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The History of the English Church Union

by the Rev. G. Bayfield Roberts

London: Church Printing, 1895.


THE existence, no less than the work, of the English Church Union presents a phenomenon without a parallel in the history of Christendom. Only under a conjunction of unique circumstances, and at a rare epoch, would it be possible for such a Society to spring into existence, or to play so important and influential a part in ecclesiastical history; only under such circumstances, and at such an epoch, would it be possible so much as to conceive the idea of its need. To understand the causes which have operated to this end, it is necessary to recall what were the circumstances of the times some sixty years or more ago; to bear in mind the practical working of the peculiar relations existing between Church and State in this country; and to take into account the two great waves of religious feeling which, in the hands of the leaders of the Evangelical and of the Oxford Movements, successively revived the idea of the personal and corporate relations of the individual soul to Christ and His Church.

We, in the present day, can scarcely realise the shock occasioned by the great upheaval of "Liberalism," as then designated, which, under the name of "Radical reform" in matters political, and of "civil and religious liberty" in matters ecclesiastical, began to assert itself, with singular vigour, at a period far beyond the personal recollection of the present generation. It was only at the conclusion of the French War (1793--1815), when England emerged, victorious but exhausted, from her prolonged and absorbing struggle for existence and national independence, that men began to review the internal condition of the country; that projects were entertained for the amelioration of the deplorable state of the great mass of the people; and a movement was initiated for the rescue of Parliamentary representation from the degradation into which it had sunk. The land was full of abuses in Church and State; and it should be no matter for marvel, if the assaults upon "the old order" in the State were speedily followed by attacks upon a Church which had shown herself all but wholly apathetic to the needs of humanity, and had been well enough content to maintain a complacent inactivity in face of the notorious and numerous abuses which paralysed her spiritual influence. Scions of the nobility, cadets of honourable families, heads of colleges and tutors in the University, men who had rendered political services to the Government of the day, and headmasters of public schools, were appointed to Bishoprics--in a word, men who possessed every other qualification, save only the one essential condition of a vocation to their sacred office. But this was not all. The spiritual duties of the Episcopate were, in too many cases, formally and carelessly discharged; the decay of spiritual life was only emphasised by the glaring contrast with the ample revenues of the Church; whilst pluralist and non-resident parish priests aggravated a condition of shameful neglect, and confirmed the widely-spread impression that the Church cared more to enjoy "the loaves and fishes of the Establishment" than to discharge those sacred duties to which, at least in theory,her pastors had professedly devoted their lives. No wonder that contempt developed into, or allied itself with, hostility, and that statesmen and political innovators.should have regarded the Church as a decaying public institution, tolerated, indeed, even in its decrepitude, but only for lack of something better, as a convenient national instrument for the maintenance of the outward observance of "the established religion," and, in a measure, serviceable in discharging the functions of a state-agent, deputed to preserve the external proprieties of a sufficient, if imperfect, civilization--but, none the less, a mere public institution, and one, moreover, which had utterly forfeited any claim it might ever have possessed to assert its inherent authority in spiritual matters.

Again, amid the torpor and spiritual indifference of the ethic eighteenth century, Churchmen and Statesmen alike no longer remembered that, as stated in the famous preamble to the Statute of Appeals (24 Henry VIIL, c. 12), the cognisance of spiritual matters belongs to the Church. The true meaning of the Royal Supremacy had long been obscured or forgotten; the enactment of the Church Discipline Act of 1840, whilst the action of Convocation was still suppressed, encouraged the notion of the autocracy of the State in ecclesiastical matters; and the blundering transfer of the functions of the Court of Delegates to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in 1832, coupled with the baseless but accepted theory that appeals, in matters of doctrine and discipline, properly belonged to, and had always been decided by, the the History of Crown, in purely secular courts, only served to confirm the erroneous tradition, that the interpretation of the law of the Church lay with the civil authority alone, to the exclusion of the spiritualty, inasmuch as the Church possessed no laws or rights of her own, save such as had! been specifically enacted for her, or guarded in the interest of the State, by the authority of Parliament. But, at the same time, the harvest sown by Wesley and Simeon was abundantly bearing fruit. Individual holiness and a profounder grasp of spiritual verities had begun to leaven the life of the Church. The sober preaching of repentance and of an exalted standard of spiritual life, which marked the rise of the Tractarian party and differentiated it from the more emotional appeals of predecessors of another school, led men to seek some less precarious support in the spiritual life than that which passing emotion can afford: and as Churchmen earnestly studied the neglected pages of the Prayer Book, the true and exalted position attributed by the Church to the sacramental system, as the basis and sustaining power of the spiritual life, gradually dawned upon them. Naturally, the spirit of enquiry was stirred. The study of the Fathers, for a specific purpose, led to the investigation of their pages on other related subjects. The importance of liturgiology was gradually recognised; the records of ecclesiastical history eagerly perused; and the relationship of the English Church to the rest of Christendom submitted to careful examination. If the regal powers of the whole Catholic Church were recognised, no less surely were the spiritual claims of the English Church insisted upon, although perhaps the corporate relation of the individual soul to the ancient Church of the land was more clearly perceived than the great truth, that each soul, by virtue of the organic unity of the Church, is a member of the Catholic Church, and that the English Church, so far from being an independent branch of the Catholic Church, is itself the Catholic Church in England, and subject to cecumenical authority. But at least enough had been learnt for Churchmen, when the moment of conflict arrived, to repudiate at all costs the usurped authority of the civil power, and unflinchingly to maintain the inherent authority and indefeasible right of the Church to be the sole judge in matters of doctrine and of discipline.

