Project Canterbury

The History of the English Church Union

by the Rev. G. Bayfield Roberts

London: Church Printing, 1895.


THERE are a few points connected with, the constitution and work of the Union to which, in conclusion, attention may be directed.

In the first place, it is in the main a Society of Laymen--of Laymen, too, who have devoted their wealth, their energies, their eloquence, and their learning (of an unusually high order) to the propagation and defence of principles which, at one time unpopular and regarded with the gravest suspicion, have eventually been first tolerated, and subsequently very generally accepted, as the true principles of the English Church.

In the next place, the three objects and principles laid down when the Union was first formed have been steadily and unflinchingly adhered to, viz.:--

(1) To defend and maintain unimpaired the Doctrine and Discipline of the Church of England;

(2) To afford counsel, protection, and assistance to all persons, lay or clerical, suffering under unjust aggression or hindrance in spiritual matter; and

(3) In general so to promote the interests of Religion as to be, by God's help, a lasting witness for the advancement of His glory and the good of His Church.

In this connection, it may be said that the English Church Union presents a unique example of a Society which, as it grows, and grows largely, does not water down its principles in order to augment its roll, by securing the adhesion of that large number of nondescript persons who will give a nominal assent to any principles presented for their acceptance, provided those principles are either in themselves sufficiently vague, or at least susceptible of an indefinite and non-compromising explanation. The progress of the Church Union, on the contrary, has been marked by advance, by greater definiteness, and by a firmer and more intelligent grasp of the principles which it has always professed. For instance, in (roughly speaking) the first decade of its existence, the laxest views prevailed as to the obligation of the recitation of the Daily Office and of Celebrations on every Sunday and Saint's day at the least; as to the cumenical law of Fasting Communion; as to the use of Confession; and as to the presence, as worshippers, at the offering of the Holy Sacrifice, of those who have already communicated at a previous service, or for some other sufficient reason are not going to communicate. In all these respects there was a marked progress in the two succeeding decades, but, even so, it was not until 1893 that the Annual Report contained any reference, for instance, to the obligation of Fasting Communion. Again, in the first decade there was a very general acceptance of Semi-Erastian, if not Erastian, principles, even on the part of leading men, ecclesiastics as well as laymen. Indeed, in its infancy a large proportion of Members had not altogether shaken themselves free from traditional (but erroneous) conceptions I of the duty of submission under all circumstances to the civil authority, and of the binding obligation of the law of the State, even in purely spiritual matters. They had not realized the fact that the law of the State could be in conflict with the law of the Church, in the sense that it was the solemn duty of Churchmen even to disobey the law of the lower, in order to yield obedience to the law of the higher. It was, indeed, not until Mr. Mackonochie and Mr. Tooth made their memorable and noble stand, that men fully realized the paramount claim and inherent right of the Church to deal with spiritual matters, and to interpret her laws and administer her discipline without any intermeddling on the part of the Civil power. In fact, the English Church Union taught itself whilst it taught others.

Another remarkable fact is the success which has so signally favoured the broad principle of enrolment adopted from the first by the Union. There has been no drawing of the line at some favourite Shibboleth of a party, however devoted, however orthodox. The only condition of membership is, and always has been, that of being a Communicant. The net has been cast wide, and no doubt has gathered in various sorts and conditions of men. Some when they join are already intelligent and devout Catholics; some only need closer contact with the Catholic spirit of the Union to become such as these; some have a comparatively imperfect grasp upon Catholic principles; some, a very small number, perhaps ought never to have joined. But all this welding together of Communicants, of varying degrees of faith and devotion, has a great educational influence upon the Union in general, and upon individual Members in particular. The whole mass is leavened by that which is truest and most devoted, with the result that the Union advances year by year to a loftier standard, and thus becomes a great spiritual school for all its members. Possibly some ten per cent, of those who join in any one given year resign sooner or later. The educational process is too much for them; but it may safely be said that, never at any moment are more than one, or (at the very outside) two per cent, of the Members out of harmony with the action of the whole body. It is, indeed, most remarkable that, even when there has been a manifest divergence of opinion in the Union--e.g., as to (1) "the possibility and duty of energetic action against the Burials Bill, when it became a Government measure, or (2) the action of the Council respecting Lux Mundi, the number of withdrawals from the Union has been singularly small.

Further, it is noteworthy that whilst the Union, embracing as it does Members who differ widely in judgment, as to politics and quasi-political ecclesiastical matters, never questions the rights of its Members to maintain and enunciate their own views on such questions, yet it does not hesitate, if it finds that the large majority at any moment favour some one definite line of action, to speak corporately and to act corporately in that direction--as, for instance, lately, on the question of Welsh Disendowment.

Doubtless one reason why the Union can speak with so certain a voice, and exercise so great an influence, is to be found in the fact of its democratic constitution. Its power and energy lie in the great body of its Members. Not only are the Members of the Council representatives either of the whole Union, or of various Branches and Districts, but at meetings it is the voice of the Members which is supreme, and thus all power is vested in those thousands of individual Communicants, who stand on an equal footing in this great democratic Church Society.

