Project Canterbury

Alexander Penrose Forbes:
Bishop of Brechin, the Scottish Pusey
by William Perry

London: SPCK, 1939.

(2) The Trial and Sentence

ON February 7, 1860, the trial was staged in Edinburgh in the Freemasons' Hall. Snow was falling heavily as Forbes, accompanied by Keble and two friends, went early in the morning to the chapel of the House of Mercy in Lauriston Lane. "There we celebrated the divine mysteries and received that Lord for whose honour we were at that moment in unhappy antagonism with the other bishops of the Church. Thus strengthened and refreshed we adjourned to the hall of judgment." The bishops who formed the legal tribunal of the Episcopal Synod sat at a table raised upon a small platform. Facing them was the incriminated Bishop with his counsel, Mr. (afterwards Professor) Grub and Mr. Forbes Irvine, and as near as he could be to the Bishop sat John Keble. Mr. Henderson, the accuser, was present in person, and the bishops had their legal assessor and clerk to assist them. At the beginning of the proceedings the Bishop was astonished, and doubtless gratified, to find that one of the six bishops was uneasy as to his right to sit as a judge, "who has arrived", as he put it, "at a foregone conclusion". This was the Bishop of Moray (Eden), who, seeing that the trial was a farce, asked the accused whether he objected to his acting "as a judge in this trial". Forbes was so taken aback by the question that he requested a few minutes to consult his advisers on the point. He had, in fact, as all the bishops knew, protested against the competency of all his judges. But on returning to the court he gave this characteristic reply, "Since the majority of the court have decided that they are not disqualified from sitting as judges, the Bishop does not object to the sitting of his brother of Moray." Christian toleration could not have gone further.

The Bishop then began to read his defence from a document of a hundred pages which had previously been printed and lodged with the Episcopal Synod. When he reached the crucial points that the Sacrifice of the Cross and the "Sacrifice of the Altar are in some transcendental sense identical", he said, "I have no wish to adhere to any forms of expressing my belief, so that I express that belief distinctly. I am perfectly willing to substitute the language of two passages of St. Cyril of Alexandria, as sanctioned, the one directly, the other indirectly, by four general councils. What I now say, I say out of peace." Speaking of the second charge--that of the adoration of Christ in the Sacrifice--the Bishop declared that his accuser had "wilfully misrepresented his teaching", and in effect had himself denied the "real presence, name and thing together".

On the following day the accuser set about his task of proving that the Bishop "had depraved generally in his Charge the doctrine of the Thirty-nine Articles" and "the formularies of devotion in use in the Church". He warned the court to take no account of the unimpeachable character and eminent devotion of the Bishop of Brechin. These high moral and personal qualifications, and a ministry so devoted and fruitful as his, "should not in any way sway the judgment of the court''. He described the Thirty-nine Articles as being the Church's "standard authority" and as occupying a position of "unshared supremacy". He had not, he declared, felt himself called upon to follow seriatim the reasons and arguments of the Bishop, and indeed confessed that he might be "charged with ignorance of patristic or theological literature". The indictment was a poor hash of Protestant commonplaces, quite unworthy of the consideration of any liberal-minded person. Here is a sentence from the accuser's manuscript on the adoration of Christ in the Eucharist: "Were our people imbued with such a notion, there would be no barrier to the introduction of as degrading superstitions as characterize Romanism in its full blown enormities". On the Eucharistic Sacrifice occurs this naive statement: "What he teaches is, that the Eucharist is the offering up of Christ, and considering what evils and corruptions have flowed from the adoption of this error, we do most solemnly and earnestly pray that it may be condemned."

There was hardly a sentence in the indictment which dealt with the Bishop's defence, yet Bishop Ewing on February 9 wrote to his brother: "At last this trial is over, but, what is worse than I feared, the judgment is postponed till the 15th of March. Mr. Keble was at the trial and left to-day in very low spirits. We all thought Mr. Henderson too much for the Bishop of Brechin. As to the judgment itself I should be prepared to move that we should not deliver any penal sentence, and chiefly on the ground of our sanctioning the use of an office for the Holy Communion which teaches we know not what." Ewing was not present at the adjourned meeting of the Episcopal Synod on March 15 and 16, owing to illness. Had he attended the court on that day he might have reversed his opinion as to the respective merits of the Bishop of Brechin and his accuser.

