Project CanterburyREPORT OF THE ROYAL COMMISSION ON ECCLESIASTICAL DISCIPLINE.
Presented to both Houses of Parliament by Command
of His Majesty
Our consideration of the evidence laid before us has led us to two main conclusions. First, the law of public worship in the Church of England is too narrow for the religious life of the present generation. It needlessly condemns much which a great section of Church people, including many of her most devoted members, value; and modern thought and feeling are characterised by a care for ceremonial, a sense of dignity in worship, and an appreciation of the continuity of the Church, which were not similarly felt at the time when the law took its present shape. In an age which has witnessed an extraordinary revival of spiritual life and activity, the Church has had to work under regulations fitted for a different condition of things, without that power of self-adjustment which is inherent in the conception of a living Church, and is, as a matter of fact, possessed by the Established Church of Scotland. The result has inevitably been that ancient rubrics have been strained in the desire to find in them meaning which it has been judicially held they cannot bear; while, on the other hand, the construction placed on them in accordance with legal rules has sometimes appeared forced and unnatural. With an adequate power of self-adjustment, we might reasonably expect that revision of the strict letter of the law would secure the obedience of many, now dissatisfied, who desire to be loyal, and would justify the Church as a whole, in insisting on the obedience of all.
Secondly, the machinery for discipline has broken down. The means of enforcing the law in the Ecclesiastical Courts, even in matters which touch the ChurchÍs faith and teaching, are defective and in some respects unsuitable. They have been tried and often failed; and probably on that account they have been too much neglected. Although attempts to deal administratively with ritual irregularity have been made, they have been unsuccessful, in some cases on account of the lack of firmness of those who made them, but also largely because, in regard to the rites and ceremonies of public worship, the law gives no right or power to discriminate between small and great matters.
It is important that the law should be reformed, that it should admit of reasonable elasticity, and that the means of enforcing it should be improved; but, above all, it is necessary that it should be obeyed. That a section of clergymen should, with however good intentions, conspicuously disobey the law, and continue to do so with impunity, is not only an offence against public order, but also a scandal to religion and a cause of weakness to the Church of England. It is not our duty to assign responsibility for the past; we have indicated our opinion that it lies in large measure with the law itself. But with regard to the future we desire to state with distinctness our conviction that, if it should be thought well to adopt the recommendations we make in this report, one essential condition of their successful operation will be, that obedience to the law so altered shall be required and, if necessary, enforced, by those who bear rule in the Church of England.
The terms of our reference, directing our inquiry to the alleged prevalence of breaches of neglect of the law, have necessarily led us to lay stress, almost exclusively, upon defects and dangers in the work of the Church of England. A Report thus limited in its scope may have, upon the minds of some who read it, an effect widely different from that which would be produced by a study of the work of the Church as a whole. The complaints made to us relate to a small proportion of the 14,242 churches in England and Wales, and vary greatly in their character and gravity. To preclude an impression which would, we believe, be unjust to the general body of the clergy, we desire to place on record out conviction that the evidence gives no justification for any doubt that in the large majority of parishes the work of the Church is being quietly and diligently performed by clergy who are entirely loyal to the principles of the English Reformation as expressed in the Book of Common Prayer.