Three charges, which from time to time have been, brought against the English Church Union, demand a passing notice.

It is alleged, in the first place, that the Society is a "Ritualistic" Society. Now anyone, who is at all familiar with the records of the Society, must be well aware that such a charge is absolutely without any foundation whatsoever. In fact the primary object of the Union is not to propagate Ritualism, but to defend Doctrine and Discipline. The Union has never chosen the battlefield; but when the attack, supported in many cases by mob violence, was made upon the lawful Ritual of the Church, the Union would have been false to its second great principle had it declined "to afford counsel, protection, and assistance to all persons, lay or clerical, suffering under unjust aggression or hindrance in spiritual matters." In reality the assault was launched against Ritual because the enemy regarded Ritual as an important, but insecure, outpost of the Catholic doctrine of the Real Presence. Men do not hale their neighbours and fellow-Churchmen into the law courts and cast them into prison, with relentless persistency, and at enormous cost, for what they deem to be unimportant and non-essential matters. But, in the issue, what the Union was really fighting for proved to be, not the shape or colour of an ecclesiastical vestment, or the appropriate posture of a priest, or the sensuous enjoyment of religious aestheticism. What the Union resisted, and effectually resisted, was the intrusion of Caesar into the things of God.

In the second place, the Union has been accused of being a "persecuting" Society. The charge at once recalls to the memory the moral lesson inculcated by the fable of the wolf and the lamb. But what is the evidence?

It is said that the Union offered £500 to the Archbishop of York to prosecute the Rev. C. Voysey. Now it is quite true that £500 was offered by the Union to his Grace. But two facts need to be remembered. The first is, that no question of Ritual was involved in the case. Mr. Voysey had denied the Divinity of Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Obviously, to talk of "persecution" in such a case is simply absurd. The second is, that this sum of money was not offered to the Archbishop of York in order to induce him to prosecute Mr. Voysey. It was understood that the Archbishop of York was about to take proceedings, and inasmuch as it had further been represented to the Council that these proceedings would involve his Grace in very heavy expenses, the English Church Union proposed to the Church Association that each Society should contribute £500, not to initiate a prosecution, but in order to help the Archbishop of York to meet the expenses which would be incurred by him--especially, if, after the proceedings canonically taken by his Grace in his Consistory Court, Mr. Voysey, like Dr. Colenso, should appeal to the Secular Tribunal of the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council. Eventually, as has been stated, upon the refusal of the Church Association to co-operate with the English Church Union, the latter Society made to the Archbishop of York what his Grace termed its "liberal proposal."

In the third place, it is alleged that the English Church Union is a "party" Society. Undoubtedly, if to defend the Doctrine and Discipline of the Church, to insist upon the plain grammatical sense of the Rubrics, to uphold the independence of Spiritual Courts, and to maintain the continuity of the Church of to-day with the pre-Reformation Church--if that be the badge of "party," the English Church Union, in that sense, and in no other, may be called a "party" Society. To most minds, however, such a line of action would be proof not of a "party," but of a legitimate "Church," spirit; whilst it must not be forgotten that the Union has never even so much as thought of forcing the observance of the Church's standards upon others. It has only claimed for its Members--and for Churchmen generally--the right of doing unmolested what the Church enjoins; and, in asserting this claim, it has at the same time defended the liberties of the Church from the encroachments of the secular power. That there is a "party" in the Church is an unquestionable fact, and that it has been eminently successful in proving to the world that the English Church Union is not a "party" Society is an equally unquestionable fact. For the said "party," by raising questions of Doctrine and Ritual before the Civil Courts, has done this great service--it has secured the decision, even by the secular power, that the doctrine of the Real Presence may legally be taught in the Church of England, and that the Bishop of Lincoln's interpretation of Rubrics is, on all important points, in accordance with the mind of the Church. Now, inasmuch as the Doctrine and Rubrics in question are contained in the schedule of an Act of Parliament (and must therefore be strictly interpreted), and inasmuch as there cannot possibly be room in the same set of formularies and rubrics for two diametrically opposed doctrines, or for two wholly contradictory systems of Ritual--e.g. (1) that the same words in the same formularies should teach at one and the same time both the Catholic doctrine of the Real Objective Presence and the Protestant Zwinglian or Calvinistic doctrines of the Real Absence; and (2) that the same Rubric both commands and, forbids, 6.17., the use of lighted candles--and, further, inasmuch as the decisions given have been in favour of the Catholic interpretation--for these reasons it is obvious that it is not the English Church Union which is a "party" Society. On the contrary, it is quite certain that the English Church Union, on the testimony of legal authorities, simply adheres to the Doctrine and Ritual of the Church, whilst the real "party" is composed of those persons who are opposed to such doctrines and practices, and who, after prolonged and laborious efforts, have admirably succeeded in proving to demonstration that the English Church Union, so far from being a "party" Society, is in reality a faithful representative of the Church. In fact, the Protestant "party," whilst worshipping in the house of the Erastian god Dagon, and invoking his aid, have suffered the serious inconvenience of being hopelessly crushed and mangled by the fall of the deity before whom they bowed the knee.