We are now in a position to trace the course of events which led to the formation of Church Unions, and to their ultimate absorption into the English Church Union.

It was about 1830 that "the Whig plot for revolutionizing the parish school, and ' utilizing' it, was first hatched " (teste Archdeacon Denison, "Notes of my Life," p. 117)--that "plot" which found its consummation in the Elementary Education Act of 1870, and in alliance with which the anti-dogmatic principle of the liberalism of that day has proved to be the fertile mother of the indifferentism and undenominationalism which, in our time, have spread like the waters of a devastating flood over the whole face of the country. And now, after the lapse of more than half a century, the Churchmen of today are being summoned to renew the battle which, since its commencement, has languished rather than ceaaed, viz., that of religious education. With the formation of the Committee on Education in 1839 the first formal step was taken to initiate a system of education of which the State, and not the Church, even in the case of her own schools, should ultimately have the sole effectual control. During Sir Robert Peel's administration, however, matters apparently remained quiescent, save for the cautious extension of the administration of the department; but upon the return of Lord John Russell to power in 1846, another blow was struck at Church education by the Minutes of Council issued in that year. This was speedily followed up by the famous Management Clauses of 1847, first recommended to, and subsequently imposed upon, Church schools as a condition precedent of assistance from the Parliamentary Grant in founding new schools, with the evident intention of wrenching the parish school out of the hands of the parish priest, and of undenominationalizing it as far as possible. It was mainly in consequence of the alarm excited in the minds of Churchmen by the progress of this movement, which, however unostentatious in appearance at the outset, might at any moment, and probably soon would, develop into open aggression, that the Bristol Church Union was constituted in 1844. In 1845 Archdeacon Denison became a member, and one of the four secretaries. The Bristol Church Union had at first been mainly occupied with the Church School question, but its energies were soon engrossed by the Hamp-den Protest, when, in 1847-8, Lord John Eussell forced Dr. Hampden upon the See of Hereford. Gradually, during 1848 and 1849, other Church Unions sprang into existence in different parts of the country, in order to defend the Church against the assaults of her enemies, and to promote the restoration of Catholic doctrine and discipline. These various Church Unions were affiliated with the Bristol Church Union, which thus was the mother of the Church Union system. The Church Unions did good service to the Church, but, owing to the want of efficient combination, their operations were frequently ineffectual; and in 1853, when Archdeacon Denison endeavoured, but without success, to secure the rejection of Mr. Gladstone from the Parliamentary representation of the University of Oxford, the attempt not only broke up the coalition of Churchmen who had hitherto been banded together in defence of Church education, but also dislocated the Bristol Church Union, with the result of bringing about a suspension of the relations previously existing between it and the affiliated Unions. Two of these Unions, in particular, have special claims upon the affectionate remembrance of Churchmen. One was the Metropolitan Union, which concerned itself chiefly with the revival of Convocation. The other was the London Church Union, by whose energy were arranged and carried out the notable Gorham meetings, which, suggested in the first instance by the Rev. Mayow Wynell Mayow, and energetically forwarded by Archdeacon Denison, were held simultaneously on July 23, 1850, in St. Martin's Hall and at the Freemason's Tavern, presided over respectively by J. G. Hubbard, Esq., and Lord Fielding. The Gorham Judgment was, in effect, an absolute claim by the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council--a court of purely secular origin, constituted solely by Act of Parliament--to confirm, to vary, and to reverse the decisions of the ecclesiastical courts--in other words, under the pretence of interpreting the formularies of the Church, to declare what is, and what is not, the doctrine of tha Church. Men did not then realise that the decisions of a purely civil court, however exalted, could in no wise compromise the Church. That was a lesson which was subsequently learnt; but, at the time, the feeling that the Church was effectually compromised, and the fact that no authoritative step was taken to re-affirm the Catholic doctrine of Holy Baptism, led to a loss of faith in the position of the English Church, and to the consequent secession to the Roman communion of large numbers of Churchmen--Archdeacons Manning and Wilberforce, and Mr. Dodsworth, among others. Next came the prosecution of Archdeacon Denison for teaching the Catholic doctrine of the Real Presence. From 1854 to 1858 this suit dragged its weary course along, until it finally broke down. But a direct assault had been made upon the Catholic doctrine of the Eeal Presence; and other matters were now exciting the gravest apprehensions among Churchmen. In 1857 the abominable Divorce Act was passed, whereby the State took upon itself to facilitate licensed adultery, and, for civil purposes, to repeal the law of God. In the same year the Judgment of the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in Liddell v, Westerton indicated ominously enough how blundering ignorance of theology and ecclesiastical history, of the history of the Book of Common Prayer in particular, and of liturgiology in general, was bent on crushing out the revival of Catholic ritual; and the infamous riots at St. George's-in-the-East (in which the inmates of brothels and their allies, the publicans, posed as the champions of a pure and simple worship) brought home the conviction, that however useful the different Church Unions might have been in their respective spheres, the gravity of the present situation, and the only too evident indications that the Church was approaching a period of acute crisis, demanded the organization of such a Society as, under God's blessing, might be able successfully to defend the doctrine and discipline of the English Church.

