The history of the Public Worship Regulation Act has been told by the present Archbishop of Canterbury in his Life of Archbishop Tait. It was the work of several hands, and underwent an unusual amount of alteration in its various stages--alterations which, as we can now see, made it a far less mischievous measure than it would have been in its earlier and seemingly more innocent form. It is possible, and I think just, to hold that, though Archbishop Tait was wrong, alike in his estimate of the ecclesiastical situation and in the treatment he sought to apply to it, it would in the then state of public feeling have been impossible to do anything useful, and very difficult to do nothing. Lord Shaftesbury had brought in Ecclesiastical Courts Bills session after session. One of them had been sent down from the Lords in 1872. It reached the Commons too late to be gone on with, but the debate on it had drawn from Mr Gladstone an admission that there was an urgent case for legislation. A conviction of this kind is always dangerous when those who desire legislation are not agreed upon the character of the legislation needed. In this case, High Churchmen wanted to give something of a spiritual character to the Court of Final Appeal in ecclesiastical causes; Low Churchmen wanted to suppress what they held to be illegal ritual; the bishops wanted to revive their forum domesticum, "with just so much of coercive force added as seemed necessary to meet the changed circumstances of modern times"; the public at large wanted to put down whatever they happened most to dislike at the moment, whether it was doctrine or ceremony. An agreement of this kind makes the promise of legislation easy, but its performance exceedingly difficult. However urgent legislation may be, when it is wanted for at least four incompatible ends, three of them must go unsatisfied. In the ecclesiastical comedy of 1874, the bishops were the first to occupy the stage. They met at Lambeth on January 12 and 13, and committed to the two archbishops the duty of drawing up a Bill. As first drafted, this measure had nothing in common with the proposals which eventually became law. The most extreme High Churchman could not have excluded the Privy Council from any share in ecclesiastical divisions more completely than the archbishops proposed to do. A Board, composed of three incumbents elected by the clergy, and five lay Churchmen elected by the churchwardens, with the Chancellor, the Dean and the Archdeacon as ex-officio members, was to be set up in every diocese, and to this Board any complaint relating to ritual was to be referred. If, after taking all the circumstances into account, and if necessary hearing evidence, the Board were of the opinion that proceedings should be taken against the accused clergyman, the bishop was directed to issue such admonition or order as he deemed necessary, and this order was to have the force of law, unless the clergyman to whom it was addressed should appeal against it to the archbishop. In that case, the Archbishop was to hear the appeal in person, and, with the aid of his Vicar General, to confirm or annul the Bishop's admonition. From this decision of the Archbishop there was to be no appeal. Archbishop Tait's biographer sees "no reason to doubt" that a Bill based on these lines might have been carried through Parliament, if the archbishops had been able to show that they were supported by the clergy generally without distinction of party. But in order to obtain the support of the clergy generally, the division between Church parties must have been effaced, and as in the modern Church of England these divisions are unusually acute, and at that time showed every sign of growing more so, this condition was not one that could be satisfied. At the moment, it even seemed possible that these divisions would be added by an open avowal by Dr Pusey of his dislike and distrust of the ritualists. The first result of the Archbishop's project was to avert this misfortune. Pusey saw the Bill would give the bishops power to determine ritual disputes for themselves, and he felt no doubt--the composition of the episcopate being what it was--that this would mean the summary enforcement of the recent decisions of the Judicial Committee. Nor is it easy to see how it could have meant anything else. Archbishop Tait, indeed, pleaded that no question of law would be referred to the Diocesan Boards. They would only decide whether the bishop ought to issue a monition. But, if the law was plainly broken, how could a Board avoid the conclusion that a monition ought to be issued, and, in ascertaining whether the law had been broken, what could the Diocesan Board take as law except the decisions of the Court of Final Appeal?
Owing to Mr Gladstone's unexpected dissolution of Parliament, the Bill was not introduced until the 20th of April. By that time, it was clear that it had very few supporters, either in the House of Commons or the country. High Churchmen had drawn together, and were now for the first time united in opposing it. Low Churchmen recalled with regret the drastic legislation again and again attempted by Lord Shaftesbury. In the Lord, however, the Bill at first commanded a majority. There was no division on the Second Reading, and the motion to go into Committee was carried by a majority of 110.