This fate they might have avoided had they faithfully trodden in the steps of their Puritan forefathers, who, when their "exceptions" against Catholic practices and doctrines were rejected at the Savoy Conference, recognised that the Church of England was no place for them. The "Protestants" are the real "party" in the Church, and they are the legitimate inheritors of principles which, more than two centuries ago, were repudiated by the Church and were authoritatively declared to be alien from her principles. But, if the charge be still thoughtlessly pressed against the Union, it is sufficient to reply that the Union is the "party" of the Church, the "party" of the Catholic sacramental system, the "party" of the spiritual authority of the Church--nay, the "party" of the great Head of the Church, our LORD JESUS CHRIST.

It has been suggested that the work of the Union has been accomplished, and that consequently the time has come for its dissolution. There might be something in the suggestion were the Union a mere "party" or Ritualistic society. But the suggestion betrays a very imperfect apprehension of the Objects of the Union, and of the actual position of the Church in England. In reality, the work of the English Church Union has scarcely begun. Obstacles have been removed, the accumulations of desolating rubbish removed, a more enlightened grasp of fundamental principles obtained; but if any one will take the trouble to contrast the present state of the Church with the primitive model, and to reflect upon the terribly degraded views concerning vital questions of morality which directly affect the law of the Church--views, moreover, which are not only somewhat extensively prevalent, but also in one instance bear the imprimatur of the Civil Power--if any one will consider these notorious facts, he must be blind indeed not to see how much work remains to be done in the future. Are we for ever, to our shame, to allow the iniquitous Divorce Acts to disgrace the Statute Book of the Realm? Are we to sit still whilst an active and persistent agitation is being carried on to secure the formal statutory repeal of the ancient law of the land, at present in agreement with the law of the Church, in the matter of marriage with a deceased wife's sister? Are we supinely to submit to that Erastian perversion of the true doctrine of the Royal Supremacy which has exercised its baneful influence for so many years? Is no attempt to be made to secure a Final Court of Appeal, which, whilst dealing according to its will with the temporalities, shall respect the inherent spiritual authority of the Church to declare what is its own doctrine and discipline? Is the Public Worship Regulation Act, and its State-made judge, to be permanently accepted as an integral portion of the ecclesiastical system? Are the courts Christian, secularised and paralysed by the Church Discipline Act of 1840, never to be restored to their ancient canonical status? Is the Church for ever to be crippled, in a vital part of her system, by the existing abeyance of Diocesan Synods? No work for the English Church Union! Why here is work which is positively overwhelming in its gravity and scope.

This work can only be attempted, with any reasonable prospect of success, by some powerful and influential organization: for the days of commanding individual influence have passed away for ever. The one exception, which proves the rule, is to be found in the unique personality of Mr. Gladstone. Without organization numbers are powerless. Witness the existence of Parliamentary parties; witness the combination of trades unions; witness the operations of mining federations. Unorganized, the millions could effect nothing. This is, indeed, the epoch of combination and of united action. Even the self-sacrificing devotion of such men as Mr. Mackonochie and Mr. Tooth would have availed but little, had it not been for the energetic and unstinted support which the English Church Union afforded them in their hour of need.

Some society, then, is needed if the Church is ever to regain the undisturbed enjoyment of her rights--if threatening evils which affect even the purity of family life, and the free exercise of her liberties, are to be rolled back. And where can any society be found, so well fitted for the purpose, as the English Church Union? Its foundations are laid upon the sacramental life of the Church; it numbers its members by tens of thousands; it commands the sympathies and, on all vital questions, the co-operation of vast numbers of Churchmen who are not enrolled in its ranks; it has a splendid and well-tested organization; and its great services in the past, together with its influential position in the present, are the best auguries of assured success in the future.

Peace, by all means: unity, by all means. No objects, indeed, are dearer to the hearts of the Members of the English Church Union. But the hollow truce of apathetic compromise is no real or lasting peace; and a nominal unity, temporarily effected by the watering down of vital principles, and by the ignoring of fundamental verities, is a less substantial reality than even the shadow of a name. A false peace, basely purchased by the betrayal of vital trusts, and precariously sustained by the condonation of indifference in the things of God, involves terms to which no Catholic dare set his hand. True peace can only be secured by the watchful and resolute defence of principle; and those who most earnestly long and pray for peace and for unity, are also those who, in the hour of battle, will be found in the front rank, fighting with all their might for the rights and liberties of the Catholic Church.

Ecce quam bonum et quam jucundum, habitare fratres in unum!--PSALM cxxxi. 1.

Project Canterbury