Tuesday, 19 August 2008

Church of England: Reform

The nature of individual action

The Church could not resist the pressures for reform. It was not united in maintaining its authoritarian and conservative position.   Critical opinion from evangelicals and from the laity led to concentration on the reform   and reinvigoration of the parish. The Church of England and the Church of Ireland had been joined by the Act of Union. It  became increasingly necessary to reform the gross abuses  and alter  the political position of the Church of Ireland and  this, by  extension,  raised  the  same  question in relation  to  the Anglican Church. Since it had no governing body of its own, the Church had to depend on Parliament and party politicians for support in its reactionary attitudes. The Church might claim to be aloof from public opinion, but after 1832 politicians could not afford to be.

Initially reform of the Church was left to individuals. Charles Simeon, the evangelical Vicar of Holy Trinity, Cambridge, sought to improve the quality of those entering the Church. [1]   Professional training for clergymen was non-existent in the late eighteenth century and Simeon supplied the need at Cambridge with instruction to improve the quality and delivery of sermons. His example probably encouraged the establishment of the first specialist theological colleges at St Bees in 1816 and Lampeter in 1828. Good evangelical clergymen were necessary, Simeon maintained, but he also believed in the need to ensure that there was a continuity of ‘gospel ministers’ in livings if the work of the Church was to be maintained.   The idea of a corporation or trust to secure advowsons had already been operated but in 1817 Simeon began his trust with the purchase of the patronage of Cheltenham. His most important successes came as a result of the Municipal Corporations Act of 1835 that compelled the corporations to give up their patronage. He and, after his death in  1836,  his  successors secured  Bath,  Derby,  Macclesfield, Bridlington, Beverley  and two parishes in  Liverpool.   He was perhaps more conscious than many of his contemporaries of the need to secure a foothold in the growing industrial towns. Simeon was very conscious of the need to operate within the framework of the Church of England.   He disliked the insistence of evangelicals who argued that the commission to preach the gospels meant that they could override parochial boundaries.  He insisted on church order and this, probably averted many Anglican Evangelicals leaving the Church of England.

Lay influence on the Church of England was felt from the systematic nationwide penetration of the Anglican evangelicals associated loosely with William Wilberforce. The British and Foreign Bible Society and the Church Missionary Society, founded in 1803 and 1811, independently of the success they enjoyed abroad, played a major part in extending evangelical influence in Britain.   The Bible Society sought to disseminate copies of the Bible -- by 1825 it had issued over four million --without note or comment.   Many non-evangelical clergymen disliked this since they emphasised the importance of the Book of Common Prayer as well as the Bible and were suspicious of the co-operation with Dissenters that the Society encouraged. The Evangelical campaign sought to bring the working population within the orbit of the Established Church with the aim of keeping them in their place.   Evangelicalism was seen as an antidote to revolution from the 1790s.   Hannah More (1745-1833) and her sister Martha played a considerable role in educating people for their place in society.[2] In 1795 she started the Cheap Repository Tracts in response to cheap radical literature especially Paine’s Rights of Man.  All the 114 tracts had the same evangelical and conservative intention and an annual circulation of over two million copies.

By 1830, the evangelicals had directed their attention at all sections of society. Wealth, social and political contacts, and the crisis occasioned by the French Revolution, helped them to spread their ideas among the aristocratic elite. The  anti-slavery  campaigns mobilised middle-class opinion and the  Cheap Repository  Tracts  provided ’proper’ reading  for  the  working population.

Joshua Watson (1771-1855) was concerned to improve the ability of the Church to appeal to the growing urban population. A wine merchant with wide commercial and financial interests, he retired from business in 1814 to devote himself to good works. He appealed to High Churchmen, in contrast to the Evangelicals, and the group that gathered at his house in Hackney became known as the Hackney Phalanx and that publicise their activities through the British Critic. Watson was prominent in the formation of the National Society for Promoting the Education of the Poor in the Principles of the Established Church in 1811.   Its purpose was to encourage parishes to start their own schools and within three years it had raised sufficient contributions to establish 360 schools in that there were 60,000 pupils and nearly a million twenty years later. The society was not supported by the state until the government introduced annual grants in 1833.  Though the 1839 Whig educational proposals were mangled by Anglican opposition a committee of the Privy Council did take over the supervision of education and Watson’s resignation in 1842 coincided with the assertion of the authority of the State in education.

