Project Canterbury





Canon of Christ Church, Oxford,
Regius Professor of Ecclesiastical
History at Oxford





Transcribed by Wayne Kempton
Archivist and Historiographer of the Episcopal Diocese of New York, 2009

For the statements made in this pamphlet the writer alone is responsible. Efforts have been made to be impartial and to give a fair presentation of the arguments.


IF we are to understand the organization of the English Church as it developed itself, we must first consider the diocese. Historically speaking, there are two types of diocese, different in origin.


Around the Mediterranean the dioceses grew out of the single local congregation, over which the bishop presided as its sole pastor--St. Cyprian, for instance, never gives the title pastor to any but the bishop. He had from the first certain assistants, but the pastorate was his, and when the expansion of Christianity made it necessary for him to appoint delegates, they were such because he had entrusted to them a part of his pastoral office. The consequence of this growth from the single congregation was that bishoprics were numerous, and in some regions excessively numerous. In the great age of dogmatic controversies, the fourth and fifth centuries, the multitude of insignificant bishops, easily led or misled, was a disaster to the Church. The contrast between them and the great bishops, who were steadied by the responsibility of occupying important sees, is striking. Some of those great sees, notably that of Rome, bore the clearest signs of their origin in the single congregation.

But there is another type of diocese, equally primitive and destined to at least an equal importance. It grew up in regions where a bishop, no doubt duly authorised, entered into a wide region and claimed control over any orthodox Christians whom he might find there. If we draw a line across Asia Minor from Syria to Constantinople, thence to the head of the Adriatic Sea, and then either north or south of the Alps to Gaul and Spain and Britain, we find a continuous line of sees of this larger type. It is true that those in North Italy, like Milan and Verona, are the territories of municipalities which were equal in acreage to English counties; but the rest are territories which were either undeveloped in [3/4] organization or were tribal areas. In neither case were they outgrowths from single congregations as were those of the Mediterranean type. Hence we must be cautious in drawing precedents. It was natural, and even inevitable, that a bishop like St. Cyprian should call his church together in an untechnical synod to decide on such points as the election of members into the body of the clergy. It may, or may not, be desirable that our own bishops should hold synods on occasion when there are matters of dispute. But, since their dioceses belong to an entirely different scheme of Christian polity, no argument from precedent can be drawn. The constitution of a diocese where the clergy have been attached by various processes and in various degrees to the centre is clearly different from one in which it has developed from the centre.


So far as the Teutonic countries, such as England, are concerned, we must seek the origin of the diocese, as of the parish, in an original paganism. Just as the primitive village-community has its priest who was equally the man of its lord whether he was charged to conduct pagan or Christian worship, so the great chief, who might bear the title of king, had his chief-priest, who was analogous to the Christian bishop. He not only officiated in worship, but was the adviser in council of the chief. So far as we know, the chief had but one priest who held this position. Where the chief (in England, the king) ruled, the chief-priest exercised his authority. When the pagan chief-priest, or bishop as the Anglo-Saxon translator of Bede's history calls him, was displaced in favour of the Christian, the bounds of the diocese were for the time being fixed. They were those within which the chief or king ruled. The modern English bishop's frequent attendance at Court till very recent times, and his seat in the House of Lords, are faint survivals of a dominant position in legislation and jurisdiction which was justified by the opportunities it gave of inculcating mercy and equity.

The success of a king in war, and the steady increase of population as fresh land was taken into cultivation, might increase the number of parishes and clergy to an extraordinary extent; though rarely can there have been a [4/5] greater diocese than that of the eminent Theodoret in the Greek East. Writing in the fifth century, he says that his diocese of Cyrus, or Cyrrhus, on the borders of Syria, contained 800 churches. He takes it quite as a matter of course, and speaks modestly, though confidently, of his happy administration. We know nothing of the aims and methods of Theodoret. With those of our English diocesans we are better acquainted. When the world settled down to the order of the Middle Ages they undertook, with more or less regularity, to hold visitations of their dioceses, and the custom is still maintained. But also at irregular intervals, so rare that many bishops held none, synods were assembled, at which the clergy were summoned to listen and assent to pronouncements of their bishop. He published in canonical form parts of the general law of the Church which were being neglected, and therefore needed to be brought to the attention of the clergy, or else gave publicity to new developments in the canon law of which they were not likely to be aware. This publication did not make the law more binding; what it did was to deprive the clergy of the excuse, whatever it might be worth, of ignorance. At such synods there was no discussion, no recommendation of one course or dissuasion from another, no desire on the bishop's part to know what was the mind of the clergy. They were not, and could not be, part of the regular machinery of the Church, nor can they be regarded as the substitute for a visitation of the ordinary kind. Had they been so, there would have been some regularity in the alternation of the two forms of visitation.


