The Woodforde Family
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 The original stone altar at the Church of All Saints had been replaced by a wooden table in 1550.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
contributions to this site are welcome.
© Stephen Butt 2004 - rev
at All Saint's Northampton
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:‑
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 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:‑
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:‑
However, on the following Sunday when the diarist next attended All Saints, the news was that the excommunication was about to be published:‑
The excommunication was published finally on 28 January 1637/8, in the afternoon, according to the diarist:‑
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:‑
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:‑
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 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;‑
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.