At this final meeting the Bishop took up the spoken charges of his accuser. These, he said, were not an answer to his defence, but a reinforcement of the original charges against him. "If the writer here and there notices my defence, it is for the most part to disclaim entering into argument. The rest of the 89 close pages are an attack upon my original charge, I must say grievously distorting and misrepresenting my meaning; and charging me with misbelief against which my whole soul revolts." Here sentence after sentence in the Bishop's reply throbs with just indignation as he denies the absurd interpretations read by his accuser into various points of his teaching. A touch of humour comes in when he likens the accuser to "the Puritans in South's time who declared that God had no need of human learning". But his indignation rises to something like scorn when he tells the court that the accuser suppresses from the Church Catechism the vital words "the Body and the Blood of Christ which are verily and indeed taken and received by the faithful in the Lord's Supper", and that he fails to understand the theological sense of the word "sign", which is a sign not of a thing absent, but of a thing present. At the end of his reply the Bishop's charity receives noble expression in these words: "I trust that I shall always remain in the bonds of charity with the Presenters (the accusers) and with all others who deem it right to oppose me, trusting that the time may come when the differences which separate brothers here may be merged in the full communion of those whose 'eyes behold the King in the vision of his beauty and see the land which is very far off'."


Nothing now remained save for the court to pronounce judgment. This was done after the manner of the Court of Session in Scotland: the five bishops, beginning with the Primus, rose in turn and expressed their decision. Only one of them dealt with the Bishop's arguments--Bishop Wordsworth, who spoke for three hours, traversing some of the ground covered by the accused. He admitted that the Presence in the Sacrament was "properly called the Body and Blood of Christ", and yet held that it was no more than "a presence of grace and efficacy". Neither he nor any other member of the court referred to the fact that the Bishop claimed no more than toleration for his teaching. They all ignored his plea that his Charge had been written to draw out the implications of Eucharistic doctrine and practice from Scripture and the teaching of the universal Church. In fact, the judges had not moved an inch from the position they had taken up in the Pastoral Letter of 1858.

The formal decision of the court was then read, which, though finding him guilty on two counts, took the mild form of "a declaration of censure and admonition". Unfortunately the bishops tried to justify the mildness of their sentence by giving three reasons for it, all of them untrue. The first was that the Bishop had made certain explanations and "modifications" of his teaching on the Eucharistic Sacrifice; the second, that "now" the Bishop asked only for toleration, and the third that much of his teaching consisted only of "opinions". All three statements were misleading or inaccurate. The Bishop made no "modifications" of his teaching; he had at no time ever claimed anything more than liberty or toleration for it, and throughout his original Charge had consistently refrained from giving expression to mere "individual speculations" or "opinions". The Bishop, however, bowed to this indignity and left the court without a word.

From all sides came demonstrations of sympathy both with the Bishop and his teaching. Addresses signed by large numbers of communicants poured in from almost every congregation in the diocese, as well as from bodies of churchpeople elsewhere, all of them assuring the Bishop of their perfect confidence in his fidelity to the Church. One of these deserves special mention. This was an address signed by 5386 "of the operatives and workpeople of Dundee of all denominations", presented ten days after the trial. After expressing gratitude for the Bishop's "disinterested zeal for us and our children's welfare", it ended with the valiant hope that "you will be victorious over your adversaries and will continue with increased vigour and success that Christian line of conduct of doing goad, to all, which you have so piously and so devotedly pursued, notwithstanding this calumnies of those who for their own convenience follow a different and lukewarm course of conduct. The Bishop was deeply moved by this demonstration, coming as it did "from a quarter which, of all others, has the greatest interest to me. Of all classes of the community I specially honour the working man. I have always had a special appreciation for that "class which is the real strength and backbone of our country--those who earn their bread in the sweat of their brows and who are not ashamed of doing so. I have a deep sense of the dignity and holiness of labour as the appointed discipline to fallen man and I believe there is a special benediction upon the condition of the working classes, since it was in that lot of life that our Blessed Lord God condescended to be born for us men and for our salvation." In these words spoke one who all his life was a social reformer because he was a Christian.