Obviously nothing could be expected from the existing Church Unions. They were isolated; in some cases disorganised; and without means of common action. Under these critical circumstances, the Manchester Church Union resolved to make an effort to combine the different Church Unions in an effective scheme for the defence of the Church. It was resolved, upon the initiation of the President of the M. C. U., the Hon. Colin Lindsay, that each Church Union should be requested to appoint two delegates for the purpose of forming themselves into a Provisional Committee, with power to devise and carry out some plan for united action, and Mr. Colin Lindsay was requested to act as Secretary to this Provisional Committee. Accordingly, on November 4, 1859, he issued a circular, urging the importance of at once carrying out the suggestion, and explaining his views on the subject. Only-five associations took any notice of the circular--viz., the Bristol, Exeter, and Chester Church Unions, the Church of England Protection Society, and the Guild of St. Alban. The London Union, the Coventry, Gloucester, Norwich, South Church, and Yorkshire Church Unions remained silent. Mr. Colin Lindsay, however, resolved to persevere, and on December 17, 1859, he forwarded to all the delegates who had been appointed, and to the Secretaries of all the Unions which had not responded, his plans for accomplishing the object aimed at. Two alternative schemes were submitted for consideration, viz., the establishment of a new association, to be composed (l)of honorary members, and (2) of the members of all associated Church Unions and similar societies; and the incorporation, upon certain conditions, of all existing societies with the Church of England Protection Society. On January 11, 1860, the meeting of the Provisional Committee of Delegates was held in London, when the Church of England Protection Society, the Manchester Church Society, the Exeter Diocesan Church Union, and the Guild of St. Alban were represented by delegates. A suggestion for a junction with the Church Institution was not favourably received, inasmuch as it was generally admitted that that Society, although extremely valuable in its own sphere, was precluded, by its constitution, from carrying into effect the object in view, viz., more united action in defence of the doctrine and discipline of the English Church. As so few of the Church Unions had responded to the invitation, the idea of forming a new society was abandoned; and it was felt that the incorporation of all Church Unions with the Church of England Protection Society was the wisest course to be pursued. That Society had originated in a conference of sixteen Churchmen held at 27, Victoria Street, Westminster, on February 8,1859. The Conference was held in order to form "a Church Association," in consequence of the inefficiency of the London Church Union, and there were present: Sir Stephen Glynn, Bart, (in the chair), Egerton Warburton, Esq., Alexander Carr, Esq., J. D. Chambers, Esq., C. F. Trower, Esq., Colonel Moorsom, Edward Tylee, Esq., Archdeacon Denison, and the Revs. T. S. Ackland, W. H. Lyall, C. Miller, W. J. E. Bennett, C. J. Le Geyt, E. Stuart, J. C. Chambers, and F. H. Murray. A Provisional Committee was at once formed to draw up rules, and at an adjourned Conference, held at 14, Essex Street, Strand, on May 12, 1859 (W. C. Boodle, Esq., in the chair), it was resolved:--

"That this meeting do now form itself into the Church of England Protection Society."