But the diocese, at any rate in England, did not stand alone: On the Continent there were exempt dioceses, as there were, here as well as there, exempt abbeys, under no supervision but that of the Pope. In England there were two effective and comprehensive Provinces. We must consider briefly what was the history of this institution. Ecclesiastical provinces corresponded originally to the wider areas in which the provinces of the Roman Empire were arranged under a governor superior to those of the individual provinces, for [5/6] according to the scheme of Constantine the Great there was to be a symmetrical agreement between the administrations of Church and State. In the Western regions each of these minor provinces was, or in time became, a bishopric. Over the wider area was an Archbishop. The system came, as Northern Europe was converted, to be universally extended. With some exceptions, every bishop was under an archbishop, who was expected to supervise him, and from time to time to call his suffragans together, less for the purpose of taking counsel with them than for that of obtaining their recognition of the Church's law, that so he might be sure that they knew it and would obey it. The first such Provincial Council in England of which we are well informed was that of Hertford in 673, when Theodore of Tarsus, the only Archbishop for York was then in abeyance, took the best measure he could for the reform of the untutored and degenerate English bishops. He propounded extracts from the canons of the great Councils of the past, which the bishops solemnly accepted as binding upon themselves. At least they could not plead ignorance in future. And, speaking generally, in any mediaeval synod, the audience was as passive as at a visitation by bishop or archdeacon to-day. They came to learn and assent.

As the Papacy grew strong, it came to use the archbishops as instruments of government. It was impossible for the Pope to know the merits and faults of countless bishops. But he could make the archbishop responsible for them. Therefore, as against the bishops, he supported the archbishop, but kept the archbishop himself under control, punishing any sallies of independence upon which he might venture. And the archbishops were carefully kept from combination among themselves. For instance, it would have been inconceivable that those of Canterbury and York should have held a joint assembly. Till our own day it has never been done; the only assemblies of the whole English Church were those over which a legate, sent from Rome, presided. The nearest approach since the Reformation has been when, after the Restoration, certain delegates from the Convocation of York were sent to join with the Canterbury Convocation in giving their assent to the revised Book of Common Prayer.


[7] But there had been, and still was, a rival theory. In the Empire which culminated in the reign of Charlemagne, the bishops and other high ecclesiastics had been summoned to the assemblies of State. There they had sat as equals, without regard to the gradations of ecclesiastical rank or distinctions between ecclesiastical provinces, because all alike were, in the feudal sense, the "men" of the monarch who summoned them to council. It would be premature to speak of nations as yet; but there was unity under one government. This plan broke down, but some 500 years later it was revived in France as a weapon in the bitter and unscrupulous conflict waged by Philip the Fair against the Pope. He collected the whole clergy of France, by delegation, as one of the elements of the States General. If the Papacy had resisted and overthrown the earlier attempt at a unity smaller than that of Western Christendom, it was consistently hostile to what came to be called the Gallican theory. For it tended, as it had been designed to do, to limit the authority of the Pope and withdraw many matters of importance from his cognisance. This attempt at a national Church is to this day regarded by French Churchmen with the utmost repugnance, and the well-meaning men who tried to form an alliance with another national Church, the English, are branded as disloyal pedants. The Ultramontanes, who in the earlier years of the nineteenth century stamped out Gallicanism among the French clergy, are honoured as reformers in the same sense as Newman and Pusey among ourselves. A National Church, and a National Assembly of that Church, are inconsistent with the cosmopolitan and Ultramontane ideal.