No less comforting than the sympathy of the clergy and the townspeople of Dundee as well as of numerous friends both in England and Scotland was the relief which he found in study. All through the prolonged controversy he was collaborating with his brother in the publication of a missal of the fifteenth century which had been used in the parish church of Arbuthnott in the diocese of St. Andrews. Weekly letters passed between the two brothers dealing with liturgical and historical points of scholarship, and in most of these no allusion occurs either to the eucharistic controversy or to the judgment with which it closed. The Bishop, however anxious or disturbed he might be, could forget his troubles in the pursuit of learning. Even the style and the printing of a book interested him; he tells his brother, who was to print and publish the Arbuthnott Missal at his own press in Burntisland, to be "very particular about the title-page, for nothing gives a book so poor an appearance as an overloaded or ill-arranged title. It is like a bad hat on a gentleman, giving a general effect of seediness".


But while the Bishop could for an hour or two forget his cares in his study, his heart was heavy with doubt and fear. He had Keen, disowned by his own Church, speaking through its supreme Court. Could he remain there, resuming his work as if nothing had happened? True, his judges had limited their censure to a mild admonition "to be more careful in his teaching for the future". But was that the logical result of their definite condemnation of his teaching? Obviously not, for they found it necessary to justify the mildness of their censure by stating in effect that he had modified, if he had not actually retracted, what he had published in the original Charge. That was not true; he had withdrawn and modified nothing. Could he therefore continue to minister as a bishop of the Scottish Church? He had faced this question for months in 1859, when he saw that the trial was sure to go against him. Both then and now he laid his difficulties before his friends, and of these none proved so effective in allaying his doubts as Mr. Justice Coleridge, who could think and write as a lawyer and meet the Bishop's legal scruples with legal arguments. In Edinburgh Forbes had been brought up in a legal atmosphere; at Haileybury he had studied, and in India practised, law. But Sir John Taylor Coleridge was a lawyer of ripe experience, as well as a devout Churchman, and his words carried immense weight with Forbes. Here are extracts from two letters, which reveal the temptations to which the Bishop found himself exposed, particularly the temptation, only hinted at in the letter, to transfer his allegiance from the Church of his baptism and ordination to the Church of Rome.

Heath's Court
Ottery S. Mary.


I will not pretend to have overlooked or understood "the greater perplexity" you hint at: I am afraid my eyes are dim and dull as to this. More so than they ought to be; for I never could follow holier and wiser persons than myself into the conclusions which they have drawn from doubts and difficulties such as I presume you to hint at.

If you discussed cardinal points with every one of your brethren apart in their respective houses, and you found each holding some clearly unsound opinion on a very grave article, say the doctrine of the Trinity, I suppose you would not for a moment think in consequence that the Church was unsound in the faith, or that there was any difficulty in remaining in its communion. You would go on your own way, undoubting, as before. But if the same individuals met in Synod and were to pronounce the same heresy with as much authority as they could give it, there are many persons who would think it necessary, first to renounce communion with the Scottish Church, secondly to become Roman Catholics. Now the first step can only be just or logical, if the existing bishops, and the Scottish Church are identical. I say nothing of the second, which is on other grounds a yet more illogical conclusion. But surely the Scottish Church, or any National Church is not a thing which exists in the day only or generation that is passing; we are, I suppose, as much communicants with Andrewes, and Butler, as with Tait or Villiers. May we not continue in the paths in which we were trained to go, because they, who, if you please, represent us now in some senses, choose to walk in another?

A few weeks later came the following:--


I was very glad to receive your letter, although its contents are dismal enough. You and I would hardly look on our defeats in the same spirit, I fear you with more charity, I with a less bitter appreciation of their consequences--especially as regards myself. You in effect seem to me to hold that a decision whether right or wrong makes the Law of the Church--in one sense it does, that is, if I act contrary to the decision, I may suffer the temporal penalty of the Law--but the Law preexists the decision, and is not altered by it, and I do not see how a man, so long as he thinks the decision wrong, i.e. contrary to the Law, can yet consider that it is one with the Law. If I could say to myself, I find I misunderstood that the Law here comes to a right decision, which has undeceived me however I may regret it; then indeed I acquiesce in the decision--and I may reasonably say, not being able to acquiesce in the Law as I now understand it, I must go elsewhere.