Besides the Chairman there were present Colonel Tremenheere, A. Carr, G. E. Street, Edward Tylee, J. D. Chambers, B. Brett, J. Richmond, and C. F. Trower, Esqs.; and the Revs. the Hon. E. Liddell, F. H. Murray, C. J. Le Geyt, J. E. Woodford, Upton Richards, C. Miller, and H. Baker. Excuses for non-attendance were read from, the Hon. H. Walpole; Sir S. Glynne, Bart.; Colonels Q. Campbell and Moorsom; Egerton Warburton and W. Long, Esqs.; the Ven. Archdeacon Denison; the Revs. John Keble, W. H. Lyall, E. T. West, W. J. E. Bennett, J. Skinner, E. Stuart, and others.

The Church of England Protection Society, from a small beginning, had become more and more influential: its numbers had gradually increased, and it was in receipt of a considerable annual income. It was therefore resolved by the Provisional Committee of Delegates to urge upon their respective Unions the necessity of recognizing some central authority, and of accepting the Church of England Protection Society as the directing Executive. It was also suggested that in every diocese there should be established a branch association of the Church of England Protection Society, governed by its own Committee; that each branch association should annually elect two clergymen and two laymen as its representatives on the Committee of Management; and that a President of the Society should be annually elected, with a certain amount of power, but controlled by the Committee of Management. The Church of England Protection Society then proceeded to amend its rules so as to adapt them to the new state of things, and eventually, the rules having been amended, and all the conditions for incorporation adopted, the scheme was unanimously confirmed at the anniversary in May, 1860, when the title of the Society was changed to that of "The English Church Union."

It will be interesting to record the objects of the older Society as set forth in its official statement:--

The objects of the Society are--

1. In general, so to promote the interests of religion as to be, by God's help, a lasting witness in the land for the advancement of His glory and the good of His Church.

2. To afford counsel and protection to all persons, lay or clerical, suffering under unjust aggression or hindrance in spiritual matters.

3. To advance and enforce the doctrine and discipline of the Church.

In the revision of 1860, number 3 was recast and placed first, in these terms:--

1. To defend and maintain unimpaired the doctrine and discipline of the Church of England

Number 1 took the place of number 3, and number 2 remained unaltered.

The means by which the Union hoped to promote its objects were:

(1) Combination with other similar Societies;

(2) Parochial Associations in connection with the Union;

(3) Meetings--one Annual, and eight Ordinary; (4) the Press--by the publication of papers on Church matters, and of a newspaper (if practicable), or periodical, or both, under the control of the Society; (5) Petitions; (6) Grants of money. Provision was also made for the incorporation of other Societies already in existence, and having the same objects in view. All such incorporated Societies were to be deemed to have adopted the objects of the English Church Union, and to have approved its rules; they were at liberty to carry out any plans and schemes of their own; they were to act independently in all local arrangements, but not to perform any act affecting the general interests of the Union without the approval of the Union.

Delegates were also to represent the incorporated Unions at meetings of the Council and of the Union, and were to enjoy the same privileges as the other members of the Council and of the Union. Members of incorporated Unions might be present at all the monthly and general meetings of the Union, speaking and voting on all subjects, save only the election of the President and Council, on which occasions they could only vote through their delegates. Provision was also made for the formation of Local Branches and Parochial Associations; and the Council was to consist, in addition to ex-officio members and delegates, of twenty-four members of the Union, half in Holy Orders, half laymen, annually elected. One Vice-President was to be elected annually, in addition to the President. The condition of membership was laid down in the two following rules:--

2. No person can be proposed as a member, unless he be a communicant of the Church of England according to the following Rubric of the Book of Common Prayer:--"And note that every parishioner shall communicate at the least three times in the year, of which Easter to be one"; or unless he be a communicant of a Church in communion with the Church of England.

3. Any person ceasing to be such a communicant shall cease, ipso facto, to be a member of this Union.

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