Before the Reformation England was content to have two separate Convocations, and our very conservative reformation made no change in this respect. But the two were far from equal in importance. The bleak North, in the days before coal and cotton, was poor and thinly populated; and to its natural disadvantages was added the predominant position of the Archbishop of Canterbury as the recognised [7/8] constitutional adviser of the King, and this gave an importance to the Convocation in which he presided that reduced the Convocation of York to insignificance. Never, in any matter of importance, has the latter taken a line of its own; it has always been a dutiful echo of Canterbury. As Thomas Fuller said in the seventeenth century, the York Convocation is like the face of a clock, the works of which are at Canterbury. And at the present time we may doubt whether the separate Convocation of the Northern Province be more than a picturesque anachronism.

That Convocations were so frequently held was due to their serving a double purpose. Edward I, who first put Parliament in its permanent shape, had to summon it whenever he wanted a grant of taxation from the laity. On the same occasions he needed also the assistance of the clergy. But the only clergy with whom he was concerned in this case were those who were endowed. Bishops, the heads of monastic or cathedral churches, archdeacons and representatives of the cathedral chapters, were summoned, and also proctors to represent the beneficed clergy. For the charge was to be one upon the endowment, and it seemed unfair that the unendowed should have a voice in the matter. Any property of their own, apart from their benefices, that clergymen might possess would be taxed by the vote of Parliament. How thoroughly Convocation, in this aspect, was a part of the machinery of State appears from the wording of its summons, which to this day is wide enough to justify debate on foreign or military policy.

This summons to the clergy whenever the Sovereign needed their aid had the result that they met much more regularly than in other countries, for whenever a Parliament assembled, so did the Convocations. Now it was inevitable that the Archbishops should use this opportunity for convoking their synod, and the Convocation of the endowed clergy became, without any protest, the synod of the whole clergy, whether endowed or unendowed. This synod, therefore, was assembled with a regularity unknown elsewhere, and perhaps its frequency detracted from its impressiveness. It is only in our own day (though in the past there have been some exceptions) that the unendowed clergy have enjoyed the right of voting for the proctors. And also it is only recently [8/9] that the rigid uniformity by which each southern diocese has had two proctors, and each northern archdeaconry the same number, has been infringed upon. To avoid what has seemed an undue increase in the membership, now made to correspond more or less perfectly with the number of clergy in the various dioceses, the representation of cathedral and collegiate chapters has been curtailed.

The double purpose, royal and archiepiscopal, of the Convocations has led to a serious limitation on the ecclesiastical side. It has been the rule that, just as no Parliament is summoned without a Convocation being summoned at the same time, so the end of a Parliament is also the end of the Convocations. This was the reason, technical yet sufficient, why the supplementary canons of 1640 have not been recognised as valid. They were passed by Convocation and signed by the King; but it was after Parliament had been dissolved. In the same way no Parliament has yet existed without Convocations. Even when the two Convocations were suspended, the summons was issued and proctors were duly elected, and it was considered an honour to be chosen. They met, held their service and heard their sermon in Latin, and voted a loyal address to the Throne. They were then immediately prorogued; but enough had been done to ensure continuity.

The two institutions have thus, since the time of Edward I, been inseparable. Yet it would not be accurate to regard them as equals, for the money grant to be paid by the clergy did not become valid when voted by their representatives, but only when confirmed by Parliament; and it was collected by the same officers who gathered the taxes which Parliament had voted.

There is strong reason to think that till Parliament awoke to the sense of its power Convocation had little consciousness of its authority. There is evidence that the members of the Lower Houses were practically nominated by the bishops, themselves submissive to the Crown. It was not till the Reformation period was past, and, indeed, not till after the Civil War, that the old Convocations really came to life. In their last phase, when free election sent representatives who spoke for their side, we can regard them as assemblies with living, if not always wise, convictions. [9/10] It was the political side of their function which gave them the opportunity of doing mischief, and the Hanoverian Government cannot be blamed for suspending Convocation when its Jacobite proclivities were a danger both to Church and State. There is no excuse for the continued suspension after the danger had ceased.