The  other  charitable  effort  that  Watson  led  was  the movement  to  build new churches.   There was little point in educating children into the Anglican faith if, when they grew up, they could not become regular churchgoers.   This was a very difficulty enterprise for private charity, even if money could be found.   Until  1818 a new parish had to be created by Parliament and  to  build a new church in an existing  parish  required  the consent  of  the patron and the incumbent,  either of whom  might feel their rights were being infringed. In 1818 Watson formed an Incorporated Church Building Society and in the same year, Lord Liverpool established an official commission with a grant of £1 million with a further £0.5 million added in 1824.  Parliamentary grants were virtually used up by 1828 and were not renewed, but such was the stimulus given to private subscribers that  the commission did not finish its work until 1857.   The Commission had then built 612 new churches accommodating 600,000 people and this figure does not exhaust the total number of churches built. Many were built or rebuilt by private means.

Institutional reform

By the early 1830s, despite the work of these individuals and groups, there was a feeling that the Church was faced with the alternatives of thorough reform or ‘complete destruction’. This   was sufficient to break through the obstacles to organisational change and pastoral renewal that had long prevented its adjustment to industrial and urban society.[3] The ecclesiastical and political crises of 1828-32 were closely connected.   The repeal of the Test and Corporation Acts, though they altered the daily lives of Anglicans and Nonconformists little, gave legitimacy to the ‘de facto’ situation.  However, combined with Catholic Emancipation, they symbolised dramatically the failure of the old monopolistic conception of the Establishment.   The  blind  conservatism of the  Church  of England’s leadership during the reform agitation,  a conservatism motivated by a fear that the country was near revolution and that the  church faced disestablishment,  the 1832 Reform Act and  the Whig  electoral landslide meant that moderate reform  could  no longer  be avoided.   The State increasingly took control of this ‘metamorphosis’ and the initiative for reform.  The restructuring of the Establishment was something imposed by a Parliament that could not afford to wait for some consensus on reform to emerge within the Church itself.

In  June  1832  an Ecclesiastical  Revenues  Commission  was established,  but for  two  and  a half years little  concrete occurred.   The  Commission investigated  the  entire  financial structure  of  the Establishment but,  as the debate  about  the Church intensified outside Parliament,  proposals for reform were either defeated or allowed to lapse.   The breakthrough came with the setting up of a new Commission to ‘consider the State of the Established Church’ during Peel’s minority administration.  In 1836  Melbourne  established it  on a  permanent  basis  as  the Ecclesiastical Commission and,  under the chairmanship of Charles James  Blomfield,  bishop of London,  it quickly became the  main instrument of organisational improvement in the Church. It never became a government department answerable to Parliament through a minister and retained a degree of independence thought necessary if reform was to triumph over the opposition of vested interests in the House of Lords and in the Church at large. But, since the Church possessed no effective assembly or courts of its own, the initiative at the most vital points in the development of this body had to come from government.

Major  reforms  of the Church’s structure  occurred  in  the second  half  of the  1830s and  during  Peel’s ministry (1841-6). The boundaries  of existing dioceses were modified and  new  dioceses created in 1836;  severe restrictions were placed on pluralism in 1838  and  excess  revenues from cathedrals were distributed  to those  with  greater  needs  in  1840.   In addition  the  Whigs introduced   the Registration  Act in  1836  that   put   the registration of births,  marriages and deaths in the hands of  a civil  official and not the Church and in 1838  the  Dissenters’ Marriage  Act ended the obligation of nonconformists to marry  in an Anglican church. Of   crucial importance in re-establishing the   popular position of the Church was the need to resolve its financial grievances. Both church rates and tithes were unpopular. Though compulsory church rates were not abolished until 1868, legal judgements made it clear that they could only be collected unless authorised by the churchwardens and a majority of the vestry. As Dissenters were eligible to vote for both, in some towns, like Birmingham, the rate lapsed.  This was preferable to Nonconformists than the scheme that the House of Commons seriously considered repairing all parish churches out of taxes.  Over tithes, the Whigs did something. The Tithe Commutation Act of 1836 ended tithes in kind and replaced them with money payments based on the average prices of corn, oats and barley over the previous seven years.