But in the Committee stage Archbishop Tait's project--his "revolutionary" project, as Church called it--took on a wholly new character. Among the many notices of amendments there stood in the name of Lord Shaftesbury a series of new clauses which aimed at affecting a complete change in the character and object of the Bill. Lord Shaftesbury held that the Archbishop's proposals were no better than "so much waste paper." He had no faith in clerical judges, and his amendments put on one side not only the personal jurisdiction of Bishop and Archbishop, which the Bill in earlier form proposed to set up, but also the historical Provincial Courts. The Dean of the Arches and the Judge of the Chancery Court of York disappeared, and in their place came a lay judge, appointed by the two archbishops, and exercising in his own single person all the powers it was proposed to create by the Bill. As the effect of these amendments, if carried, would be to take the Bill out of the hands of its authors, it became necessary for them to consider whether they should accept or reject Lord Shaftesbury's re-casting of their measure. To reject it was to risk not merely the loss of the Bill, but its being passed over the heads of the episcopate with whatever additions the Protestant zeal of the House of Commons might see fit to make to it. To accept the amendments was to make themselves responsible for proposals which were the direct contrary of those they themselves had drafted. The forum domesticum, the Diocesan Board, the appeal to the Archbishop, would all disappear. There was to be no consideration of local circumstances. The letter of the law was everywhere to be enforced. The archbishops were plainly in a very tight place. It had become known to them that the new clauses standing in Lord Shaftesbury's name were in part the work of the Lord Chancellor (Lord Cairn), and would in all probability have the support of the government. They could not count on any effective lay help in resisting amendments which had the support of Lord Salisbury, Lord Selborne, and Lord Bath. The majority of the bishops either went with Lord Shaftesbury or were prepared to make the archbishops' choice their own. In the end, they decided to oppose the new clauses in debate, but to vote for them if they were satisfied that they would be carried.
With our present knowledge of what has happened since 1874, it is difficult to understand Archbishop Tait's point of view. By helping to pass the Public Worship Regulation Bill in the form which Lord Shaftesbury had given it, he was doing two things which could hardly be to his real mind. He was widening the breach between the High Church party and the law; he hwas helping to give that party a degree of union from which it was, in the end, to derive a substantial increase of strength. But in 1874 much that is plain now was still obscure. High Churchmen had not yet realised the greatness of the conflict which had been forced upon them. The revolution made by the Bill in the character and claims of the Provincial Courts was not understood even by Pusey. More than two years after the passing of the Act, he wrote: "I do not see how the appointment by Act of Parliament vitiates the authority of the court in which Lord Penzance presides." And again: "I do not see any difference which the Public Worship Bill makes except that it makes shorter work (they say). Lord Penzance was appointed by the two Archbishops, Sir Robert Phillimore by one."
Again the Bill had the warm support of Bishop Thirlwall, who was better qualified perhaps than any of his brethren to weigh the value of popular movements. "Besides," he wrote, "the immediate good effect which may be expected from it in checking the license of innovation, it has brought to light some things. Which I regard as in the highest degree cheering and hopeful." Moreover, if the Archbishop had voted against the amendments, he might not have been able to retain the clause leaving to each bishop an absolute discretion as to the use of the veto. Nobody indeed can lay any claim to foresight as regards the future of this singular Act. Mr Disraeli supported it because it would "put down ritualism," and he believed that ritualism was unpopular. Mr Gladstone detested it because it would make the Church of England completely Erastian. But neither was more at fault than Archbishop Tait, who hoped it would strengthen the authority of the bishops. The only gainers by it have been the people against whom it was directed. It needed the prosecutions instituted under the Act to bring High Churchmen together. It needed the imprisonments suffered under the Act to make prosecutions odious. It needed the near prospect of deprivations, which the harvest of canonical difficulties which they could not but yield, to bring home to the ecclesiastical authorities the need of undoing, so far as was possible, their own handiwork.