This invasion of the political sphere would not have pleased any monarch, from Henry VIII to Charles I. In compensation for their exclusion from this field, the Convocations enjoyed, at least from Elizabeth to Charles I, a monopoly in matters ecclesiastical. The sovereigns resented any interference with the Church on the part of Parliament, and assumed that whatever the Convocations had decided, when once the Crown's assent had been given, was indisputably law. The Long Parliament brought this to an end. We need not dwell upon the procedure of Convocations between the Restoration and its suspension. As to its method since revival, it would not be untrue to say that when the Archbishop of Canterbury informs the Prime Minister that there is a serious desire among the clergy for some reform, the latter (if he sympathises) advises the Crown to issue "letters of business" to the Convocations. The letters empower them to draw up canons which obtain the force of law as soon as the assent of the Crown is expressed; it being understood that a Minister who has granted letters of business for legislation on a certain topic, will not use the powers of his government to frustrate the desires of the clergy. Without such letters of business the opportunities of Convocation are limited to the moving and discussion of gravamina, which may include any points of pressing interest in the spiritual or moral state of the nation. Such discussion cannot lead to action unless, as rarely happens, the expression of opinion be so strong as to prompt the granting of letters of business, and indeed the aim of those who ventilate gravamina is that of exacting an expression of public opinion that shall move Parliament to remove what seem abuses, or lead to a general amendment.


We have seen that the shape which Convocation has taken has been fixed for it by English history. It has never [10/11] been purely an ecclesiastical assembly, in the sense of being concerned only with ecclesiastical issues. This is equally the case with the modest vestry, the local assembly of the parish. Its purpose has been primarily financial, and we cannot trace its existence earlier than the origin of Parliament. As Parliament voted taxes, and had a voice in the administration of the sums collected, so the parish assembly voted rates and had a voice in the expenditure of them. The powers which, on a great scale, the Parliament had claimed, were claimed equally in its narrow sphere by the vestry. In it the incumbent of the parish presided, and derived much of his importance from the quasi-secular duties which were imposed upon him as chief administrator. But there were other, and strictly ecclesiastical, obligations, in regard to which he had elected assistants. The parish church had to be maintained, and in case of need rebuilt, by the parishioners. They were carefully watched. The archdeacon could insist on the duty being carried out. If he were disobeyed, he could call in the bishop to lay his interdict upon the parish, which meant that the parish was deprived of its opportunity of worship till the offence was atoned for. If individuals refused to pay their share, the archdeacon would excommunicate them, and so deprive them of all civil rights. Thus it was the concern of all to see that the common duty was fulfilled; and it was their interest to arrange that the charge should be fairly apportioned and that no extravagance should be perpetrated. The vestry stood in the place of Parliament, with the advantage that, unlike Parliament, it could choose its executive. The churchwardens, from the fourteenth century onwards, were this executive, in conjunction with the incumbent. There must have been real debates in the assembly which chose them, and real interest in the election.

The question rises, What were the conditions of the election? It was certainly confined, as to the electors, to those who were directly concerned as contributors to the rates that were to be levied. The mode of election varied from place to place. At Newcastle-under-Lyme, the history of which has lately been published, the churchwardens were elected in the fifteenth century at the same annual meeting of townsmen at which the mayor and other secular officers were chosen. [11/12] But it was natural that the matter should come to be regarded as purely ecclesiastical, and that the two churchwardens should be chosen at a vestry meeting. The ideal method was that of a joint election of both wardens by incumbent and parishioners acting together. But in case of a difference of opinion, it was provided that incumbent and parishioners should each choose one warden; and a provision made for cases of variance has come to be extended in general practice, and perhaps also in theory, to cases where unanimity reigns.


We have seen that in these two cases, the one of provincial the other of parochial councils, the development of the institution was shaped by circumstances that were not purely ecclesiastical. Specimens were given of what the Church might fitly do, but no limit was set possible extension. Provincial councils, by an obvious analogy, might lead to national, and efficiency of administration might be promoted by the establishment of councils intermediate between those of the Province (if the Province, for this purpose, be not merged in a higher unity) and of the parish. Such councils might be diocesan and archidiaconal, and as they came to be recognised as a regular part of the organisation of the Church business would accumulate upon them. But, if this be their destiny, they will not be the offspring of theory or of a desire for symmetrical administration. They will come to birth, like earlier methods of counsel, because occasion suggests them, and will gain strength because they are found effectual for the welfare of God's Church.

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