The approach of the Commission was both radical and realistic.  The decision to use excessive endowments to help poorer parishes resulted in 5,300 parishes being assisted in this way between 1840 and 1855.   Church building and renovation increased after 1835 and by 1850 the numbers of non-resident clergy had fallen significantly strengthening greatly the work of the Anglican ministry.   The increase in the pastoral efficiency of the clergy was accompanied by a decline in their status relative to other professions.   The number of clergymen on the County Bench fell. The Church was saved in the 1830s and 1840s by giving up some of its social and secular administrative functions and by a further surrendering of its autonomy to the State. The religious dimension of the priestly office had become paramount.

Reform from within

The  High  Church ‘party’ had been in the  vanguard  of  the Church’s  reaction to change since the 1790’s and may well  have inhibited  reformist  tendencies before  1830.   They distrusted their more evangelical colleagues, whose pastoral concerns seemed to threaten the norms of the unreformed Establishment, and were horrified by the structural and administrative reforms of Blomfield and Peel.   But it was the problem of the Church of Ireland that led to the emergence of the Tractarian or Oxford movement.[4] The 1833 Church Temporalities Act imposed drastic reforms on the Church of Ireland, reducing the archbishops from four to two and the number of bishops by ten and creating a body of ecclesiastical commissioners to control a substantial part of the Church’s revenue. These reforms certainly did not spell disaster for Irish Anglicanism and it remained the religion of a socially advantaged but numerically weak minority.   However, in the 1830s, many Anglicans were outraged by these reforms and it was the imminent passage of the Irish Temporalities Bill that prompted John Keble to preach his sermon on ‘National Apostasy’ on Sunday 14 July 1833.  It marked the formal beginnings of the Oxford movement.[5]

The  so-called  Hadleigh  conference  in late July led to agreement  over the principles of the new movement:  to  proclaim the doctrine of the apostolic succession;  the belief that it was sinful  to  give the laity a say in church affairs;  the need  to make  the  Church  more popular;  and,  to  protest against  any attempts  to disestablish the Anglican  church. The Oxford movement was a reaction against prevailing religious attitudes. It  was  part  of  the general and  widespread  revival  of  the ‘corporate’ against the ‘individual’ evangelical spirit  of  the day.   It was a reaction against the Church as a department of state: as Keble said ‘let us give up a national Church and have a real one’.   It was essentially a spiritual movement, concerned with the invisible world and was thus not only anti-liberal but also paradoxically intensely political. Newman opposed liberalism and erastianism as both struck at the spiritual dimension, the former by enslaving its spiritual guardian, the latter by destroying its dogmatic foundations.   The Tractarians diagnosed an age blighted by worldliness and that contemporary Protestantism was incapable of rescuing it from spiritual decay. The method of the Tractarians was to concentrate on a single article of the Christian creed: ‘I believe in one Catholic and Apostolic Church’, by which they meant the maintenance of apostolic order in the Church through the episcopacy.  They used Tracts for the Times to disseminate their views. The first was published in September 1833. By the end of 1833, 20 tracts had been published; 50 by the end of 1834 and 66 by July 1835. Tracts were nothing new. Wesley had used tracts and the Evangelicals had their Religious Tract Society. What was novel about the Tracts of the Oxford movement was that they were products of the High church, written and circulated by dons and addressed not to the poor and simple but to educated minds.