If you say a wrong decision by the Synod proves my Church not a true branch of Christ's Church, then again your course is reasonable--but consistently with the history of Christianity can that be maintained of any branch of the Church--and is there really any authority in Scripture, rightly understood, for so holding? is it a necessary conclusion from any of the texts relied on?

But let me make what compensation I can by a word or two on the matters you enumerate. I take the English Canon Law to be definable, as "the General Canon Law as modified by English and Statute Law, Common Law and Custom (this last a branch of that preceding): deriving its authority not from that which gives the General Canon Law authority (namely the power making it) but from its acceptance here". I do not conceive, moreover, that to give any special rule of the General Canon Law in force here, you are bound to show a direct precedent, or decision so holding in the particular case; or that to show it inoperative you need cite an exactly similar precedent in which acceptance has been refused; if it be agreeable to analogy, or to the general spirit of our Canon Law, it should be received; if the contrary, rejected. It may seem a vague rule, but practically it suffices--for these are evidence of prior acceptance or rejection--we may presume that what is reasonable has been done.

Your numbers 4 and 5 are to me the most startling. As you state No. 4, it seems to be impossible, without a general suspension of you ab officio; surely it will never be listened to, that you remaining in your office, a stranger should be sent into your Diocese to exercise concurrently with you a part of your functions. I say concurrently, for the hypothesis is that you are not excluded. If such a petition were presented, I should move its rejection, as coming before a body which had no jurisdiction to listen to it; if it were granted, I should simply protest and ignore any proceedings under it--unless (which I can hardly suppose) such a power is given to the Synod in express terms or by an absolutely necessary implication.

My dear friend, may God guide and support you in and under your great trial! I should feel for you under these vexations with comparative peace of mind "but for the black spectre"--to be quite candid with you--I fear, because I know the wasting and wearing and, I must think, morbid effect of such a doubt. The mind gets unhinged, and is scrupulous to an excess, requiring that kind and degree of satisfaction which is not reasonably to be expected. This is very bold in me to say to you, but I know you will forgive me. Is it not something, when you begin to think Bishop Jolly's Church not good enough for you to live and die in? God bless you.

Your affectionate friend,


"The black spectre" attended the Bishop for some weary months, but he found escape from it in thanking the many friends who had stood by him during his trial. Here is Coleridge's reply to one such letter:--

Heath's Court April 2d, 1860.

I thank you very much for your letter of Easter Monday, very kind for not glancing even at my neglect to write to you on the close of your long and terrifying trials. I hope I may say the close--and when I think of what the close might have been, it is surely great matter for thankfulness that on the whole it has been ordered as it is. You have liberty in teaching the truth, and your troubles have called forth demonstrations of sympathy, not merely gratifying to your own feelings, but inductive that you have not hitherto laboured in vain. In these days it is no light matter to find what is called a High Churchman the object of popular sympathy.

I accept your remarks about the little I did as some proof that I did no harm, which to say the truth at one time I was afraid I had. I am sure I am more than paid if I did any good.


After the trial he took no notice of the misrepresentations of his position contained in the judgment and censure, and his silence perplexed some of his friends in Oxford. William Bright, writing from University College on April 18, 1860, urged him to speak out without delay. "Your silence has had an effect which nothing that Liddon or Cazenove or I could write in periodicals was in the least likely to undo, however it might qualify it for a time. I attach small importance to what hotheaded people may say; but I am well assured that others are embarrassed and that the Catholic party is in serious peril of division. If the perplexity as to the question, 'Do you then in fact homologate the account which the bishops give of your position', could be promptly removed, that peril would, I believe, practically vanish. Ever, my dearest Lord, your affectionate and dutiful W. B."

Bright wrote again on the following day still more strongly:--

The more I think of it (and I have thought of it for weeks) the more I am convinced that if you keep silence until three months have elapsed, you may nearly as well for practical purposes keep silence altogether. Before August the impression which the Episcopal sophistry was intended to make will have become unavoidable. You and the cause have suffered enough already from unjust and uncharitable censures; but if you allowed men for a long time to be in error on a point of such vast importance, would they not have some reason to complain?

