioners received the communion kneeling and to report their findings to the Commissioners. 

The churchwardens refused to obey the Commissioners' directives.  Three entries in the diary indicate their continued disobedience despite constant threats from the Commissioners:‑

" The churchwardens this day sent for before Dr Clarke and there injoyned to rayle in and fix the table at the east end of the chancel, but they both refused and answered him boldly. "          16 November 1637

" The churchwardens again with Dr Clarke to‑day,  where they were taunted.  But the Lord encourage them. "
18 December 1637

" The churchwardens have brought downe the communion table to‑day from the top and set it longwise in the body of the chancell. "        31 December 1637

The Commissioners warned the churchwardens,  Peter Farren and Francis Rushworth on three occasions during the Autumn of 1637 and eventually on 12 January 1637/8 they were summoned to a special court where they were both excommunicated.  This event, obviously so important to the puritan community in Northampton, is noted in the diary:‑

" The churchwardens are to appeare at the Sp.Court to‑day.  The churchwardens decreed to be excommunicated today for bringing downe the    Communion Table. "         12 January 1637/8

There followed a period of some confusion regarding the status of the churchwardens and the actual excommunication.  On the following day Robert reported that the situation has changed in some way:‑

" ... I heare this afternoon they are delivered, and have liberty to bringe down the table ... "

However, on the following Sunday when the diarist next attended All Saints, the news was that the excommunication was about to be published:‑

" Dr Clarke hath sent forth a sentence of excommunication ag(ains)t the Churchwardens  here which is not yet published."

The excommunication was published finally on 28 January 1637/8, in the afternoon, according to the diarist:‑

" ... the excommunication was published in th(e) afternoone ag(ains)t Mr Farren & Mr Rushworth, the Churchwardens, Lord looke uppon the times & amend them for the Lords Sake."

In the following month the churchwardens petitioned the Commissioners offering the defence that they had been unable to find suitable and able workmen to undertake the fixing and railing‑in of the table during the Christmas period.  They claimed that they had commenced the work after Christmas and had completed it shortly after their excommunication.  Their argument was not excepted and their petition was consequently referred to the Dean of Arches, Sir John Lambe. 

During February 1637/8 Robert Woodforde was in London on legal business.  On Friday 2 February he attended a service at St Paul's, and noted his criticism of the preacher's stance:‑ 

" We went and heard a sermon in Paules preached by one Dr Turner who preached for bowing at the name of Jesus and towards the altar.  Oh Lord look from Heaven in mercy to thy poore church. "

On Sunday 11 February the excommunicated churchwardens were also in London, possibly in the course of their efforts to be absolved from their excommunication.  There is a note in the diary for this day that Farren and Rushworth arranged to meet Robert clandestinely:‑

" (they) sent for me at night, the occasion of their  coming to‑day was necessary as they supposed."

A number of entries in the diary over subsequent weeks give the impression that the Commissioners' directives were at last being followed.  There was no afternoon sermon at All Saints on Sunday 4 March for the first time in "very many yeares" according to the diarist.  He adds that it seems that Dr Clarke had forbidden it and that the Commissioner's orders were now being obeyed.

Fiinally, on 16 March 1637, the work on installing the Communion Table in its approved place was virtually completed.  The rails had been erected around it, and the seats immediately in front of the table had been cleared away as originally directed.  The final portion of the rail was in place on Saturday 17 March, and it seemed that at last the puritan community at All Saints had conceded defeat.

However, on that same day Robert Woodforde heard of the imminent arrival of another `Act of God', which was to affect every individual and every family in the town and would, perversely, enable the puritans at All Saints to continue to disobey the Episcopal commissioners:‑

" The rayle in the chancell is now almost up, and its confiendtly reported that the sicknesse is in towne.  Oh Lord p(re)vent it or heale  it if it be thy will, if not I pray thee give us to see the rod & him that smiteth with it that we may be bettered by the affli(c)t(i)on."

The legal struggle of the churchwardens' against their excommunication continued long after the plague had left Northampton.  According to the diary, the case against Dr Clarke and Dr Sibthorpe presented by Farren and Rushworth was heard before the Grand Committee on 28 November 1640.  The final reference to the controversy comes on 3 December 1640 when it seems that Woodforde is acting on behalf of the churchwardens in Northampton;‑

"  I went downe with Mr Rushworth to the Registers office havinge a war(ran)t from the parliam(en)t to search there concerninge Dr Clarke & Dr Sibthorpe.  Lord remove these idle &  unprofitable servants of thine & send out those that are faythfull for the Lord's sake."

Although there are few references to Mr Farren, the four year span of the diary  includes numerous references to Mr Rushworth, indicating that he and his wife were still participating fully in the life of the church despite the notice of excommunication.