The reaction of many to the Oxford movement was to raise the spectre of Popery. The papist and bigoted nature of the movement was partially confirmed by the Hampden case of 1835 when leading Tractarians opposed the appointment of Hampden as Regius Professor of Divinity.   Their attack had two strands:  their opposition to the appointment of a clergyman with what they saw as suspect rationalist views and their opposition to his appointment by the patronage of a Whig prime minister.  Hampden symbolised both the liberal and erastian face of the Church of England.   By  the  end  of 1837, Newman in effect led  a  ‘party’ within  the  establishment  and this  gave  anti-Catholic  groups further evidence of the increasing Catholicity  of the Tractarians.

The movement had several limitations. First, it was the Oxford movement, academic, clerical and conservative. Its appeal was restricted to the educated classes, not so much from deliberate intention as from the interests and sympathies of its protagonists.  It was not until after 1845 that the Anglo-Catholic revival reached out to the poor and got a footing in the slums. Secondly, it was predominantly clerical and, though it did acquire some support from eminent laymen, the Tracts were addressed to clergymen. The movement had to be clerical because if the clergy did not accept its message it is certain no one else would.  Its success in interesting the country’s clergy in theological questions and church principles was one of its major achievements. Finally, it was inevitable that the standpoint of the movement was backward-looking.   For Newman the problem started with the Reformation: ‘a limb badly set, it must be broken again in order to be righted’. This retrospection could, and was, seen as conservatism if not reaction by many.

The   impact   of the Oxford movement was essentially ecclesiastical.   The Tractarians played an important role in the provision of theological training for the clergy. Chichester (1839), Wells (1840), Cuddesdon (1854) and Salisbury (1860) were all founded on definite high church principles. Before 1830 the  role  of  clergymen  within  society  can  perhaps  best  be described  as ‘social’ rather than  ’spiritual’.   The Oxford movement provided clergy with a new concept of their social role that was not quasi-political but profoundly spiritual. This new concept of priestly vocation goes a long way to explain clerical support for Tractarianism. Evangelical assertions that the laity was becoming priest-ridden were not without foundation.


[1] H.C.G. Moule Charles Simeon, Methuen, 1892 remains a good study of his life. John Piper Roots of Endurance: Invincible Perseverance in the Lives of John Newton, Charles Simeon and William Wilberforce, Crossway Books, 2006 is a more recent study placing Simeon in his evangelical context.

[2] Anne Stott Hannah More: The First Victorian, Oxford University Press, 2003 is an excellent biography; pages 169-190 consider the Cheap Repository Tracts.

[3] For the role of the state see O. Brose Church and Parliament: The Reshaping  of the Church of England  1828-1860,  CUP,  1959, K.A. Thompson Bureaucracy and Church Reform: A Study of the Church of England 1800-1965, OUP, 1970 and G.I.T. Machin Politics and the Churches in Great Britain 1832 to 1868, OUP, 1977.

[4] On the Oxford Movement N. Yates The Oxford Movement and Anglican Ritualism, The Historical Association, 1983 is a brief summary. G. Faber Oxford Apostles, Faber, 1933 and R.W. Church The Oxford Movement, 1891,  a classic in a modern edition edited by G.F.A. Best in 1970, are both valuable.  O. Chadwick Newman, OUP, 1983 is a brief biography focussing on his ideas and his The Spirit of the Oxford Movement, CUP, 1990 contains a collection of important essays. I. Ker John Henry Newman, OUP, 1990 is the definitive biography of a seminal figure in the development of the Oxford movement and Roman Catholicism.

[5] For a full discussion of the development of the Oxford movement up to the 1850s, see Richard Brown Church and State in Modern Britain 1700-1850, Routledge, 1991.

1 comment:

Prabal Ray said...

Thnak you for a very interesting article. Recently I have been reading "The last Chronicle of Barsetshire" (Anthony Trollope). What is very evident in this work is the huge disparity in the financial remuneration of the clergy - some curates would be dressed in rags and virtually starving to death, while neighbouring clergy would be keeping hounds and buying whole estates (and employing curates to do their parochial work for them). From what you say it was the Whig government of the 1830s which started the process of reform so that we now have clergy who are more or less paid the same and devote most of their time to parish work. It is a pity that these reforms had to be brought about by the state. You would have thought that the church itself would have seen the unfairness and iniquity of the prevailing situation and would have wanted to change things themselves