Bishop Forbes, however, on the advice of Pusey and Keble, determined not to break the silence until his Diocesan Synod met in August. He believed that his protest would produce more effect if it were delivered when the strong feeling excited by the long controversy had abated. How irrational that feeling had become may be judged from the fact that an absurd story was current at this time, which Dean Ramsay, one of the most popular men in Scotland, was responsible for spreading. This was to the effect that the dénouement of the trial was all prearranged between Bishop Charles Wordsworth and Pusey and Keble, and that Bishop Forbes himself was in the plot. That Dean Ramsay should have circulated such a story seems almost incredible, but prejudice often drives men to a strange credulity. When Forbes heard the story, he was horrified. Keble, to whom he wrote, took it more calmly: "I am grieved to the heart that you should still be worried. The report you mention is so palpably absurd and so easily contradicted that we need not much care for it by itself." On receiving Keble's letter the Bishop wrote to Dean Ramsay, pointing out to him that there was not a word of truth in the story, and Ramsay, to his credit, at once apologized, in a letter which incidentally shows how widespread was the fear of Romanism at this time.

February 29, 1860.


Ever since I was a boy at school I have felt a shrinking from giving up a name as implying something mean. I have sent my informant the address and answer and also your kind note to me.

I am very unhappy in all this. I think it very hard, very cruel that I should even in appearance be placed in anything like a personal antagonistic attitude with the Bishop of Brechin. God knows how deep is the affection and how sincere the respect I feel for him. But I dread and have dreaded for 12 or 13 years the drifting away from the Reformation purposes and objects. It may be a groundless fear. I am perplexed by what R.C. converts tell me. In short I am truly unhappy and for the future hope to act a more cautious and reserved part in regard to what is going on. I beg again and again to assure you of no unkind or disrespectful feelings from yours most truly


On August 1 the Synod of the diocese of Brechin met in the new Library in Brechin. Briefly but definitely the Bishop declared (i) that he had not shifted his ground in the course of the trial by offering "modifications" of his teaching: "what I held at the very beginning, I hold now"; (2) that he had not claimed for his teaching anything more than that it was in conformity with the standards of the Church, and, as a consequence, (3) that throughout his defence he had stated, not his private "opinions" on Eucharistic doctrine, but the truth, as he saw it, which the Church had always held. His large charity came out in the closing sentence: "In saying all this, nothing can be further from my thoughts than to impute any intentional misrepresentation to those who framed the judgment." The rest of his address was taken up with a plea to the clergy to exorcise the polemical spirit, take "generous views of those who differ from us, and seek rather for points of union than for points of dissidence. In a small community like ours there is a special tendency to act with personal bitterness in questions of public interest and therefore religious quarrels assume under such circumstances exceedingly painful aspects. Let us therefore set forward quietness, peace and love among all Christian people."

That was not, however, quite the end of this unhappy controversy. In the following year (1861) the Bishop was obliged to report to his clergy in Synod that the six bishops, in reply to lay memorials on the judgment, declared that "they certainly understood and must still consider that certain very important modifications of the teaching charged against the Bishop of Brechin were offered in his Defence and Reply". To this the Bishop answered that though he might claim to be the best judge of his language and intentions, it would be "unseemly to continue the controversy with his Right Reverend Brethren. The documents are easily accessible to all who may wish to consult them, and I am content that they should speak for themselves." All the relevant documents will be found in the Dowden Library of Edinburgh Cathedral, in a large volume which will be regarded by the future historian as a tragic monument to the prejudice and blindness of men who followed the dangerous maxim, "Stick to your position even when you are wrong." The six bishops, having unofficially condemned the teaching of Bishop Forbes, never found courage to retrace their false step; the judgment of 1860, apart from the sentence, was a mere repetition of the declarations of December 1857 and May 1858.

Later in life the Bishop used to say: "I have suffered much from misrepresentation in my day but, thank God, I lived it down." During the next two years the task of "living down" the long controversy and its result subjected his mind to so severe a strain that, though only forty-three years of age, he looked sixty; face and forehead began to be marked with lines of care and suffering, which grew deeper as the years went on. "The trial", wrote Pusey, "was like a piercing sword to him, for fear the truth should be compromised, or, in the defence, lest he should in any way compromise it. He did not recover from the physical effects of it, in any degree, for two years. I saw his nervous system gradually tranquillize; but during these two years it was preternaturally alive."

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